100 years submerged
THE 31,550-TON LUSITANIA was built by John Brown & Co Ltd of Glasgow, launched on 7 June, 1906, and commenced her maiden voyage on 7 September the following year.
Steam-turbine engines powering quadruple screws gave the vessel a service speed of 25 knots. At the time she entered service the Lusitania was Cunard’s largest and most elegant vessel to date.
She was soon joined by a sister-ship, Mauretania, in November 1907, and over the next few years both vessels gained the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing, and dominated the transatlantic passenger service.
At the onset of World War One Lusitania remained in commercial service on the Atlantic route, but her distinctive red funnels were later painted black.
On 1 May, 1915, the ship sailed from New York as normal, despite warnings that the German Navy was targeting all Allied shipping. On 7 May the U-boat U20, commanded by Walther Schwieger fired a torpedo that struck Lusitania.
A second explosion was initially thought to have resulted from a second strike, although later the U20 commander’s log revealed that only one torpedo had been fired.
The Lusitania immediately started to list to starboard and sank in just 18 minutes with the loss of at least 1198 lives, including more than 100 Americans. There were sufficient lifeboats, but the liner’s heavy list prevented many of them from being launched.
The cause of the second explosion has never been satisfactorily explained, but the German government insisted that it was proof that the Lusitania was carrying illegal munitions, a claim vigorously denied by Britain. The sinking was publicly condemned on both sides of the Atlantic, and became a contributory factor in the USA joining the war.
Although resting in 93m, the wreck of such a grand ocean liner was always going to be a serious target for underwater exploration and salvage. There was the added mystery of the second explosion and questions over the cargo manifest to be resolved.
On 26 October, 1935, the British diver Jim Jarratt became the first person to dive on the Lusitania.
Jarratt used leading-edge diving technology of the time in the form of the Peress dive suit, named after its inventor Joseph Salim Peress. This metal suit fully enclosed the diver at normal atmospheric pressure and was capable of reaching depths of up to 400m.
The diver was lowered to the wreck, where articulated joints in the arms and legs gave him limited movement. Steel claws replaced hands, and the suit also included a telephone communications link between the diver and the surface.
Jarratt alighted at the top of the wreck at 73m and was able to measure the size of the rivets, assisting in positive identification of the wreck as that of Lusitania.
The Royal Navy is known to have carried out some operations on the wreck site during the late 1940s and early ‘50s. Although its activities were classified it would appear that the wreck was subjected to a series of depth-charges, supposedly for practice and testing. In 1953 a team of hardhat divers undertook a number of dives to the wreck.
THE FIRST SCUBA-DIVE on the Lusitania was carried out by an American, John Light, on 20 July, 1960. Light used conventional equipment – a wetsuit, fins, cylinders and a double-hose regulator.
Over the course of three diving seasons he completed 42 dives on the wreck, with a typical bottom time of 10 minutes. He breathed standard air, which not only has severe narcotic effects at such depth but is also highly hypoxic. It is a dive that would be unthinkable in modern times.
During September and October 1982 Oceaneering International carried out the first full-scale commercial salvage operation on the Lusitania. Divers operated in saturation from the salvage vessel Archimedes, and typically worked the wreck for eight hours at a time.
Oceaneering was indiscriminate in doing whatever was required to find and raise anything of value, so a lot of explosives and underwater cutting tools were used to open up parts of the wreck such as the specie room, where valuable consignments would be secured.
Some of the larger items raised included two anchors and three of the four bronze propellers, which weighed in at 16 tons each.
Thousands of smaller items were raised, including brass portholes, Cunard china, silver cutlery, glassware, all manner of brass fixtures and fittings, watches, souvenir “Kitchener” spoons, rare chronometers and the ship’s steam-whistle. Sadly a lot of the items were not conserved properly, and their condition deteriorated rapidly once raised.
In 1993 National Geographic commissioned a TV documentary about the Lusitania. A key element was to be
a two-week exploration employing the latest film and lighting technology.
Unlike previous visits to the wreck this one involved not divers but a mini-submarine called Jason, complemented by two unmanned ROVs, Media and Homer. Operations took place from the support vessel Northern Horizon.
Dr Robert Ballard, famous for his part in the discovery of the wreck of Titanic, led the expedition. The team concluded that the second mystery explosion was caused by exploding coal dust in the empty bunkers, a theory that is not widely accepted.
THE 1990S HERALDED a new age in recreational diving with the increased use of breathing gas mixtures other than regular compressed air for deep diving – technical diving was born.
In June 1994 the Starfish Enterprise technical dive team led by Polly Tapson assembled in Kinsale, Ireland. It consisted of eight British and four American divers, including John Chatterton and Gary Gentile.
Over a two-week period the team completed 120 dives on the Lusitania. The divers managed bottom times of 20-28 minutes and typically spent around 90 minutes decompressing.
Typical equipment consisted of back-mounted twin 15-litre cylinders of trimix, side-slung tanks of nitrox and decompression gas of pure oxygen.
A trimix blend of 13/52 gave the diver an equivalent narcotic depth of 37m at a depth of 90m. Some divers also used a fourth gas, argon, for drysuit inflation, chosen for its insulation properties.
On a second Starfish expedition Polly Tapson reported the sight of long metal tubes on the wreck. This sparked considerable international interest, as Lusitania was known to be carrying famous works of art owned by Sir Hugh Lane, stored in sealed lead tubes.
Subsequently on 25 January, 1995, the Irish government issued an Underwater Heritage Order to protect the Lusitania under the National Monuments Act.
In May 1996, after decades of court cases in America, England and Ireland, the American Gregg Bemis, a former business partner of John Light in the late 1960s, was officially recognised as legal owner of the wreck.
He eventually dived the wreck himself for the first time in 2004, at the age of 76.
Diving expeditions in 2006 and 2008 identified an abundance of .303 rifle ammunition scattered on the wreck.
Although this caused a stir in the press it was not of major historic significance because Lusitania was already known to be carrying 4200 cases of rifle ammunition.
However, reports from the divers did seem to suggest that the large quantity and variety of ordnance on the wreck was more than they had expected.
In 2009 Discovery Channel sponsored an expedition to the wreck with Odyssey Marine International that resulted in the documentary Lusitania Revealed. No manned submersibles or divers were used, only ROVs.
An extensive expedition sponsored by National Geographic took place in August 2011, with technical divers, commercial divers using Nuytco atmosphere suits, manned submersibles and ROVs.
The team were licensed to penetrate the wreck and recover artefacts. Items raised included the bronze telemotor, telegraph and one of the ornate first-class cabin windows.
The recoveries were made by an Irish technical dive team lead by Eoin McGarry and overseen by an archaeologist and preservation specialist.
McGarry describes modern-day diving on the wreck: “There are many logistics to diving the Lusitania – a state-approved licence, the owner’s permission, weather, tides, suitable dive vessel, the placement of the shot on such a large vessel and, most importantly, an experienced dive team,” he says.
“Dives are normally conducted using closed-circuit rebreathers. All divers have to be Mod 3 certified and experienced
in the use of mixed gases and not be deterred by the often-low visibility and hazardous conditions that are normal while diving the Lusitania.
“Bottom times are normally 20-30 minutes, with total run times running from two to three hours, depending on the bottom time.
“All dives are executed during slack tide, bar on neap tides where the run is small and dives can proceed safely.
“A decompression station is used for all dives and is released from the downline by the last diver up, so as to allow the station to drift with the current, making for a safer and more comfortable hang-time for the divers.”
If all goes to plan, a commemorative dive will take place on 7 May this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking. A special plaque will be placed
on the wreck, along with a capsule containing the names of all those who lost their lives in the disaster.
BY A STRANGE TWIST of fate the time of slack water is 2.15pm – the exact time the Lusitania was sunk 100 years ago.
A number of other special events are taking place to mark the centenary. The Cunard cruise liner Queen Victoria is making a special voyage, sailing from Southampton on 3 May and calling at Cork on 7 May. Liverpool Maritime Museum is running a special Lusitania exhibition, and many artefacts from the wreck will be on display.
Despite all the latest technology, the quest to get a definitive answer (and proof) of the cause of the second explosion remains as elusive as ever.
But with each passing year the wreck of the Lusitania continues to deteriorate, along with the opportunities to reveal her true story.
|WHAT BECAME of U20?|
THE LUSITANIA WAS the tenth of 37 vessels to be sunk by U20. The U-boat met its end when it ran aground off Denmark on 4 November, 1916.
The crew abandoned the submarine and detonated the torpedoes in the tubes to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The Danish authorities later sold the wreck for salvage, and explosives were used to disperse the remains.
Very little of the wreck remains today, but what does lies in shallow water, a short distance from land. Some artefacts are on display at the Stranding Museum in Thorsminde.
MOST DIVERS FORTUNATE ENOUGH to have dived the wreck of the Lusitania rate it as one of the highlights of their diving experience, and affectionately refer to it as the Lucy. The wreck lies with the bow pointing to the north-east and stern to south-west, resting on the starboard side at an angle of roughly 30°. The most intact part is the bow, where the name “LUSITANIA” is still visible on the port side. The starboard anchor is still firmly in place. Most of the bridge structure has slid down the starboard side of the wreck into the debris field scattered on the seabed. Portholes and windows of all shapes and sizes line the length of the wreck, many of which still contain their glass. There are numerous holes and openings along the starboard side of the hull, some original, others due to salvage work. A few of the ship’s railings still stand proud. Occasionally tiled areas are exposed, including the mosaic tiling in areas once well-trodden by the first-class passengers. Two blades from the one remaining propeller are visible poking out from underneath the wreck. Scattered all over the wreck are numerous small artefacts, such as light-fittings, Cunard china and the occasional personal effect.