Wreck Diving

For thousands of years the Channel Islands have seen a large amount of shipping.

All manner of merchant has plied these waters, from Roman traders leaden with amphorae, to smugglers carrying liqueur in the 18th Century. Right through to modern shipping carrying all types of cargo. Many using the English Channel as the main thoroughfare to Northern Europe and the Nordics.

In times of war, these islands have proven to be of strategic importance as well as a safe anchorage for re-supply or repairs in St Peter Port’s careening-hard. From times such as the Spanish Armada in the 16th century through to the 1st and 2nd World wars in the 20th century.

Before the advent of modern navigation systems, such as radar in the 1940’s and positioning systems like DECCA (1960 – now defunct), and the still in use Global Positioning System (GPS) in 1973. Marine navigation relied on some very hit and miss methods.

The ability to detect above surface objects like rocks and other ships, relied on the ability to actually see the object, or in the case of shipping or navigation aids, hear it’s bell / horn. This became almost impossible during times of a storm or in thick fog.

As far as position navigation was concerned, this was done either by astro-navigation (stars), taking a fix on a known position (such as a lighthouse) or by “dead-reckoning” which is the process of guesstimating your position by accounting for the distance travelled from your last known position by accounting for the speed, wind, current and coarse steered. Backed up by taking regular soundings to ascertain the depth of water and bottom composition, which is then compared with what is known already, or charted.

For these reasons, there are a lot of shipwrecks around the Channel Islands, with the biggest concentration around Guernsey and Alderney due to their Westerly positions. In fact, there are over 800 wrecks known to be around these islands, with many more forgotten over the centuries.

From a divers’ point of view, there is a great selection to choose from and a wreck to suit every depth and taste. For those willing to put in the time, there is still a lot to be found or classified – such as the Cairnside.

Below is a small selection of the wrecks we dive, with a short description and a link to a video if we have one.

 

Clary & Heathery Brae – 12m

On 4th September 1921 the Clarrie struck Rousstel beacon and then sunk following a towing attempt outside Petils Bay, just to the North of Bordeaux. Heathery Brae was a vessel undertaking salvage of the Clarrie, when explosive charges set on the Clarrie damaged the Haethery Brae’s skin fittings. Following said damage she sunk on 4th May 1952.

This is a very shallow dive which is very dependant on slack water. So much so, that it can only be done on the smallest neap tides. This is a good dive to rummage about as the site has not been dived much, certainly not in the last 20 years.

Video Courtesy of J P Fallaize

Forth – 18m

Sunk in 1906, after hitting rocks en route to St Malo whilst carrying pig iron.

This is a great first wreck dive. It’s well broken up, though there are still many parts that are obviously a ship, especially the stern section that is lying on it’s side intact. This is a good dive for getting stuck in for a rummage, though dived thousands of times it was only recently that the bell was found by local divers.

 

Piccadilly Commando aka B17 (Aircraft) – 12m

Piccadilly Commando was an American flying Fortress bomber from the 508th squadron of the 351st: Bomb Group of the U.S 8th. Air force. The aircraft ditched into the sea on the North-west coast of Guernsey 31st December 1943. All the crew survived the ditching and were sent to P.O.W. camps in Germany.

There isn’t much left of the Piccadilly Commando, but as we often say “it’s well worth a look” as it’s an important part of all of our history and shouldn’t be forgotten. Though in time it likely will. The area of wreckage is recognisable as being an aircraft, with an engine, propeller and parts of the airframe still visible.

Video Courtesy of Phil Warry

 

Oost Vlaanderen aka “Cement Wreck” – 30m

Original built in Holland, this ship was captured by the German Kriegsmarine in WW2 and used for transporting cement. She was bombed by the RAF en route to St Peter Port from St Malo on 23rd May 1943, carrying cement and 3.7cm flak guns. She sank rapidly with no casualties.

This is the most popular wreck in the Channel Islands, she sits upright and mostly intact in an area that offers a great slack water on each tide. Though technically an advanced dive due to the depth, this is a very “friendly” wreck when conditions are good, with it being easy to navigate and because it sits on a shingle seabed which provides great ambient light. There is a high amount of life on this wreck, with a large shoal of pouting in the forward hold. As well as being home to many lobsters, conger eels and soft corals such as the Gorgonia sea-fan that lives right on the prow of the ship like a figurehead.

 

DR Rudolph Wahrendorf aka “Ammo Wreck” – 33m

Another German vessel from WW2, sunk by the RAF in July 1944 bound for Guernsey carrying ammunition. There have been several salvage projects undertaken by MOD divers over the years to recover explosives, with the most recent to recover a depth charge in 2015.

The wreck lies upright and largely intact just outside St Peter Port harbour. Though of a similar size and depth to the Cement Wreck, this is a very different dive. While the Cement Wreck “feels” friendly,  this wreck can “feel” quite foreboding. This is due to the seabed being muddy and quite dark affecting light levels and more debris laying on the deck. Not a problem, but definitely suited to either good conditions or a seasoned wreck diver used to having their wits about them.

 

Minesweeper M483 – 48m (deck) 52m (prop / seabed)

Another WW2 casualty, attacked by the RAF on 15th June 1943. Hit by flak, she was seen to be on fire and sink a little way from the rest of the convoy. Judging by the large hole in her Port side, the fire spread to the ammunition hold and caused a large explosion. The wreck lies a few miles East of Sark.

This is the best pure wreck dive in the Channel Islands, the ship sits upright and fully intact in waters known for good visibility with the seabed being almost white in colour providing great light reflection. The M483 is the only wreck we know of locally that hasn’t been extensively salvaged meaning that the props, guns, tow-fish and other equipment is still in place. She has a large gun on a mount in the stern, and an anti-aircraft gun pointed at the sky on the bow. For any deep-air or tech diver, this wreck is a must.

** Not the best video, it was shot with running tide, hopefully replaced with better in 2016

 

Rouen aka “Little Tug” – 58m

Not very much is known of this wreck, it’s named “Rouen” because that is the area of France in which it was thought to have been built.

One of Matt’s favourite dives, this wreck can be described as friendly and cute. It really is tiny in size, with the steam boiler taking up most of the ship. Because of this, it’s very easy to navigate and is quite an easy dive despite the depth. This is a great advanced deep-air or trimix wreck dive.

 

Edirne – 58m

Struck rocks near Alderney in fog on the 30th January 1950. En route from Turkey to Denmark carrying 4,500 tons of cattle food. There were no casualties with the St Peter Port lifeboat rescuing 50 people and 1 dog!

This is probably the biggest wreck in the Channel Islands, even with a 20 min bottom time you only have enough time to explore 1 hold, of which there are 5! This wreck is normally done as part of an Alderney weekend which coincides with the week of partying known as “Alderney week”.

 

Cairnside – 50m

Sunk “somewhere off Sark” on 24th January 1922, the Cairnside had eluded divers for many years. A wreck discovered and dived in the 90’s north of Herm was thought to be the one, until it was proven to be the Mary Toovey. Meanwhile, for many years divers had been diving on a wreck to the South of Herm know as the “Tug and Barges”. In an effort to put a name to the wreck, local shipwreck historian and diver JP Fallaize set about identifying the wreck. The wreck was dived and filmed several times during and after completion of his TDI Advanced Nitrox & Decompression Procedures course. Aided by Dive Guernsey Instructor Matt and dive-team members Mat Le Maitre, Martyn Jehan, Paul Maindonal and Phil Warry, JP was able to measure different aspects of the wreck, and with help from Richard Keen ascertain that the “Tug and Barges” was in fact the Cairnside in the summer of 2015.

As a dive, we think that it was under appreciated, even before its identity was confirmed, as you can see from the video there was still a lot to discover and see. The wreck is a typical steamer, with most of the hull and superstructure gone, but with boiler and engine intact.  With many of these wrecks, they are dived infrequently and you never know what the last storm might have uncovered.

Video Courtesy of J P Fallaize

 

Mary Toovey – 43m

Discovered in the late 90’s, and for a few years thought to be the Cairnside (above). A small coastal steamer of a similar size, until name letters were found that didn’t match up and finally when Willis Hughes found the bell cast with the ships name.

It sits in an area to the North of Herm, right up against the reef making it difficult to find with echo sounder. Though not the most exciting wreck, it does make a good “build-up” wreck taking the diver from diving the “easier” stuff like the Cement and Ammo wrecks and introducing more advanced techniques, such as having current on the surface while slack on the bottom. Whilst increasing the depth. Like many of the wrecks of this age, most of the hull and superstructure is gone leaving the boiler and steam engine on display. This wreck is also home to some BIG Conger eels.

Video Courtesy of Mat Le Maitre

Stella “The Titanic of the Channel Islands” – 46m

The first video is a BBC documentary about the ship and accident, the second is one of ours from diving the wreck.

As a dive, the Stella is a beautiful ship with elegant lines and am incredibly sleek bow. The forward 3/4 is largely intact, which is amazing for the fact that she has sat on the seabed for 117 years.

 

PSS Brighton – 50m

Lost on the 29th January 1887 after striking the Brayes rock on the North coast of Guernsey, the Paddle Steam Ship Brighton is one of our oldest dived wrecks.

These days, there isn’t much left of the ship, though the boiler and parts of the paddle wheels remain. As there aren’t many opportunities to dive a paddle -steamer these days, she remains a popular site that most wreck divers like to visit once or twice a year.

Video Courtesy of Mat Le Maitre

 

Jeanne Marie aka “Copper Wreck” – 60m

The Jeanne Marie, a French Steamship, sank from Striking a mine which was said to be laid by UC 47 on 28th July 1917. Carrying a cargo of valuable copper ingots and sheeting.

This is Matt’s favourite wreck dive. The wreck itself is totally broken up from the various salvage attempts, whereby the hull was torn open to get at the valuable copper in her belly. Because she was a large ship though, it remains a very grand dive when her size its taken into perspective. With the boilers, engine and prop shaft easily visible it’s a great dive to see how steamers were operated and laid out.

 

Bizon – 58m

A German Steamship cargo vessel, Sunk after torpedo attack by French M.T.B 91,92,227 and 239 on 8th May 1944.

A lovely dive when conditions are right, there is still a big lump of ship to be seen, with the boilers some distance to the West, it’s thought that they rolled free of the broken ship. This wreck is absolutely full of big lobsters, as you can see in the video. There is also plenty wartime items to observe including a pile of large caliber ammunition. For may years the rudder, broken from it’s control arms swayed gently in the tide and has spooked many a diver by creaking back and forth. On more serious note, there has for several years been a large piece of trawl netting floating from the wreck, which divers must be vary cautious of at this sort of depth.