Long Weekend - Med Ahead
With distance no object, Steve Weinman and friends dash down to the South of France for an ambitious weekends diving on Mediterranean wrecks

LOOK out for ze - ow you say - crows nest, they said. We could hardly miss it as we came down the shotline in 25m-plus visibility. For years, it seems, divers have enjoyed balancing with their fins on either side of this spar, which tops the upright mainmast at about 28m, before launching themselves out, down and along the ships deck. OK, its not PC to touch, but that apparently is what they do.
The first time we dived the Donator we spent our time beneath the crows nest and around the quarterdeck at 40m, taking pictures against a background of lush red gorgonian, sponges and algae encapsulating the wreck.
Drift down beneath the stern and you find the intact rudder and propeller, similarly colonised by colourful life. Look up and clouds of cromis and orange anthias hang in the water.
We didnt get the full impact on that first dive, however. Second time round, taking in the full length of the vessel from stern to broken-off bow section, its magic was more apparent. The holds were full of anthias, tightly packed enough to obscure the metal wine containers at the bottom. This bolt-upright wreck had a dignified serenity that contrasted sharply with the turmoil above, where a mistral was churning up the sea.
This was turning out to be a wild weekend, the weather preventing us from exploring some of the more exposed wrecks within reach of the island of Porquerolles, off Frances Mediterranean coast.
Luckily the Donator, some 20 minutes out from the harbour, offered enough shelter and views to keep us happy, along with a reef called Le Gabinière renowned for its large groupers, though only a few youngsters, sarp and some octopuses were in attendance when we showed up.
Now you might think it a bizarre idea to drive 840 miles to the South of France and back for the sake of two days diving, especially on the same weekend that the fans of many nations were gathering around France for the opening salvos of the World Cup. We had our doubts too, but we were in an experimental mood.
One of the deciding factors was that Audi, a company that sees itself as very much in tune with diving and adventure sports generally, had lent us an A6 Avant 2.4TDi estate with a very slick six-speed transmission to ease the rigours of the journey.
Its amazing how fast a modern diesel can go without breaking sweat, and how silently and smoothly, especially when carrying four people with their dive kit stuffed in the back.
This one was perfectly capable of winding up to 135mph on a downhill run, allegedly.
The main French auto-routes are not designed to allow such speeds, but because you pay to drive on them they stay clear enough to allow a steady speed to be maintained between toll barriers.
The Audi Avant is not the biggest estate on the market, but through careful management we squeezed all our kit on board, the camera boxes on the back seat still allowing reasonable comfort for the rear passengers, as evidenced by the steady snoring that provided a soundtrack to our progress. We left Diver HQ, west of London, after work on Thursday evening, drove to Folkestone and boarded Le Shuttle to Calais.
Le Shuttle might lack the atmosphere and refreshment opportunities of a ferry but it makes the cross-Channel transfer so sublimely effortless that you start wondering why you need to pay between 95 and 220 for the privilege.
Then you notice how quiet the terminals are, and remember just how big an investment Eurotunnel needs to claw back.
From Calais at midnight we drove straight into a wall of rain on the autoroute. It drummed on the windscreen all the way to Lyons, but there was little else to slow our progress. Steer clear of Paris and follow the artery that takes in Rheims, Dijon and Aix-en-Provence, and you avoid any city traffic until you get to Toulon and Hyeres, approaching your goal.
We hit the coast by lunchtime to find a mini-hurricane blowing, white horses racing across the surface of the Med and phoneboxes threatening to take off - while we were in them.
The mistral had been blowing out of Africa at up to 90mph for two days, lowering the temperature of the seas by, we were told, some 4*C. In normal conditions we would have been in time to get a dive in that afternoon, but all such activity had been cancelled. In fact it was considered too rough even to send the dive centre boat to collect us, so we made the 20-minute crossing by ferry.
They excused us a baggage charge, indicated that cylinders were frowned on but relented to allow our rebreather on board. The alternative is the more expensive water taxi.
The car we left on the mainland; on Porquerolles most people walk or cycle. The island, administered by the French National Trust, is a relaxed resort of considerable charm, and seemed to have become a magnet for trippers that weekend - World Cup refugees, it appeared, judging from the lack of soccer fever.

The winds had dropped by Saturday, and diving was back on the agenda. Porquerolles Plongee is the only dive centre on the island, and proprietors Jean-Paul and Martine Costes are proud of their international approach.
 According to our dive guide, technical dive instructor and TDI regional chairman John Simenon, the centre differs from the many on the mainland by promoting its services to non-French divers.
You know that game in which you have to name a famous Belgian John is the son of one of that select number, Georges Simenon, who created the detective Maigret. Later this year John will be diving with oceanic whitetip sharks in Australia and exploring the remote Aleutian Islands, but between expeditions he is a big Porquerolles wreck-diving enthusiast, and had taken time out to show us the sights.
Porquerolles Plongee has three hardboats, including La Courtade, nicknamed The Nuclear Boat. Its not hard to see why - powered by twin 2 litre Volvo engines and capable of 45 knots, it makes short work of travelling to dive sites, even in the heavy conditions we were experiencing, and brings a dozen challenging wrecks within an hours run.
We were lucky enough to have the Nuclear Boat to ourselves on several occasions, but things can get frenetic. This June weekend was particularly busy, and not eased by the fact that 60 children aged from eight upwards had come to learn to dive off the beach.
When their frequent arrivals at the dive centre coincided with those of adult groups, the strain on resources was palpable. Once we had obtained our nitrox refills, we kept well clear.
The children were well behaved and it was perhaps the attitudes of their supervisors that led Jean-Paul and Martine to declare Never again! at the end of the weekend.
 Our refuge was the picturesque Donator. This French freighter survived the war but hit an abandoned German mine in November 1945, while struggling along in rough seas with its alcoholic cargo. It sank within minutes and now lies in the sand at a maximum depth of 50m.
Close by lies another freighter that also suffered a terminal encounter with a mine, just a month later. This is the Sagona, known locally as Le Grec, though it was built in Britain in 1912 and registered in Panama.
Le Grec lies in the sand as deep as 60m but with its upper decking in the mid-30s. It is broken in two, the bow lying some distance from the main section. Like the Donator, this wreck is covered in sea-fans and sponges, plays host to a complement of conger eels and is likely to take two dives to cover.
Within easy striking distance of the west end of the island are two wrecked steamers, the 1904 Michel Say and the Ville De Grasse of 1870, with its paddle wheel still intact.
Most of the wrecks around Porquerolles lie in 40-60m of water, though another, unnamed, old steamer can be found north of the island in slightly shallower waters, and not far away is one of the few wrecks suitable for training purposes - the Ferrando in 25m. At the western extremes you can visit the Arroyo, a French support ship sunk in the 50s to train navy divers. Less subject to currents than some of the other options and lying at 35m, this is reckoned to be a comparatively easy dive.
Heading east from Porquerolles, Jean-Paul takes divers out to the Conger Wreck. There is not much to see of this 60ft French tug, originally the Tantine. It lies at a depth of around 45m, but its underside and the collapsed derrick on the stern are home to territorial eels of 2m or more in length.
If you fancy a change from shipping you can request a visit to the wreckage of a couple of aircraft in 50m-plus: a WWII Mustang to the west and, close to the mainland at Le Lavandou, an intact Grumman Wildcat fighter that passed through Royal Navy hands to meet an uncertain fate with the French.
Further east still are an Italian steamship called the Togo, built in Britain in 1882 and now lying in 60m; the Espingole, a motor torpedo boat; and a mysterious wreck only recently discovered in 50m that Jean-Paul has dived and refers to as the Trafic.
Jean-Paul Costes, incidentally, displays a deft line in forward somersaults off a bucking hardboat when he decides to go diving. Remarkably, he also has the facility to climb back into the boat while fully kitted even faster than he went in.
We witnessed this phenomenon after he had been up to his neck in a heavy chop trying to recover a buoy, while his hapless assistant struggled unsuccessfully to manoeuvre the boat alongside. The sight of the normally genial Jean-Pauls oath-laden and ferocious emergence from the sea will probably haunt me forever.
Our destination on the Sunday was to have been the Rubis, a French mine-laying submarine sunk off Cap Camarat 40 years ago for training purposes and the most easterly of Jean-Pauls chosen sites.
Unfortunately the weather took a hand and we were blown out, resorting once more to the good old Donator.
Our return trip began on the island water taxi at 6.30am on Monday morning - I had woken at 6.25am, but it is that sort of place.

On the road again, World Cup fans and long-distance lorries made no dent on our progress, and the motorways were clear all the way to Calais. We were back on the M25 in time for the evening rush hour. On the round trip we averaged 32mpg, surprisingly good considering our rate of progress, with the air conditioning blasting away the whole time.
The trip worked, but we would not fancy it in a Fiesta. And had the mistral been blowing any stronger diving might have been off the menu, and on such a long trip it would have taken more even than fine French food and wine to console us.
You might consider spending a little longer in Porquerolles - the centre runs three Wreck Weeks a year, and the next is in September - or fly from Heathrow to Toulon with BA for around£200 and make your own way from there.
If, however, you decide to follow in our footsteps and drive-dive for a long weekend, reckon on£240 per head plus food and drink.


CROSSING THE CHANNEL: Felixstowe-Calais. For a stay in France of up to five days, the cost is£95 (travelling between 10pm and 6am), otherwise£120. For longer periods crossings cost£190-220.Driving: 1680 miles round trip. We used 236 litres of diesel, which costs only about 50p a litre in France, at£118 (7p per mile).
AUTOROUTE TOLLS:£90 for round tripCrossing to Porquerolles: Parking£11. Ferry£38, water taxi£75 (round trips for four).
ACCOMMODATION: Porquerolles Plongee offers a Weekend Azur Package with four wreck dives and accommodation on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at the comfortable Hotel Les Medes nearby. This costs£142 per person in May, June and September (120 in low season), based on two sharing a room and continental breakfast. A similar mid-week package, which includes six dives from Monday to Friday or Sunday to Thursday, is priced at£172 (153 in low season).
FOOD & DRINK: Reasonably priced and predictably excellent - for a good basic grill try the Restaurant Cafe Porquerollais and for tasty seafood the LAlycastre, both around the main square near the harbour. .
DIVE CENTRE: Porquerolles Plongee 00 33 04 94 58 34 94, fax 00 33 04 94 58 34 87, e-mail: porquerolles.plongee @hol.fr; website: www.perso.hol.fr/~jcostes.
If the South of France is too much of a stretch, here are six varied options this side of the Channel ...