THIS 4 JULY THE CUNARD LINER Queen Mary 2 (QM2) set sail from Liverpool across the North Atlantic Ocean to Halifax, Nova Scotia, exactly 175 years to the day that the company’s first ship Britannia inaugurated the legendary Transatlantic mail service.
The 1154-ton Britannia was built in 1840 and completed the voyage in 12.5 days. QM2 (148,528 tons) will take six days to make the crossing, although with a top speed of more than 30 knots she has the capability to complete it much faster.
The Cunard Line was founded by Sir Samuel Cunard in 1840 and in its 175 years it has owned more than 300 vessels. The majority of the ships plied the Atlantic, carrying passengers and the Royal Mail.
In later years, as air travel started to become mainstream, most of the ships took on cruising roles. Many Cunard ships have become household names, including Lusitania, Carpathia, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2), arguably the line’s most famous ship.
Cunard has enjoyed an exemplary safety record and can claim never to have lost a life at sea due to any fault of the company. However, accidents happen and with such a long history it was inevitable that some ships would meet their end at the bottom of the ocean.
Some early vessels foundered in bad weather but the two world wars were responsible for most of the later losses.
The first-ever Cunard ship to be lost was the Columbia, which ran aground off Cape Sable in thick fog on 2 July, 1843. Fortunately there was no loss of life and all the mail was saved.
The last loss of a Cunard ship occurred on 25 May, 1982, when the Atlantic Conveyor was struck by Argentine Exocet missiles during the Falklands conflict, with the loss of 12 lives. The ship sank in deep water a few days later.
Many of the Cunard Line wrecks lie in deep water or remote locations. Some have yet to be found.
However, there are quite a few that are accessible to recreational divers, and four of these lie in England and Scotland’s coastal waters, providing divers with an excellent opportunity to visit a unique part of Britain’s maritime heritage.
MALTA / Cape Cornwall
The Malta (2244 tons) was a modest single-screw iron passenger cargo vessel built by J & G Thomson, Glasgow and completed in 1866. The bow was adorned with a magnificent golden female figurehead. The Malta initially serviced the transatlantic routes, but later switched to Cunard’s Mediterranean service.
The Malta’s final voyage departed from Liverpool on 14 October, 1889, bound for Genoa and Venice.
The ship had a full complement of passengers and 2000 tons of general cargo. The next day she ran aground in poor visibility under the cliffs of Lenidjack Castle, about half a mile from Cape Cornwall, near Land’s End. All passengers and crew were safely rescued.
At the Board of Trade inquiry that followed, Captain Richard Lavis was found to be at fault and his master’s certificate was suspended for three months. Despite having a long career with Cunard that spanned more than three decades, he was dismissed.
The wreck lies roughly east-west, with the bow pointing in towards the cliffs in a maximum depth of 15m. It is fairly flat, with the highest parts standing little more than 2m proud.
Despite the amount of wreckage in the area it’s hard to make out the overall shape of the ship, although various distinctive features are still evident, such as fair-leads and mooring bollards.
Random pieces of pipe are often encountered, and the occasional obscure brass fixture is fused into the wreckage. As you look up to the surface, the ribs of the ship’s frame can be seen, along with waving fronds of kelp silhouetted against the clear Atlantic seas.
Flatfish and sea urchins can be found nestled amid the wreckage and boulders. Small pieces of Cunard china are still occasionally discovered.
Because the wreck is shallow, kelp grows abundantly across the site for much of the year, so it is best dived early in the season. The wreck of the Italian cargo ship Aida Lauro lies close by.
No commercial dive-boats operate regularly around Land’s End but it could make a good club dive, with RIB launches possible from Sennen or Hayle.
Campania / Firth of Forth
The Campania (12,950 tons) was built by Fairfield of Glasgow, and launched on 8 September, 1892, entering service in 1893.
The Campania’s twin screws were powered by a 10-cylinder triple-expansion engine, giving an impressive service speed of 21 knots. During her first year in service the Campania took the Blue Riband award for the fastest westbound and eastbound crossings.
Along with her sister-ship the Lucania, the ships operated as Cunard’s primary transatlantic passenger liners for 14 years. In 1914 the Campania was sold for scrap, but was then resold to the British Admiralty and converted to an aircraft-carrier to carry seaplanes.
As part of the Admiralty refit, the forward funnel was removed and replaced by two smaller ones to make room for a flight-deck.
On the morning of 5 November, 1918, Campania was anchored off Burntisland, along with a number of other Navy vessels, when a sudden force-10 squall caused her to drag her anchor.
She collided with two of the Navy vessels, puncturing her hull and causing the engine-room to flood. She sank a few hours later with no loss of life.
The Campania lies in an area of notoriously poor visibility and exceptionally strong tides.
The wreck is in one complete section approximately 200m long by 20m wide, lying on its starboard side with bow to the north. Depth to the seabed is 30m, and the highest point of the structure stands up to 20m.
A typical dive will start amidships. On arrival on the wreck you immediately notice the intense covering of dead men’s fingers and plumose anemones. These are so dense that they frequently hide features and obscure portholes.
To the western side of the wreck the hull slopes down steeply, almost vertical in places. The wide expanse of hull still contains some intact portholes, many complete with glass. The Campania’s ventilation system featured a series of distinctive intakes, many of which are now home to lobsters and crabs.
Moving to the eastern side of the wreck, the structure is less defined and more broken. Towards the bow at the north the structure is more intact, with anchor-chains in evidence. Kelp can be found growing on some of the shallower parts of the wreck.
The wreck is protected and can be dived only by arrangement with the licensee, Mark Blythe of the Dive Bunker (www.divebunker.co.uk).
Aurania / Isle of Mull
The Aurania (13,936 tons) was the third and final ship of three new vessels ordered by Cunard in December 1913, but because of the war she was not completed until 1917.
Construction was by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson, Wallsend-on-Tyne.
On completion the ship was immediately taken up by the Admiralty for troop-carrying duties. On 4 February, 1918, Aurania was off the coast of Donegal when she was struck by a torpedo from UB67 and eight crew-members were killed. Attempts were made to save the ship, but she eventually went aground off the Isle of Mull.
When the ship sank, all the Cunard silver had already been stored on board in a dedicated “Silver Room”. This was extensively salvaged in the 1980s – many items can be viewed at the Charlestown Shipwreck Centre in Cornwall.
The Aurania lies north-west and parallel to the cliffs with the bow to the north in a maximum depth of 25m.
The main body of wreck that is distinguishable is around the middle section, where two enormous boilers form an imposing presence, standing 7m proud of the seabed. It is also around
this area of the wreck that the silver was located, and the occasional item can still be found to this day.
The majority of the remaining wreckage is spread over a wide flat area devoid of many distinguishing features. There are some large winches, quite a few mooring bollards and a lot of steel plates.
Divers visiting the Sound of Mull have a good choice of dive operators, including Lochaline Dive Centre (www.lochaline divecentre.co.uk) and Lochaline Boat Charters (www.lochaline-boats.co.uk)
Alaunia / Sussex
The Alaunia (13,405 tons), the second of three A-class ships to be built by Scott’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co Ltd, Greenock, was launched on 9 June, 1913.
In August 1914 the Alaunia was requisitioned as a troopship and fitted with a 4.7in gun on her stern. For the next two years the ship carried out various troop-carrying duties, and also continued to carry civilians, mail and various cargo.
On 19 October, 1916, the Alaunia struck a mine that had been laid by UC16 in the English Channel. Despite valiant efforts to save the ship, she went down with the loss of two lives.
The wreck of the Alaunia lies on its port side at an angle of 45° on a sand and shingle seabed. The highest point of the wreck stands a good 10m proud.
Alaunia lies roughly east–west, with bow to the east and within sight of the Royal Sovereign light-tower.
The most intact part of the wreck is the bow, which lies on its port side with the starboard anchor looped over and hanging vertically from a hawse-pipe.
The boilers can be clearly seen protruding from the top of the wreck, and one has broken free and rolled over onto its side.
Towards the stern a propeller-shaft is exposed, leading towards what’s left of the steering gear and a big steering quadrant.
There is normally a lot of marine life on the wreck, including wrasse, pouting and bib. Large lobsters are common.
The Alaunia is regularly visited by boats operating out of Eastbourne, including Dive 125 (www.dive125.co.uk), Channel Diving (wordpress.channel diving.com) and Sussex Shipwrecks (www.sussexshipwrecks.co.uk).
Other Cunard wrecks
There are quite a few more Cunard wrecks around the British Isles and the rest of the world that can be dived.
The Folia (38m), Feltria (66m) and Lusitania (93m) all lie off the South Coast of Ireland – 7 May this year marked the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania with the loss of 1198 lives (100 Years Submerged, May).
The Flavia (108m) and Carinthia (117m) were two of the most recent discoveries, and are both in deep water north-west of Ireland.
The Andania (112m) in the Western Approaches is considered by the few technical divers who have visited the site to be one of the most challenging wreck dives in the British Isles.
There are two wrecks in French waters: Thracia (30m) and Lancastria (26m). The Lancastria was evacuating troops from St Nazaire in WW2 when she was bombed, with the estimated loss in excess of 5000 lives. So the wreck is a designated war grave and diving is prohibited.
The Oregon (40m) sank off Long Island, USA in 1886 after a collision with a sailing vessel, and is a very popular dive in that part of the world.
The deepest Cunard wreck to have been visited by divers is the Carpathia (153m), which lies more than 200 miles out in the Atlantic. Carpathia was built in 1903 and is famous for rescuing all 705 survivors from the Titanic in 1912.
The ship was torpedoed on 17 July, 1918 by U55, with the loss of five lives.