Rolling up to the Turkia
I LIE IN MY BUNK, trying not to think about food. The boat heaves and rolls, and the more violent lurches are accompanied by the thuds and crashes of unsecured doors and stuff being thrown around in cupboards.
A few hours earlier we had left the usual Red Sea cruising grounds between Hurghada and Sharm after a couple of shakedown dives. Now we’re heading north into a brisk Force Five.
Along with half of the other guests, I had skipped supper and, while some were struggling with their seasickness on deck, crawled to my cabin in the vain hope of sleeping through my queasiness.
The occasional container ship looms past in the darkness, huge and slab-sided, heading south from the Suez Canal. Orion, one of the few constellations I can identify, is bright and perfectly framed in my window.
Best of all, when everything around me is moving, it stays absolutely still – it’s now my favourite constellation!
I WONDER WHAT SORT of passage the crew of the cargo ship Turkia had endured more than seven decades earlier, as it headed the same way.
Most of all, I question whether the wreck is going to be worth this 14-hour passage.
I had been promised something “a bit like the Thistlegorm”, but could this smaller ship really be compared to the best-loved wreck in the Red Sea
The Turkia was built in 1909 on the Humber by Earle’s Shipbuilding and Engineering Co Ltd, and was originally called the Livorno, the second of three ships built by Earle’s to bear that name.
She was clinker-built and schooner-rigged, 91.4m long with a beam of 12.8m.
Her single-screw triple-expansion steam engine powered her along at 9.5 knots. She had an elegant cruiser stern and, in common with many cargo boats of the era, the bridge and accommodation structure was just forward of amidships, with two main holds forward and two aft.
Two masts, one between each pair of holds, supported the ship’s cranes.
The Livorno belonged to the Wilson Line, and plied the waters between Britain, Turkey, the Ukraine, Latvia and Russia carrying coal and general cargo.
She survived World War One, but in December 1923 collided with a slightly smaller cargo ship, the Rose Marie, near Haisborough Sands off the coast of Norfolk. The Rose Marie was lost.
In 1935 the Livorno was sold to the Hellenic Line and renamed Turkia.
She continued shipping general cargo until the outbreak of WW2, when the Greek government contracted her to carry war supplies.
In spring of 1941 she loaded up with cargo in New York and headed for the port of Piraeus in Greece. Her holds were filled with tyres, coils of wire, ingots, vehicles and general stores, as well as ammunition and explosives.
Military action in the Strait of Gibraltar meant going the very long way round – south around the Cape of Good Hope, then back up the east coast of Africa to the Red Sea and north through the Suez Canal.
It was a voyage of almost 13,000 nautical miles, and was uneventful until the ship was about two-thirds of the way up the Gulf of Suez.
Then disaster struck, as the casualty report from Lloyds describes: “17 May 1941 she had a fire in no 3 hold where explosives were stored (she was carrying explosives and general cargo) and the fire was beyond control so the vessel was abandoned. 10 minutes later there was
a large explosion and the vessel sank in 12 fathoms.”
The cause of the fire is unknown. One report suggests that the Turkia was bombed during an air attack (the fate of the Thistlegorm and Rosalie Moller some five months later) but the Lloyds report makes no mention of enemy aircraft. Neither report lists any casualties.
The ship now sits on a sandy seabed about 2.5 miles south-east of the Zafarana Lighthouse, in 24m depth.
A LOUD KNOCKING on my cabin door wakes me after a fitful night’s sleep. The sea has calmed, the sun is rising in a blaze of deep orange and we are tied up to the wreck of the Turkia.
After a quick cup of tea, it’s time to dive. Heading down the line I expect to see the old ship from the surface, but the visibility isn’t quite as good this far north, and the strong winds of the past couple of days haven’t helped.
I’m 7 or 8m down before the wreck looms into view a few metres below, but it’s the shoals of fish as much as the reduced vis that make it hard at first to work out exactly where on the ship I am.
Swirling clouds of silvery-blue fusiliers part to reveal the stump of a mast between the two forward holds and a jumble of winches and coils of wire, long since fused solid in a concretion of rust and encrusting marine life.
The Turkia is sitting upright and pretty much intact, its masts broken off and leaning over the starboard side to the seabed. The bow is swathed in hessian net, and other fishing-lines and nets snagged on the wreck mean that we must take care while exploring inside.
Within the first two holds there are more heaps of coiled wire, and hundreds of tyres are stacked on shelves and scattered on the floor along with the remains of rectangular boxes – batteries
Peter Collings, who discovered the wreck in 2006, describes finding vehicles in the depths of one of these holds, possibly trucks for transporting tanks, but the amount of silt down there
makes me reluctant to venture too far into the darkness.
WHAT I DO SEE IN ONE OF THE AFT HOLDS are stacks of mortar shells, still packed 20 to a case. It’s here that I expect to see evidence of the explosion that sent the ship down, but the hull is intact apart from a few holes here and there, where time and salt water have taken their toll.
There are easy swim-throughs along the companionways and down into the engine-room, with turquoise shafts of sunlight illuminating the way out.
I drop over the side and swim along the hull just above the seabed, passing beneath the masts to where the propeller and rudder lie in the shadow of the beautifully shaped stern.
Frothy pink and purple gorgonians have grown on the propeller, thriving in the gentle current that flows over the wreck. There are more of these large fan corals between the decks, in the holds and on the masts, the lack of damage to them an indication of just how little this wreck has been dived.
There is plenty of other marine life on the Turkia. As well as shoals of smaller fish there are the usual grouper, lionfish and wrasse and more of the big, purple yellowbar angelfish than I’ve seen on any other wreck in the Red Sea.
An electric torpedo ray waddles around in one of the holds among the tyres, and pencil-slate urchins and anemones with resident clownfish, have also made themselves at home.
The wreckage itself is encrusted with mussels and the pinky-orange stubs of tubastrea, the coral that blooms with huge yellow polyps at night.
The highlight of diving the Turkia for me comes on the third dive of the day, as the sun is sinking quickly and shadows inside the wreck are growing deeper.
As I peer into the darkness of what I later learn is the captain’s cabin, my torch picks out a large seahorse, its tail wrapped around a cable hanging from the centre of the room. Its pale yellow colouring gives the impression that this most charismatic of fish is almost glowing in the gloom, and seeing it is the perfect end to my day of diving on the Turkia.
Later that evening we slip our lines from the wreck and head south down the Gulf of Suez. With calmer seas and the wind behind us, we all enjoy a much better sleep than the previous night.
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS our trip continues with the Thistlegorm, Rosalie Moller and the wrecks at Abu Nuhas – a classic Red Sea wreck safari.
So was the long passage north to the Turkia worth it The ship certainly isn’t as impressive as the Thistlegorm. It’s smaller, the cargo is less interesting and the visibility is generally poorer further north. Having said that, poor vis in the Red Sea is still 7 or 8m, so this is not really a hardship.
Care needs to be taken not to stir up the silt in the holds but the depth of the wreck, from 10 to 24m, makes it sunlit, and accessible to the less-experienced diver as well as to a hardened wreckie.
Whether you’re using nitrox or air you get masses of bottom time.
Although the Turkia is about two-thirds the size of the Thistlegorm, at more than 90m long, there is plenty to explore. The seahorse was a magical bonus but to me another point in the Turkia’s favour is its remote location.
We had the wreck to ourselves all day and didn’t even see another dive-boat, let alone other divers. In contrast, the next day ours was one of eight liveaboards on the Thistlegorm, with day-boats arriving through the morning.
For those who feel they have “done” the wrecks of the Red Sea, I would say that the Turkia is definitely worth a visit. After three dives on the wreck, I would love to dive it again. Next time, however, I’ll remember to pack some Stugeron!
Golden Dolphin Safaris runs Red Sea wreck trips that include the Turkia, www.golden-dolphin.net. Book with GDS or through its UK agents – Ultimate Diving, The Scuba Place, Olympic Holidays and Planet Travel Shop.