Great Brittany
Its a fair way to go, but one UK liveaboard is taking groups of divers down to the west coast of France to enjoy wreck-diving they describe as unique. John Liddiard leapt eagerly aboard mv Maureen

IT SEEMS A BIT STRANGE TO START AN ARTICLE ABOUT BRITTANY by mentioning Normandy, but that is how it all started. A year ago I had filled a spare space on mv Maureen on a trip to Normandy. It was a memorable trip, with some good dives, including the Murree, on the way there and again on the way back.
    Conversation naturally got round to other destinations and the skipper, Mike Rowley, mentioned that top of his list, with relatively undived wrecks and good visibility, was Brittany. The area was a hot hunting ground for U-boats in World War One, in the same way as much of our own south and east coasts were.
    I suggested to Mike that if he had a spare place for a Brittany trip, perhaps he could give me a call. Nice guy that he is, thats what happened.
    I turned up in Dartmouth to what seems to have become one of our regular summer gales.
    Things were looking dodgy, but by the time we were ready to leave harbour, it was at least calm enough to spend a day on the Maine and the Persier, heading a little west to get the wind behind us before crossing to Brittany overnight.
    It takes getting on for 19 hours to get there and another 19 to get back, so you really need a 10-day trip to get seven days diving in.
    The other divers were a group of Maureen regulars from West Wickham BSAC. Their plan was to do a deep wreck in the mornings, a shallower wreck in the afternoons, and to generally push a little further south than the Maureen had been before, to try some new wrecks. It sounded like a good plan to me.
To our knowledge no other UK charter boats visit this relatively undived area, and I was interested in how Mike had got started. It was not as if he could nip out of Dartmouth and look for a new wreck or two between diving known sites.
It turned out that he had been looking for a new area after Normandy began to get more popular. He was also looking for somewhere with less political hassles with the French authorities.
    Mike began by buying the charts and wreck information from the Admiralty database, together with the equivalent information from the French Admiralty, or Shome. The BSAC European area coach also helped provide some information from his own records and French diving magazines.
    Armed with this research, Mike struck a deal with one of his regular groups to do some exploratory diving. On the first trip they found the Swansea Vale, Kléber and Saracen. Exchanges of information with local divers and subsequent trips extended the list of wrecks found. And over the coming days Mike would locate four new wrecks, two of which we dived.

In August 1917, the 1310 ton steamship Swansea Vale was loaded with maple wood at Ste Jean de Luz, destined for the British Army via Dunkirk. Wood filled the holds and was piled high above deck.
    Wary of U-boats, the Swansea Vale started its journey in a convoy, but problems with poor-quality coal meant that it could not maintain convoy speed and had to be left behind.
    In a thick fog, the lone steamer had to survive the many natural hazards of the Brittany coastline, in addition to the continuous threat of U-boat attack. On the other hand, perhaps it was the fog that saved the ship from U-boats.
    We experienced some heavy sea fogs while in Brittany. On an oily smooth sea this produced some weird effects, with no horizontal visibility but a bright blue sky and sunshine. It was easy to appreciate how dangerous such fog could be, especially without modern navigation aids.
    Anyway, fuel problems and fog behind it, the Swansea Vale finally fell victim to an error by the pilot while entering the port of Goulet. Apparently he got the channel lights wrong and the vessel ended up on the rocks of Trepied.
    Efforts were made to pull her loose, but eventually all hope was lost and the Swansea Vale was left to sink. The ship finally went under on the morning of 8 August 1917, leaving behind a huge cloud of maple wood flotsam.
    As a dive, the Swansea Vale couldnt have been a better introduction to Brittany - dead on slack water, a flat calm sea, 15m visibility, and an upright wreck in 30m.
    The holds have broken open and collapsed most of the way to the seabed, but amidships is reasonably intact and upright, with boilers and engine still in place. Similarly, the stern is upright, with just enough holes rotted through the hull plates to make some interesting swimthroughs.
    The thing that really struck me about the Swansea Vale was the vibrant colour of the anemones covering the hull, and the overall level of light. The water background appeared much bluer than usual, with little of the green cast we get along the south coast of England.
    While stalking a pair of cuttlefish below the stern, I spotted a John Dory loitering by the propeller. Alas, the recurring problem of underwater photography! I had my favourite 14mm wreck lens on the camera and just couldnt get close enough to it, even diving with a rebreather.
    Back above the stern, an interesting extra is the black-and-white-tiled bathroom floor. The bows are in a similar state of intactness, but this time fallen to starboard. The seabed is a fine sand covered in brittlestars.

The Penhir is another small steamship wreck, just 1147 tons and considerably broken up, with only boilers, engine, some scraps of hull plates and bows remaining above the sand. Nevertheless, at 20m it made a nice, easy second dive.
Penhir went down in November 1935 when she struck rocks in the area of the Fillettes reef while en route from Brest to Nantes.
    Attempts were made to steer for the nearest beach while pumping to keep the ship afloat, but the pumps were losing and the ship had to be abandoned.

The Kléber is the wreck I had been salivating about ever since Mike had mentioned it to me a year before. I was not disappointed; it is a very unusual ship.
    A French armoured cruiser built in 1902, the hull was of teak with an armour belt of 102mm of steel bolted on. Named after one of Napoleons generals, other ships in the class were named Duplieux and Deasaix. At 7730 tons, these cruisers were pretty big for what were essentially wooden ships.
    The Kléber seems to have suffered more than its fair share of collisions and other accidents. When launched, the height of the tide was miscalculated and it grounded as it came off the slipway, resulting in severe damage to the keel.
    At Vera-Cruz, the Kléber accidentally rammed and sank the US steamship Hugomak. Then, in the Dardenelles, the
Kléber became grounded beneath a Turkish shore battery, suffering several hits before coming free after jettisoning a few hundred tons of coal.
    Following repair, the Kléber went back to sea and soon collided with a British steamship in the harbour at Mudros. The Kléber then went on accidentally to ram and sink another British steamship while escorting it in a convoy.
    After further repairs, the
Kléber managed to go for more than a year without mishap before striking a mine and sinking in the approaches to Brest in June 1917.
    The hull lies upside-down in 45m, with the starboard side resting against a reef and elements of the ships upper structures poking out from beneath the port side.
    Its armour plate has been salvaged for non-radioactive steel, leaving the wooden hull to split along the length of the ship and making access to all the ships machinery a trivial matter. It is easy to see how readily the Kléber sank. All three steam engines are together in a single engine room amidships, with 20 small boilers distributed forward and aft. The open interior structure leaves some interesting swimthroughs between the engines.
    Above upturned twin 164mm main gun turrets, piles of shells lie jumbled where the magazines have fallen open. Towards the bows, three enormous anchors rest in their hawse pipes, the wooden hull structure having fallen away.

The wreck of the Norwegian steamship Trane can best be described as surreal, starting with the fantastic blue visibility and coarse white granite sand. As we descended, the outline of the wreck could be seen from 20m above.
    There is not much there, as sand has banked up over the stern and much of the wreckage. But what is there is even prettier than the Swansea Vale, with anemones and dead mens fingers positively glowing in the sunlight.
    From an engineering point of view, the Trane is also unusual for the period. The boilers and steam engine are at the rear of the ship, but the wheelhouse and main superstructure are amidships.
Of the boilers and engine, all that can be seen are a few bits of metal poking out of the sand. Further forward, the framework of the wheelhouse is collapsed but still above the sand, with some of the cargo of iron ore the Trane was carrying from Bilbao to Middlesbrough just in front of it.
    The bows still rise above the sand, providing a more dramatic structure to which the marine life can cling.

The Charbonnier Francais was another casualty of World War One. Considering its size of 4890 tonnes there isnt much left. As with the Penhir, the wreckage has disappeared beneath the sand, save for the engine, boilers, stern and a section of superstructure.
    Having said that it was still an enjoyable second dive with large shoals of fish writhing round the engine and boilers.

The Berwind and Lake Portage were both part of the same convoy and were torpedoed within a few miles of each other in August 1918.
    For many years the remains of the Berwind were thought to be those of the Lake Portage, until divers found the remains of a gun mounted near the bow which gave positive identification as the Berwind. The Lake Portage had no gun at all.
    On the seabed at 40m the wreck is well broken, with only the boilers and engine rising significantly above the sand. Nevertheless, the wreckage has collapsed in a reasonably orderly fashion and it was easy to follow the propshaft to the stern and then find the gun mount and anchors near the bow.
    Visibility was still good, but for some reason the water was greener here and there was less marine life than on some of the other wrecks.

The Lake Portage was part of the same convoy as the Berwind, also torpedoed by UB88 in August 1918. Apparently the Lakes Shipping Company had a number of ships that were all named Lake something or other.
    This was a new wreck for mv Maureen. The previous day Mike had used the time between dives to search on some numbers he had researched, and the site was found. At 51m to the seabed and a largely flattened wreck, it was definitely a first dive of the day, so we saved it for a morning.
    Although it looked pretty flat on the echo-sounder, there was actually considerably more structure to the Lake Portage than there was to the Berwind, with an outline of the hull rising 1-2m above the seabed round most of the wreck.
    The shot had landed forward of the boilers and it didnt take me long to find an anchor winch, chains, anchors and hawse pipes nicely laid out across the bow.
    Behind the boilers the engine was all there, but had broken and fallen to port about halfway up. From behind the engine, the partially broken propshaft tunnel and propshaft could be followed to the stern.
    Here the wreck got very confusing and, narked at 51m, it took me a while to work out just what had happened.
    While the rest of the wreck had been on an even keel, the stern had broken loose and fallen 90 to port. The starboard side had then collapsed inwards to leave a solid section of keel sticking up along the centre line of the wreck, and a big chunk of deck sticking up 5 or 6m on the port side.
    We dived the Lake Portage without actually having a positive identification, though Mike had his suspicions. It was only later that afternoon that we exchanged greetings with a local diver out searching for other sites in his RIB. When Mike compared numbers with him it was confirmed that this was the real Lake Portage.

Having compared notes on the Lake Portage, the friendly local diver also helped us to find the V730. A nice shallow second dive in 15m, we descended onto a rocky seabed for a change.
    The V730 had been described as a patrol boat, but on descending to the wreck it was soon obvious that back in the UK it would have been referred to as an armed trawler.
    It must have sunk pretty much upright before the sides of the hull collapsed with age. The rear third of the hull is taken up with an oversized boiler and engine. Beside the engine are the remains of a condenser and a generator.
    A short propshaft extends to a more intact stern that has fallen to starboard. As with most wrecks in the area, the propeller and rudder are still in place.
    Immediately forward of the boiler, the trawl winch lying upside-down across the ship gives further evidence of the V730s trawler origin.
    Just behind the bows, the pillar and trunnions from a gun platform lie along the starboard side of the hull, though I could find no sign of the gun.

The 3272 ton Saracen was another casualty of World War One, en route from Bilbao to Glasgow with a cargo of iron ore when it fell victim to a mine on 26 December, 1917.
    Lying upright in 54m at the bottom of the Le Four Channel, the Saracen was the deepest wreck we dived in Brittany, though not the deepest dive of the trip.
    I could sum it up by saying there was nothing unique about the ship, but plenty unique about the dive and the wreck. The Saracen was a traditional four-hold freighter with engines and superstructure amidships, but even after more than 80 years at the bottom of the sea it remains incredibly intact.
    No doubt this has something to do with its depth and location in a strong tidal stream which, together with a cargo of iron ore, left it an unattractive target for salvage.
    Beneath the stern, the propeller is still in place. Above the stern, the gun is still on its mounts and intact steering chains lead round the quadrant. Both anchors remain tight against the sides of the bow.
    The wooden superstructure has gone completely and some deck fittings have fallen downwards as the deck fittings have decayed, but overall I cant remember when I last dived a WW1 wreck in such good condition.

Having carefully qualified my statement about the Saracen being the deepest wreck we dived in Brittany, the deepest dive of the trip was on the Murree, which we covered in Wreck Tour 16, Diver, June 2000.
    Sea conditions and tides were good enough for us to stop off there on the way back to Dartmouth. Although I had dived the Murree twice during the previous year, both times I had been kept busy taking photographs and sketching the wreck.
    This time I left the camera and sketchpad behind and it was like visiting an old friend.
A memorable dive to round off a very different and rewarding trip. Just the sort of thing for which a liveaboard boat is best.

  • A seven-day trip to Brittany on mv Maureen costs£402, but it is already well booked up and you might have to reserve yourself places for 2002! Call 01803 835449 or 0860 571012, or visit

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    Conger eels hide among the debris in the Swansea Vales engine room
    One of the vessels many winches
    The remains of the Penhirs steam engine
    The remains of the Penhirs steam engine rise above the sand
    Piles of ammunition can be seen on the Kléber
    Coming into the engine room from a swimthrough below
    Incredible visibility on the Trane
    As on many of the Brittany wrecks, PLM9s propeller is still in place
    An empty gun pintle lies along the seabed towards the bow of V730
    Its steam engine is intact and exposed
    The Berwinds hull is mostly flat against the sand
    Inset: A gun mount lies close to the bow, positively identifying the Berwind. The gun rests just behind it
    The broken remains of a mast on the Lake Portage - coal lies below


    For me, the unique Kléber was the highlight of the trip, but here are some thoughts from the other divers:

    DIANE: The Saracen was just so intact and un-moved. There were even coils of rope still lying on the deck. Swimming through between the rudder and the propeller was really memorable.

    PAUL: Its hard to decide between the Kléber and the Saracen. Both gave a dramatic view of a complete ship. The piles of shells and the engines are the highlights of the Kléber. I liked the Saracen because of its completeness.

    STEVE: I had done the Saracen on a previous trip, but didnt remember it as being that good. The Trane was the ideal wreck to put in an aquarium and watch the fish swim round.

    GRAHAM: The Saracen was more enjoyable than the Kléber, I felt clearer-headed despite the greater depth. Maybe it was because I was more dived-in by the end of the trip. The Trane was just surreal, like a tropical wreck appears in the movies. Having said that, if I had to choose one wreck to do again it would be the Kléber.

    MIKE: You wouldnt find a wreck like the Kléber in UK waters. Virtually untouched, with piles of shells just resting there.

    DAVE: The Kléber, for the scale of the wreck, the engines, guns and shells. The Saracen was interesting because we limited our dive to 45m and just swam the length of it, looking down at everyone from above.

    CARLA: The Trane - it was so clear and pretty and tropical. I could just sit there and appreciate all the colours.

    MIKE ROWLEY (the skipper): The Kléber is unique.

    PENNY ROWLEY (cook and first officer): The turrets and ammunition on the Kléber separate it from the rest. I also liked the rows of fan corals growing on the hull. The Trane has a magic quality about it.

    GILES ROWLEY (the crew): The Kléber is excellent for video and there is lots to look at. I probably get to dive it most because Mike and Penny have to take turns driving the boat.

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