Above and below the Channel
AS WE LEAVE THE LOCK at Sovereign Harbour, it is a perfect diving day. Flat-calm sea, clear sky with just a bit of haze. The sort of day that could convince me that I was in the Mediterranean rather than the English Channel.
Our W makes easy progress out past Beachy Head. Skippers Dave and Sylvia soon have the shot hooked into the Pottery Wreck, and now we just wait for slack water. With the glassy sea, an ebb tide and a departure dictated by lock schedule, we’re here extremely early.
Some divers are already kitted up and ready to go, boiling in the bag while looking out for the wake over the shot buoy to disappear.
I wait. The skippers will take turns to get a quick dive in each, swapping over while we’re all down on the wreck, so I reckon there’s no need to get ready until I see Sylvia pulling her drysuit on.
The real name of the wreck is unknown, but the forward hold carried a cargo of Belgian-made pottery.
A name once put forward was the Branksom Chine, a steamship built in 1899 and torpedoed by U8 on 23 February, 1915. However, the wreck’s electric-light fittings have a type of metric thread that places the date some time between the world wars.
Besides which, who would ship brightly painted mass-produced pottery from Belgium in 1915, when Belgium was either occupied by the Germans or full of trenches The Branksom Chine is no longer a possible candidate.
Divers from Tunbridge Wells SAC have recovered and cleaned the compass binnacle hood, but it had no markings to identify the wreck or manufacturer.
The Dieppe ferry passes half a mile or so west of us before the tide on the shot buoy is noticeably dropping. I take my cue from Sylvia and get busy.
Dave gives each pair of divers a couple of minutes to get at least partway down the line before dropping the next pair on the shot. We are all in and on the wreck while the tide is still ebbing.
The shot is placed nicely across the superstructure at 30m. Above the engine-room I can see one of the difficulties presented in identifying the wreck. The engine and boiler or boilers are completely enclosed by hull and deck, with debris across them. I can’t make out any detail of the engine and, while I suspect there is just a single boiler, I wouldn’t bet on it.
At the stern, the steering is a T on top of the rudder-post, the sort of machinery that would have been pushed by steam power, suggesting perhaps a newer ship.
A deck-house between the aft holds used to support the aft mast, then amidships the superstructure rises higher than I would expect from an older ship, with solid steel construction high above the engine and boiler.
Were this a World War Two steamship wreck, chances are it would be covered in guns. If it were a WW1 wreck, there’s a good chance it would have carried a stern gun.
IMMEDIATELY AFT OF THE superstructure, across the bulkhead to the first hold aft, the ship is almost split across. Such damage could have been caused by it hitting the seabed, but also by collision, mine or torpedo damage.
So, despite the many clues, the Pottery Wreck remains an unknown.
By the time I surface, both skippers are back aboard. All divers recovered, we head towards the beach at Eastbourne.
Good second dives only a little further down the English Channel can be hard to come by, unless you wait six hours for the next tide.
By the time you get as far up as Eastbourne, the now-rapid narrowing and shallowing of the Channel causes a big change in tide times for 20 or so miles along the coast. A wise skipper can take advantage of this to catch two slack waters only a few hours apart (see panel overleaf).
There are also some inshore locations where back-eddies or friction with the shore change the time of slack water. It was just such a tidal influence that had enabled us to dive the Normans Bay wreck as a second dive the day before.
The Nautical Archaeology Society had chartered Our W for a 100th anniversary dive on the Holland 5 submarine (divEr, December 2012). With a tide that was picking up but still manageable, the NAS team had a buoy to replace and some site details to check, and the rest of us joined them to have a look.
As the site is designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act, diving is permitted only with a licensee or with a visitor’s licence from English Heritage.
IT WAS AS RECENT as 2006 when Martin Wiltshire, Steve Pace and Paul Stratford dived the Norman’s Bay site while trying to free a lobster pot, and found piles of cannons and anchors.
This site had long been known as an echo-sounder trace. “I often pinged it when heading east from Sovereign, but never got round to having a look. There were always more pressing dives to do,” says skipper Dave, kicking himself again for not being the first to dive it. There must be others who thought the same.
The wreck is now surveyed, but not identified. It was a third rate warship of 800 to 1000 tons, about 40m long and dating from 1600-1800.
HMS Resolution, a 70-gun ship that sank during the great storm of 1703, has been suggested but there are other unlocated historical wrecks of similar size in the area.
Three Dutch ships were lost in Norman’s Bay when the French defeated an Anglo-Dutch fleet in the Battle of Beachy Head in 1609. Timber samples from the wreck have been identified as originating in Holland or Germany at about that time, strengthening the case for it being a Dutch vessel.
As I crawl close to the seabed and beneath the current, I find the ballast mound, some timber, the anchor and some of the 42 guns. The site is marked out with a perimeter line and trail markers. A divers guide can be downloaded as a PDF that keys these markers to the site plan.
Back to today, we have a second dive option that comes up just four days a year, and even less frequently with perfect conditions – an August afternoon off the beach at Eastbourne watching the air show.
THE BIGGEST SEAFRONT AIR SHOW in the UK, Airbourne is now in its 20th year. Following various air display accidents and crowd disasters in the 1960s, aircraft are not allowed to perform low over a crowd, but at Eastbourne the audience lines the beach and the aircraft do their thing at low level just off it.
If you have a boat, from Thursday to Sunday you can anchor up right beneath all the action and get a really good view. On Our W it is always a well-booked dive trip.
We sit out on deck and watch historical WW2 aircraft perform mock dogfights or just fly low above us. More modern stunt planes then put on a higher G-aerobatics display and we are treated to creative performances by a good selection of current military aircraft and helicopters. I am sure some of the pilots waggle their wings just for those of us watching from boats.
Having finished my sandwiches long ago, my enjoyment is marred only by the waft of barbecue coming from a boat anchored upwind of us.
There is something about the sound of the Merlin engines of Hurricanes, Spitfires, a Lancaster bomber and a pair of Mustangs that is addictive. Wouldn’t it be great if dive-boats sounded like that!
As the display ends, anchors are pulled and we race for the Sovereign Harbour marina. The queue for the lock is already trailing back through the outer basin, past the breakwater and building up behind us.
Among those who know what they are doing are the usual mixture of those who never did, those who leave harbour only once a year, and those who may once have known what they were doing, but not in a building crosswind, and certainly not after the alcohol they have consumed through the afternoon.
The working boats are happy to stack several deep against the side of the lock, but some of the yachties are a bit precious about their sparkling white GRP and never seem to have fenders in the right place or enough of them, so will do all they can to have the lock to themselves.
Not that it stops traffic control from packing them in, but the whingeing does slow things down.
Dave and Sylvia bring the big Offshore 125 carefully into position and the continuing mayhem among the yachties provides entertainment almost as good as the air show.
It stops just short of carnage, but yacht’s railings are bent and stanchions pulled from decks among much cursing about right of way, while using too much throttle and not enough finesse as another yacht messes up and enters the lock sideways.
Even if you’re not here for the diving, setting up for an afternoon picnic beside the lock will keep the kids entertained.
NEXT MORNING we’re too early for the outbound lock to be crowded, but not so early as to affect my beauty sleep. The few yachts we share with have the serious crews who place their fenders in the right positions as they manoeuvre delicately alongside the working boats.
Our wreck today really is a wreck and a half, but we get to dive only the wreck, not the half part – which is in Scotland.
The Nyon was a 5364-ton motor ship that ran onto the shore in fog just along from St Abbs in 1958. Tugs couldnt pull the stranded vessel free, so she was cut in two just forward of the engine-room, using explosives.
The aft part was towed to North Shields for temporary repairs before going to Holland for a new bow.
The bow part was soon reduced to debris by a storm.
The newly rebuilt Nyon re-entered service 4.7m longer and rated at 5,365 tons. On 15 June, 1962, she collided with the Indian cargo ship Jalazad in foggy conditions off Beachy Head. Fog and the Nyon never did get on.
The position given in Nyons distress signal was 80 miles west of the true one, but all the crew were rescued by the Jalazad. The Nyon sank for the second and final time in just 14 minutes.
Navigation on the forward part of the wreck is tricky. There is a twist between the two forward holds and the central hold, where the bridge and forward superstructure would have been.
Could this be where the Jalazads bow cut into the Nyon Or perhaps this was caused by the bow dragging on the seabed as the Nyon sank.
There is also a gap in the wreckage where the stern has fallen to port behind the last hold, so perhaps the collision was there.
It’s a rougher day, so as the air show continues off the beach we don’t linger. We all enjoyed yesterday, and agree that today one good dive is enough.
MAKING THE MOST OF THE TIDES
Slack water at the eastern end of the English Channel is governed by the meeting of tides coming up the Channel and down the North Sea.
It would be easy to assume that these meet at Dover, where the channel is narrowest, but they actually meet around Dungeness, and are even responsible for the formation of the extended shingle headland.
The Channel’s funnelling effect, combined with an opposing stream from the North Sea, results in the time separation of tides east of Eastbourne being sufficiently compressed for divers to take advantage of it.
After a slackwater dive, by driving the boat 15-20 miles along the coast you can rendezvous with slack water on the previous or next tide only a few hours later.
This all depends on the tides being at the right time of day, so the weekends when such favourable tides occur tend to be snapped up fast.
Skipper Dave Ronnan has a couple of generic plans for doing this.
Ideally, you catch a high-water slack closer to Eastbourne, then chase the same tide up the Channel to catch the same high-water slack only a few hours later.
Less conveniently, because the boat has to drive against the tide all day, you start well to the east on a low-water slack, then head back towards Eastbourne to catch the following high-water slack.
Dave also cautions that the first dive should be shallower than 35m, with a total run time of less than one hour, allowing time to drive the boat to the second slack and to keep the decompression sensible for the length of surface interval.
If you stay in too long on the first dive, there won’t be time to get to the second dive!