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Sunday, 25 August 2019
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Deeper stuff in Weymouth - Rapture of the deep ain't what it used to be Print

The plan for this year's Weymouth week was to dive some of the deeper offshore wrecks while keeping within safe diving practise. Although nearly everybody on board was using some form of accelerated decompression, only half the boat was trimix qualified - the others would be using air as the bottom gas. The plan therefore was to start somewhere around 40m and progress over the five days to just under 50m. Brad had a couple of days booked at the end of the club charter for trimix divers to visit the Illinois, which is a little bit deeper.

A3 Submarine
A3 Submarine

Tide times on the Saturday dictated diving on the East side of the Bill unless we wanted extremes of early or late starts. Choosing a 40m wreck on that side was made difficult by the fact that there aren't all that many of them, we dived two of them from Skin Deep earlier in the year and a few of the others last year. We settled on the A3 because none of us had dived her before apart from Brad, who said she was a good dive. The A3 is an early British submarine which sank with all hands following a collision with her fleet tender, HMS Hazard on 2 February 1912. She was raised and the crew removed but there must have been some difficulty recommissioning her because a few months later, she was towed to her current location and sunk as an ASDIC target.

The A3 is small - very, very small. To be precise, she displaced 207 tons and was 105ft 5in long.At this size, you can do a round trip of her about three times during the course of the dive. This is not going to e everybody's idea of the best dive of the week but actually I'm very glad we chose her. On many wreck dives, I find myself marvelling at the vast scale of late Victorian engineering - this was the opposite. I found myself looking at this crude machine (she doesn't appear even to have had hydroplanes, just vertical and horizontal rudders at the stern) and marvelling at the courage of men who dared to put to sea in her, let alone take her under the water. The conning tower in the photo above seems to have three men balanced on it. Today, the 'tower' seems little more than a pipe sticking out of the hull, barely wide enough to allow one man access to the vessel. She sits on a rocky bottom, which helped produce the excellent viz we found and makes the whole of the hull accessible. Various nooks are populated by crabs, lobsters and at least one conger.

The P&O Liner Salsette
The P&O Liner Salsette

Day two, the Salsette - what can you say about the Salsette? Well, people have said lots of things: the most beautiful ship P&O ever launched; not a parallel line on her; the best wreck in Lyme Bay; the best wreck on the South coast? Launched in 1908, she cost £210689 to build and although she displaced only 5842 tons, she carried a large golden cock at her masthead to signify that she was the fastest ship in the P&O fleet at that time. Her sinking on 20 July 1917 was a tragedy for the 15 crew members who lost their lives but over 300 other people on board survived the sinking. Today, this sister of the Moldavia and the Medina stands voted by Dive magazine as number one in their list of the top one hundred wreck dives. Her qualities extend beyond what she can offer on one dive - to me, the Salsette is a progressive dive, ideal for introducing people to deeper diving. She lies intact, on her port side, in 47m of water. The deck rail on the starboard side is at 30m. When Andy Smith was alive, he would hook her for us with a shot line just over 30m in length. This guaranteed finding wreck at 30m from where people could venture deeper if they felt like it or stay put otherwise. This week though, we were diving the full depth range.

We arrived to find the usual small flotilla of dive boats that the UK's number one wreck dive attracts. Fortunately for us, the divers from these boats seemed to have dived already and a small copse of SMBs was floating above the wreck. I'm not sure what they were doing there because we were in good time for the slack. whatever, it suited us because none of us saw any divers from other boats during the dive. Neither did we see their fin-wash - Lyme Bay wrecks tend to be silty and the Salsette is no exception. The vis can be destroyed quite quickly by just one diver dragging his fins low in the water but today, we had a slight cloud at the base of the shot and 10-15m of clear water everywhere else on the wreck, making it easy to see both top and bottom sides of the wreck at once. I know some people who say they don't like diving the Salsette - they've never dived her in good conditions. Shoals of pout and some massive pollack combined with the magnificence of the ship herself to make a stunning dive.

The Buccaneer
The Buccaneer

Monday is the Buccaneer - a tug sunk in 1946 by a wild shot that hit her in stead of the gunnery target she was towing. Why would we want to follow a magnificent liner with a dive on a menial tug? Well actually, she was quite a big tug. Her displacement was only 1190 tons to Salsette's 5842 but her breadth was 34ft to Salsette's 53. Short and stout, you can easily cover the whole wreck in a dive but in that dive, there is much to see because the wreck is wonderfully intact. Less than a mile from the Salsette, she lies on her port side and offers large holes giving access to the bridge, the engine room and to the depths of the hull. As with the Salsette, silt-out can be a problem in these spaces but we were able to enjoy near perfect vis conditions sand had a spectacular dive.

HMS Empress of India
HMS Empress of India

Tuesday - the Empress of India. The Empress played a key role in the great gunnery revolution that was part of the arms race leading up to the Great War. She was one of the Royal Sovereign class of battleships which had the main guns mounted on barbettes rather than the traditional turrets. The class included HMS Hood, the one scuttled across the South entrance to Portland harbour, but the Hood was the odd one out and built with turrets. The result was that the Hood had less freeboard and was slower than her sisters. The case was proven and the barbettes were adopted for all subsequent British battleships (confusingly, later barbettes acquired armoured hoods to protect them and the hooded barbettes became known as turrets). Control of the guns involved a range finder and a very early form of director. It was the director that was to be the end of the Empress for in 1913, as war approached, the director with its tripod tower had become quite sophisticated but the admiralty had yet to be fully convinced of its superiority over individual gun laying. A test in the form of a competition of director firing against rapid independent fire was arranged for 4 November. The target ewas the poor old Empress, an old lady at 22 was obsoleted by a rapidly changing technology and the dreadnoughts it produced. She was used because it was thought that nothing less would be robust enough to survive the onslaught of the big guns of multiple ships but towards the end of the first day of the trials, the old girl decided she had had enough and slipped quietly beneath the waves.

The 13.5 inch guns on their barbette
The 13.5 inch guns on their barbette

The dive books do say there are still portholes on the Empress. Before the dive, some people were saying 'yeah sure' to this (when did you last see a porthole on a well known wreck?) and I had to say that actually they might very well indeed find a porthole but would they be able to get it off? This did little to prepare them for the site of the rows of open portholes that greeted them. I've dived the Empress a few times before but never in the gin clear that we had on Tuesday. Ian dropped the shot in the middle of the hole that was blown to salvage the condensor and people were able to go inside and see clear across to the oither side of the wreck.

I found myself buddying a stray diver (I never did learn his name) that Ian picked up from somewhere. We had two aboard that day and I had asked both of them if they needed a buddy. One was adamant that he wanted to dive alone, so we sent him in to tie in the shot; the other said he didn't want to trouble anybody and couldn't we just dive as an informal group? "Another hard case" I thought, so I said that I would dive with him but that if he wanted to come up before me that would be fine and if he wanted to stay longer than me, that was up to him too. When it came time to go, he hadn't got his set on so I said no worries, we had a long slack. "Don't wait for me" he said, I don't want to hold you up. He then turned to the others and said "This is my Everest!" "Wot?" They said. "I've never been this deep before" he said "this is my deepest ever dive - my Everest". There was a gentle thudding as jaws hit the deck. Eventually Chris ventured "and do you really think its a good idea to do it on your own?". So I stood there swaying gently under the weight of four cylinders wondering "do I jump and let him climb his Everest on his own or do take him with me and let him kill both of us". I decided to wait for him. Eventually he was ready and I stood behind him as the boat went round to drop us in. As it came round to the shot, I stuck my regulator back in my mouth, breathed in and realised that it was turned off.

Yes I had turned it on and I had tried it when I put the set on but now it was turned off. It doesn't matter how it happened, it happened and my mountain climbing buddy was disappearing over the side of the boat in front of me. I called to Ian who was just coming out of the wheelhouse and he came over and quickly turned the valves on both cylinders on my back. I jumped into the water and chased after my buddy, venting air from my wing. I reached the shot just after him, already starting to sink whereas he was still fully buoyant. I signalled him to go down and started down the line ahead of him. I turned round at about 5m for a quick bubble check ant to make sure that he was following me. I then headed on down. A quick squirt to my suit relieved the squeeze and another quick squirt verified that my stab was inflating. I continued on down. At around 30m the upturned hull of the battleship cam into view. I pressed the inflater of my wing to slow my descent. Absolutely nothing happened until I thudded into the Empress. Thinks: I'm breathing off the right hand post on the twinset; the wing is fed off the left hand post; the other valve must be turned off too; didn't Ian just turn it on for me (it turns out he must have turned it off)? I turned the valve on, inflated my wing and achieved neutral buoyancy just in time to be joined by my buddy. At least I had no trouble reaching the manifold - it would have been just too embarrassing to have to ask him to do it for me.

The viz at the bottom of the shot, inside the engine room, was not as pristine as the others report. There were six or seven divers down there before us, so this is unsurprising. I elected to head round the outside of the ship towards the stern. Before long, my torch revealed a section of plate that had sprung out from the main part of the ship's side and there on the plate was a large brass porthole, wide open. My buddy's torch beam joined mine as we examined it. It was about 15 inches in diameter; no sign of a deadlight but the backing plate looked as though it too was brass. We moved along - another one and another. We were looking at a whole row of portholes, all attached but with easy access to both sides at once - not something you see too often these days.

As we approached the stern, I became aware that my buddy was signalling me. I look up in his direction. He was silhouetted by the massive A frame supporting one of the propeller shafts. This was the massive Victorian engineering that was so noticeably absent on the A3. My buddy had come to the end of his time and wanted to go up. I saw him safely on his way up and tagged along behind Rob and Clive who happened along conveniently at that point. At the stern, the ship lifts right up off the sea bed, offering a large space to enter and the possibility to go up into the hull of the ship. Not this time though - there's not enough time left or any of the other things you need to risk penetration - another day perhaps. I wend my way gently up the side of the hull and deploy my SMB.

Valdes Bell

13th August 1986, 10:30 in the morning and Andy Smith has taken Skin Deep to a new wreck that he learned about from a fisherman who caught his trawl on it. We had no idea what it was and to the best of our knowledge, nobody has ever dived this wreck before. Five minutes into the dive I was swimming over a jumbled section of wreckage, swinging my torch from side to side, trying to make sense of the shapes when there down in a hole was the unmistakable form of a bell. It was not a very big hole. I dived head-first into it. My set caught on something, preventing me going further in. I stretched, my fingers coming within a few inches of the bell. As I wriggled to get further, a hand appeared in front of me and grabbed the bell. It was Victor, my buddy, who had found another way in. We tied the bell up and rode it towards the surface, cradling it on the decompression stops and finally hauling it up the ladder. We had identified the wreck of the Valdes


Sixteen years on, I returned to the wreck following a belated declaration of the bell to the Receiver of Wreck in last year's amnesty. Now having official title to her bell, it seemed a good idea to go back and say hello to the ship. She is looking good. The vis this year was vastly better than on that first dive, torches being really quite optional even at 50m. I swam to the bow which is upright and shipshape and turned back towards the stern. She is really fairly broken in the middle. The sides are falling inwards as you approach the engine where a boiler lying around uncovered. She builds up again as you approach the stern which is lying on its port side, the screw still attached. What was most noticeably different about the wreck to my last visit was blue in colour - Conger blue. Wherever I looked there was a conger. Some were fairly small; some were very large indeed. You don't usually get to see the length of a conger in its hole, so I tend to judge the size by the width of the smile, or the diameter. The typical conger here was about the size of a 7 litre cylinder - a mature fish. Every nook and cranny on the wreck that could conceivably be home to a conger seemed to be occupied. This is a wonderful thing to see. Its not that I have a thing for conger, but for such a small space to support so many top predators suggests a thriving ecosystem. This is what the deeper wrecks are supposed to be like. Sixteen years ago, the only wrecks that supported this much life were those that had not yet been found by the wreck netters. All the well known wrecks at that time were regularly fished with monofilament wreck nets which had devastating effects on the fish population and were no small hazard to divers. The technique yields large catches of fish the first time it is used on a wreck but it effectively strips the wreck and the recovery time is long. Clearly, the Valdes has not been visited by one of these for some time. Let us hope this is a trend.

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