The Scilly Isles, Englands furthermost inhabited land, have been luring ships onto their shores for centuries - right up to the 1990s, in fact. SUE DALY spends a week getting to know some of its wrecks
EXPECTATION CAN BE a tricky thing. The excitement of diving somewhere you’ve long wanted to visit is tinged with the fear of disappointment. Could the Isles of Scilly really be as good as I’d heard, or were the tales of shipwrecks piled on top of each other, colourful reefs, great visibility and plentiful seals exaggerated
These were my thoughts early on a summer’s morning as I helped load a mountain of dive-kit into a container marked “Divers, St Martin” on the busy quay at Penzance.
I had been invited to join the Reading branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club on a trip to the Scillies, and for most of the group this was a familiar routine.
Tanks first, then weights, gear-bags next, then drysuits, with everything else piled carefully on top. Without the weight restrictions of flying nothing was left behind and, if there was any chance we might have needed one, a kitchen sink would have been in there too.
Like many clubs, the group has a regular booking and this was the second of two weeks it takes every year. The club’s efficiency came as no surprise after the detailed itinerary I’d been sent, which included not only everything
I needed to know about the travel arrangements, accommodation and diving but a schedule for where we were eating every night. Organised chaps, these BSAC people!
As we cruised past Land’s End and down towards the islands aboard the Scillonian III, I kept a look-out for the dolphins often seen from the ship but saw none – a minor disappointment.
After two and a half hours we entered the shallow, turquoise waters at the heart of the archipelago. Tales of the good visibility were obviously true, and it was also easy to see why so many ships have foundered here.
Surrounding the five main inhabited islands are more than 140 islets and rocky outcrops, as well as a maze of half-submerged reefs. Exposed to the full force of Atlantic gales, prone to fog and lying at the gateway of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the Isles of Scilly have claimed hundreds of wrecks and thousands of souls.
A few minutes after disembarking in Hugh Town on the main island of St Mary’s, our container was craned onto the harbourside and the human chain whipped into action once more to unpack the kit mountain and reload it onto the inter-island boat.
Twenty minutes later we arrived in St Martin’s, where our dive-boat Morvoren and skipper Tim Allsop were waiting for us. He explained that the weather wasn’t looking too good for the next couple of days, with fresh winds from the east, but calmer seas were forecast for later in the week.
With 150 or so known dive-sites and shelter guaranteed on the lee side of the islands in all but the worst weather, we were confident that Tim would have plenty of wrecks and reefs from which we could choose.
Our week began with a day of wreck-diving off the west side of the islands. The single-screw cargo steamer Delaware was driven ashore near Sampson in December 1871 after breaking down in a north-westerly gale.
The remains now lie scattered and flattened in between 10 and 25m, with just the huge engine standing proud.
It’s not the most impressive wreck but knowing the story of the loss makes it a much more interesting dive.
Most of the Delaware’s crew were lost but two were washed ashore, perilously cold and exhausted, on White Island, a few hundred yards from Sampson.
Pilots on nearby Bryher had seen the disaster and, unable to launch their gig from its boathouse on the north-west coast because of the gale, carried the half-ton boat half a mile to the lee side of the island.
After rowing to Sampson, they again had to carry the gig overland before crossing stormy seas to reach the survivors. Convinced that Scillonians were savages, the shipwrecked sailors were waiting with piles of stones to hurl at their would-be rescuers, but were eventually calmed and taken to safety.
A LITTLE TO THE NORTH lie the remains of the Brinkburn, a 3200-ton British schooner-rigged steamer that came to grief in fog in 1898 while sailing from Texas to Le Havre with a cargo of cotton bales and seed meal. The crew abandoned ship and were safely piloted ashore by boats from Bryher.
The engine on this wreck too is the main feature, with its huge pistons and connecting rods exposed, but there is plenty more wreckage to explore, and most in less than 30m.
The Brinkburn was the third casualty in exactly the same spot, as a survey revealed in 1966 when divers found the remains of two other wrecks beneath it – the cargo ship Sussex, which sank in 1885, and an unknown warship.
This isn’t the only site in the Isles of Scilly where you can see more than one wreck on a dive. Just off the coast of St Agnes two ships lie at right angles, one on top of the other.
The first casualty was the 2869-ton steamship Plympton, which struck the reef at full speed in fog while heading to Dublin from Falmouth in 1909 with a cargo of maize.
Her crew survived, but two islanders were later drowned while trapped beneath decks practising the ancient Scillonian art of stripping a ship, when the Plympton was lifted by the flood tide then suddenly capsized and sank.
Eleven years later a larger German steamer, the Hathor, also foundered on the reef after breaking away from the tugs that were towing her to Portland in a gale. The remains of the two ships have created a fascinating dive, with the stern of the Hathor up in 22m and separated by a pinnacle of rock from the rest of the wreckage, while its bow is down at 48m.
The stern section of the Plympton with its iron propeller still in place lies off the port side of the larger wreck in 35m, and its crumpled bow is a few minutes’ swim in the opposite direction.
The Hathor’s spare propeller lies in 23m at the base of the reef, and in the middle of the wreckage are what look like four boilers, although they are most probably the Hathor’s pair of double-ended boilers that have both split into two.
Add to this a jumble of pulleys, winches, propshafts, engine parts and other recognisable bits of ship and you have a site to keep the keenest wreck-diver happy for days.
By the middle of the week the weather was on its best behaviour, and we were able to dive the King Cadwallon, another cargo ship that fell foul of fog.
The vessel’s holds were full of Welsh coal destined for Naples when, in the early hours of 22 July 1906, she struck rocks east of St Martin’s.
The sea was flat-calm, so the captain and crew were all rescued. Shortly afterwards the ship slipped back off the rocks and sank.
As with the other dives, Tim gave us a comprehensive briefing. When we arrived at the bottom of the line we found the shot placed, just as he had promised, next to one of the ship’s two boilers in around 20m.
As a diver himself with thousands of dives around the Scillies under his belt, Tim’s knowledge of the wrecks, reefs, tides and marine life here is second to none. Just as he described, a slab of hull or decking leaning against the second boiler had formed a pretty swim-through, and a sharp turn to the right revealed the huge triple-expansion engine with its crankshafts, rods and pistons still clearly visible.
From here the propeller-shaft points towards the stern of the ship, but at 28m the reef drops away steeply and the rest of the wreck lies beyond the edge in more than 40m. The steering quadrant is the highlight of this area which, exposed to the current, is smothered in jewel and plumose anemones.
THE CALM CONDITIONS ALSO allowed us to dive the Scilly Isles’ most recent wreck, the German-built bulk-carrier Cita, which came to grief in March 1997.
Although the fog had once again descended, this was a case of pure human error. The automatic radar alarm had been turned off (because, it was rumoured, it made an annoying noise) and the crewman on watch was asleep.
The impact of the 3083-ton ship and her cargo of 145 containers hitting the south coast of St Mary’s at full steam was enough to throw the other crewmen out of their bunks. All on board were saved, but 12 days later the ship broke in two and slipped beneath the waves.
A Whisky Galore-style fever broke out as the Scillonians “tidied up” the flotsam of clothing, shoes, tyres and all manner of household goods that were washed ashore. Today the ship lies broken in several large pieces, with the stern and accommodation block in 35-40m while the mid-section and bow rest in a jumble on the other side of the reef that broke Cita’s back.
A buoy marks either end of the ship, and we dived the stern section, which lies with its starboard side uppermost in 25m. Much of the wreck is covered in plumose anemones that have softened the lines of the slab-sided ship, its railings and stairways. The rudder and propeller are impressive and, although access to the engine-room has become difficult since the ship has collapsed, there are still plenty of swim-throughs to explore.
AS WELL AS WRECKS, the Isles of Scilly have some stunning reefs with a variety of sheer walls, canyons and ledges.
We visited Peter’s Rock, Deep Ledges, Trinity Rock, Chain Reef and Trenamine, all of which were superb scenic dives.
Jewel, elegant and plumose anemones thrive on the tide-swept walls, along with sea-urchins, fan and soft corals and the ever-inquisitive cuckoo wrasse. The most exciting reef encounter was with a pair of crawfish marching through the gullies at Trinity Rock.
Another favourite was a long shallow wallow among the kelp at Meniwethan, where seals delighted us with their aquatic prowess and nibbled our fins.
The highlight of the week came on the last day, which we spent diving two of the Scillies’ fascinating historic wrecks.
The first was the Firebrand, a fire-ship from the naval fleet of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and one of four ships sunk in a gale in October 1707.
More than 1400 sailors were drowned along with the Admiral, making this one of the greatest maritime disasters in British history.
The remains of Shovell’s flagship, the Association, were discovered near Bishop Rock in 1967, and its treasure trove of silver and gold coins has become the stuff of diving legend.
The Firebrand was discovered in 1982 between St Agnes and Annet, but all that can
be seen today is a scattering of anchors and cannon at 25m.
After almost a week of diving, and with no nitrox available in the islands, our nitrogen levels had crept up and, sadly, there was little time to experience the profound sense of history the three-centuries-old relics inspired.
OUR FINAL DIVE, HOWEVER, was on HMS Colossus, a much shallower site at just 12m but with an equally enthralling history. A 74-gun warship, the Colossus was lost on her way home in 1798, having seen action with Nelson’s fleet at Toulon, Groix and Cape St Vincent.
The forward section of the ship was discovered in 1974, along with thousands of fragments of antique ceramics, the private collection of the British Ambassador Sir William Hamilton.
In 1999 another large section of the ship was discovered, including a twice-life-sized wooden figure, part of the stern decoration, which is now on display in Tresco’s Valhalla Museum.
The area is a protected wreck-site but permission to dive it can be obtained through the local dive-boat skippers, and English Heritage has laid down an underwater trail with markers to point out the key features.
Highlights include muskets, copper sheathing, pulleys, five 18-pounder cannon still in place in their gun-ports on a section of the hull and huge copper rivets that once held the ship’s timbers together.
So did the underwater world of the Scillies live up to my expectations Without a doubt, and on the way back to the mainland a school of common dolphins put in an appearance alongside the ferry – the cherry on the cake!
|GETTING THERE The Scillonian III ferry sails from Penzance and Skybus flies to the islands from Exeter, Newquay and Land’s End, www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk|
DIVING Tim Allsop runs charter-boat Morvoren from St Martin’s and also has a RIB for day or six-day charters. His daughter Jo runs Moonshadow Charters, based on St Mary’s, www.scillydiving.com. Dave McBride runs the charter-boat Tiburon from St Mary’s, www.divescilly.com
PRICES Charters usually run from Sunday to Friday and cost £35-45 per day for two dives, plus air at £4 per fill. Flights from Land’s End cost from £70, and the ferry from Penzance from £42 (both one-way prices).
TOURIST INFORMATION www.simplyscilly.co.uk