Starting to plan for the start of the season Portland in Dorset is always a good bet, especially for groups including newer divers. John Liddiard rounds up the dive sites that are worthy of attention
PORTLAND HARBOUR HAS A LOT going for it. The seabed is shallow enough to make it safe for beginners. The sheltered conditions provide a reliable opportunity to dive in all but the very worst weather.
There are plenty of local boat operators, shops and dive schools. Launching a club boat is easy.
In short, this is an ideal place for the start of the season - somewhere to take the new crop of divers trained over the winter, and somewhere for the old crop of divers to shake off the cobwebs before getting back into more serious diving. Somewhere that early-season weather is unlikely to disrupt.
A few years ago, the obvious wreck that everyone wanted to dive was the pre-Dreadnought battleship HMS Hood (Wreck Tour 7). Since the opening of the fuel jetty put an end to diving on the Hood, more attention has been paid to the other dive sites available, with many barely known sites seeing a resurgence over the past few years.
As a dive, the Countess of Erne used to be the Hoods unloved little sister, but circumstances have changed and this quite sizeable wreck can be a bit of a Cinderella.
From 1869 this paddle-steamer served as a passenger ferry from Holyhead to Dublin, carrying 123 passengers first class and 600 steerage. After being damaged in a collision, the Countess was repaired and sold to the Bristol Steam Navigation Co, but lasted only two years before being sold for scrap.
At this point, all the machinery, paddles and fittings were removed, but the hull lived on as a coal hulk in Portland Harbour, finally sinking after breaking its mooring and running against the inside of the harbour wall on 30 September, 1935.
The Countess used to be very silty, but last time I dived it the silt on the main deck had been pretty much swept away by diver traffic, and the only silt really vulnerable to clumsy divers was in the holds.
Unless you want to be very unpopular with those who follow you, good buoyancy and short frog-kicks are essential if you want to swim the length of the wrecks interior.
On the outside, there are still fittings such as the rudder and tiller bar at the stern, mooring bollards and hawse pipes at the bow. There is even a big block of rock towards the bow that can only have come from rebuilding the harbour wall. Just inside the stern is a toilet.
If the deck is too busy with divers, dropping halfway down outside the hull provides a completely different kind of dive, with various anemones, hydroids and nudibranchs.
More than any of the other harbour wrecks, the Countess is best dived first thing, before anyone else gets there.
There are several landing craft of various sizes and condition wrecked in the harbour area - little surprise considering the number that must have been moored here prior to D-Day, and passing through the harbour subsequently.
Nevertheless, the vessel that has become known as the Landing Craft is an LCT, big enough to land a Sherman tank on the Normandy beaches.
No-one has been able to tell me definitively how the LCT came to grief, but general opinion is that it was moored up for maintenance when a storm swept it onto the harbour wall.
Once on the wreck, there is plenty of evidence to support the first part of this theory. The engine covers are off and stowed on the cargo deck, leaving the engine bay and diesel engines exposed at the stern.
Also worth seeing at the stern is the winch for the stern anchor. This would be dropped as the landing craft approached the beach to hold it straight while unloading, then used to pull the landing craft back off the beach to return for another load.
Its only a small wreck, so when you have seen enough there is a line off the stern leading 70m or so south to the next wreck, the Bombardon Unit.
Bombardon units were part of the pre-fabricated Mulberry harbours used to land supplies to the D-Day beaches.
Also within Portland Harbour, another Mulberry component and rather more obvious is a pair of Phoenix units, which tower clear of the water just out from Castletown.
The Bombardon units were steel pontoons, 66m long with a cruciform cross-section. Towed across the Channel, they were chained together and anchored as the floating outer breakwater for the Mulberry harbours.
The concrete Phoenix units were sunk to the seabed to make inner breakwaters, in conjunction with blockships codenamed Gooseberry.
Other units, inside the protection of the Bombardons, Phoenixes and Gooseberries, built the floating docks where ships were unloaded, and causeways linked them to the beaches.
The pontoons used to support these floating causeways were codenamed Beetle. Some of these units are wrecked on the outside of the harbour wall.
In the storms that followed D-Day, many of the Bombardon units broke loose from their moorings, and caused more damage to other parts of the harbours than the storm waves.
The US harbour at Omaha beach was effectively destroyed, with salvageable parts being used to repair the British harbour at Gold beach.
The Bombardon unit is an interesting dive by itself, with plenty of exposed girder-work and swimthroughs where it has decayed. It can also make a longer dive in conjunction with the Landing Craft, but it doesnt stop there.
Tied alongside and pulled under when it sank is a small ship...
The small ship beneath the Bombardon is probably a Victualling Inshore Craft (VIC). These were a naval adaptation of the Clyde puffer design, built in two types. The first was 20m long and more like a traditional puffer, with boiler and funnel forward of the wheelhouse.
The second type, which corresponds to this wreck, was 26m long with the boiler and funnel aft of the wheelhouse. Some were also built with, or converted to, diesel engines.
VICs were used to carry supplies to ships at sea or at a mooring, and to transfer small cargoes. Some may also have towed barges.
This small wreck has a steel hull, forecastle and forward hold. The engine is at the stern, and the wheelhouse between the engine and hold.
Pulled in tight against the outside of the Bombardon, it may have been trying to manoeuvre or save the Bombardon as it was swept onto the harbour wall and sank, taking the VIC with it.
While the Bombardon is an easy, shallow and bright dive, the VIC is altogether more gloomy, being in the shadow of the Bombardon.
Close to the silty seabed, it can feel a lot further down than its 16m depth.
I vaguely remember diving Enecuri, the Spaniard, some 30 years ago, but I needed pictures, so I went for a short ride on Scimitar Divings new RIB Sabre.
I needed two attempts to dive the wreck, because while skipper Ian dropped me on the harbour wall directly in from the bow, I swam down and turned left instead of right, seeing just a few scraps of metal and a rowing-boat wedged into the rock.
Second-time lucky, a fair amount remains of this 1894-ton steamship.
Like many of the harbour wrecks, the Enecuri dragged anchor and struck the breakwater. In this case, it was a force 9 wind on 29 December, 1900.
The crew all jumped ashore, but the captain came to grief the next day when he reboarded to collect his dog, and the ship slid down the breakwater.
The bow is tight against the rocks, and the stern angled a little out into the silt. The bow is pretty much intact, with railings, bollards and hawse-pipes, the hull then collapsing at the forward hold and disappearing below the banked silt.
Standing 5m or more from the seabed, the light and visibility can be quite good above the bow, but both can easily disappear once a diver hits the silt further aft.
This 513-ton steamship has often been confused with the better-known Spaniard just to the south. To demonstrate, skipper Ian ran the RIB along both wrecks, showing the
rise and fall on the echo-sounder.
The Cragside had plenty of company when it was driven onto the breakwater in a blizzard on the night of 22 February, 1923. On the same night, the 456-ton tanker Scandinavia and ketch Phoenix (not to be confused with the Mulberry Phoenix units) came to a similar end.
The Phoenix was completely broken up and the Scandinavia salvaged. The Cragsides engine was also salvaged,
but the relatively intact hull remains capsized, with the keel towards the breakwater.
As on the Enecuri, the bow still has railings and bollards in place, with anchor-chain dangling from the hawse pipes. There is also a big tangle of steel cable by the keel, perhaps dropped during salvage work, or possibly unconnected to the Cragside.
There is so much general harbour junk about that its difficult to dive anywhere in Portland Harbour without coming across something.
Amidships, a few scraps of boiler-plating rest inside the hull.
At the stern are more bollards and railings, with an intact rudder and iron propeller below.
On the deck above the rudder, the steering mechanism is based on a simple tiller arm. Also worth seeing is a spare blade for the propeller, standing upright on the deck.
Venturing outside the harbour, about one-third of the way along the stretch of wall that connects to Portland by the dockyard at Castletown are the remains of a small dredger.
At least, everyone thinks its a dredger, because of the chain and gear mechanisms that would have operated the dredging equipment.
But there are no signs of propulsive machinery, so this dredger would essentially have been a digging machine floating on a barge.
The wreck lies in about 8m on a sandy seabed, so visibility is often better than that inside the silty harbour, and at just 8-10m down it is reliably bright.
The two main sections are about 15m apart along the wall, with some scraps of wreckage between them.
Some parts rise to give arches and tunnels to swim through, with tighter holes through hatches in the deck.
If you find your interest wavering, there is always the harbour wall to explore. Outside the harbour, there is considerably more marine life.
Torpedo Range Also outside the harbour wall, but on the detached section towards Weymouth, is the old torpedo-range building. This tall grey shed stands out from the harbour wall on stilts, and year by year looks more derelict.
The outer wall has fallen off to show some of the machinery used to lower torpedoes and fire them along the harbour wall.
With a current flowing along this wall, the torpedo range is often a drift dive, but it is rarely that fast. From a diving point of view, most obviously interesting are the legs of the range building.
There is not quite enough shadow for a deepwater environment like that under Swanage Pier, but the legs provide habitat for small clumps of anemones and make a generally pretty scene, and an interesting set for photographers.
Drifting on, the rocks of the harbour wall form a blocky reef, with cracks for lobsters and crabs, and usually plenty of ballan and cuckoo wrasse. Also worth looking out for are black-faced blennies.
This species is far more common on the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal and throughout the Mediterranean, with Dorset being right at the limit of where they can be found.
The males have a black face and bright yellow body, while the females have mottled camouflage.
They can also be found inside the harbour wall, but seem particularly easy to spot along this outside stretch.
Another option is to venture out onto the seabed below the harbour wall, looking for debris and rummaging.
In the past, divers have found complete practice torpedoes. Nowadays, all the easy pickings have gone, but you never know, there may be something still to be discovered.
At the northern end of the other detached part of the harbour wall is the Chequered Fort, with its small harbour within the harbour. Outside of slack water there is always a ripping tide round the corner of the fort.
On an outgoing tide this can be used to drift along the wall south from the fort, the current soon diminishing as the dive moves away from the venturi of the harbour entrance.
Staying right in the shallows, some old iron cannon, barrels cut off, lie below the south end of the fort where it meets the harbour wall. At low water, some of these can be seen on the rocks.
Further below are the Beetle units, the pontoons from the Mulberry harbours used to support the floating causeways.
As with the torpedo range, the rest of the dive can be about looking for tat from the past few hundred years, or marine life among the rocks.
|GETTING THERE: For Weymouth, follow the A37 or A354 to Dorchester, then the A354 to Weymouth and on to Portland via Chesil Beach, turning left for the old Castletown dockyard as the road climbs the hill to Portland. Scimitar boards by the Aqua Hotel, on the left as you get to Castletown. In Weymouth, most boats board in the old harbour area, or by the lifting bridge.|
DIVING & AIR: Scimitar Diving operates the boats Scimitar, Cutlass and Sabre, and the gas station by the Aqua Hotel, 07765 326728, www.scimitardiving.co.uk. Other local dive operators can be found in the small ads.
ACCOMMODATION:Aqua Hotel, 01305 866910, www.hotelaqua.co.uk. Ferry Bridge Inn, 01305 760689
LAUNCHING: Slips are available at Weymouth, Ferrybridge and Castletown
TOURIST INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2255, Approaches to Portland and Weymouth. Ordnance Survey Map 194, Dorchester, Weymouth & Surrounding Area. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 1, by Richard & Bridget Larn. Weymouth tourist information, 01305 785747.