To carry out five deep wreck dives to 70m, involving 20 trimix divers, is something of a challenge. Doing it across the shipping lanes of the English Channel is nothing short of a miracle, as Garry Lockwood explains. Photographs by Guy Middleton
Our plan to use two charter boats to carry out a series of deep exploratory dives had first been put to the coastguard a year before. We needed to plan ahead because of the many safety issues that arise when diving inside the Channel’s Traffic Separation System (TSS). With Cherbourg traffic control responsible for the TSS that keeps west and eastbound shipping apart, it was vital that we stuck to our agreed in-water times and kept Weymouth and Cherbourg briefed on our arrival and departure.
Keith Morris, the head of our dive team, dreamed up the plan with Ian Taylor. Autumn Dream, skippered by Len Hurdis, would act as cover boat for the divers. Skin Deep would operate as guard vessel, two to three miles further up the shipping lane. Ian Taylor would then use his undoubted charm and diplomacy to contact any ships heading too close to our area of operation and ask them to alter course. This would be a back-up, as the coastguard had already issued a notice to mariners about the position and duration of each dive.
We had two decompression stations and two shots for each dive – one for each boat’s dive team. Ascending individually on delayed surface marker buoys was clearly unmanageable in the shipping lane, so we had to keep divers safely together on the stations as they decompressed for up to 100 minutes. This would mean returning to the shot on each dive, but it was a price we were all prepared to pay in order to dive so many unidentified wrecks. One diver would act as safety diver each day. With such an intricate plan in place, even the Weymouth lifeboat skipper, on a few days’ holiday, was on board Skin Deep as an observer – keen to learn first-hand how deeper diving in more exposed locations could be conducted safely. All we needed was some decent visibility! We weren’t to be disappointed.
searching for sms baden
As we made our way down the shot-line and our eyes adjusted to the light, lying upside down in 70m of crystal-clear, mid-channel water was the unmistakeable outline of a large warship – but which one? For many years this wreck was believed to be that of SMS Baden, a German Bayern-class battleship of First World War vintage. Due to its location in the southwest shipping lane, 28 miles due south of Portland Bill, the wreck has only been dived a handful of times and a positive identification had never been made. But many now believe the Baden lies further to the southwest in 170m at the bottom of Hurd Deep off Alderney. Following Mark Ellyatt’s controversial solo dive off Alderney in 2000, and confirmation that the wreck he found was of the same three-propeller design and proportions as the Baden, the identity of the wreck off Portland was in doubt again.
This class of dreadnought shared many common design features with its much more famous Second World War cousin, the Bismarck – including three propellers and two massive rudders. But whereas Bismarck was sunk in a famous action early in the war, the Baden had a more ignominious end. Following the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, SMS Baden was beached. She was then re-floated, and along with the cruiser SMS Nürnberg, was towed south and subjected to two years of exhaustive armour and gunnery tests.
Eventually, an emaciated Baden, stripped of some armour, turrets, guns and equipment, was finally sunk by Royal Navy gunnery in 1921 – but research has failed to turn-up a precise location for the sinking. Moving along the sea bed at 72m from amidships towards the bow, I could immediately make out a series of cylindrical housings that would once have housed casement guns – a common design feature of many British and German warships of the Baden period. I counted four casement turrets from amidships to the bow on the starboard side – the same number as on the Baden. In each, the armament had been removed prior to sinking. But having dived the Mark Graf and Kronprinz Wilhelm in Scapa Flow, this wreck did not have the same bulk, nor was there any evidence of heavy armour plate. This seemed to tally with the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) survey data, which indicated the wreck to be roughly 120m in length – too short to be the Baden, which was more than 182m long.
The second team of divers, including wreck expert Nick Chipchase, surfaced after investigating the stern: they confirmed that the hull was intact and reported finding only two propeller tunnels and one rudder. So, although the wreck had clearly been stripped and possibly used as a target before sinking, it was not the Baden.
The Beatty rose... ?
An early start from Weymouth found us 42 miles SSW of Portland Bill on the second day of near-perfect diving conditions. Our mark this time was the wreck of the Beatty Rose, a 1,119-tonne collier sunk in 1927. Interestingly, Risdon Beazley, the salvage company, had made two passes over the site in 1976 and this was confirmed in the hydrographic office wreck data. This added to the excitement, which is always tangible when diving a wreck for the first time. Was this wreck just a collier or did the sea bed hide something more interesting?
Diving on the French side of the Channel, we were in the northeast-bound lane. All vessels more than 20m in length must navigate in the lanes and as many as 40 of them could be expected to pass nearby during the two hours we would be in the water – a disconcerting thought.
Although dark at 72m, the visibility was 15 to 20m. With coal everywhere, a single propeller and boiler roughly amidships, this wreck certainly looked like a collier. But with no signs of a bell or other identifying features (apart from broken pottery with possible Danish markings), we headed back to the strobes that marked the shot after 25 minutes of bottom time. This wreck’s identity would have to wait for another day.
Sunk on 21 October 1916, the Brizeux was a French sailing vessel travelling from Le Havre to Buenos Aires when she went down 39 miles south of Portland Bill. We were to investigate a mark which could be the wreck’s final resting place.
We were 20m above the wreck when I first started to see the outline emerging from the gloom. Torchlight could be seen fanning a wreck below at 65m. It didn’t look like sailing vessel – the beam seemed too wide. As the outline of a boiler and steel plates came into view, it was clear that this wasn’t the Brizeux but another unidentified wreck!
Team member Andy White, a builder, raised part of the ship’s plumbing, confirming that this vessel was equipped with sanitary fittings supplied by Bonnet & Son, Sanitary Engineers of Swansea. Nick Chipchase confirmed that the triple-expansion engine would have powered a small vessel – yet to be identified – of around 900 tonnes.
minelayer mystery solved
Thirty Two miles SSE of Portland Bill and with a maximum depth of 64m, our next target was marked on the Hydrographic Office data as probably being a French trawler lost in this area in 1983.
Swimming under the stern, we found two propellers. There was also some denting of plates on the starboard side that could have been the result of a collision. But there was no evidence of nets or fishing gear – in fact, there didn’t even seem to be any fish holds. Swimming next to the bridge, I came across our photographer, Guy Middleton, examining an electrical fitting. Other divers reported a small cylindrical hole on one side of the hull with a matching ‘exit’ hole – could this be evidence of a wartime sinking?
A few weeks after our trip, the boat was identified from its dimensions and unusual aft steering position. Nick Chipchase and wreck researcher Alan Dunster now believe it to be M2 or Miner II, a Royal Navy M-class controlled minelayer built in 1939 and used as a gunnery target in 1970.
When diving unknown targets, which can prove disappointing, it’s always a good idea to finish with a known target, and the Pangani was ours. A four-masted steel barque sunk in 1913 with a full cargo of porcelain and glass, it had been dived just a handful of times. The visibility was outstanding – more than 20m – and a torch was unnecessary on the bottom at 68m. At nearly 100m long with a 3,054 gross tonnage, a relatively short slack window prevented a full exploration, but Colin MacKenzie did manage to recover the maker’s plate.
This was the perfect end to an outstanding series of dives, safely conducted in demanding circumstances. Involving the coastguard at an early stage in the planning had ensured full co-operation when the dives were carried out and we thank them for that. Although, strictly speaking, coastguard permission isn’t needed for dives in the shipping lanes, this could well represent the sensible model for future diving of this type.