THE BRIONEY VICTORIA, or the “REEF” Project, is an idea brought to life by Simon Faithfull. This contemporary artist has previously undertaken projects in Antarctica and underwater film-making, sent a chair to the edge of space and is currently trekking the Greenwich meridian.
The REEF project was commissioned by visual arts organisation Fabrica and arts charity Photoworks, both Brighton-based. French-based Musee des Beaux Arts (Calais) and FRAC Basse Normandy (Caen) also came aboard to assist financially with the project and are gearing up to exhibit related video and photography across the channel.
And Britain’s Arts Council also played a part in realising Simon’s vision.
Now a permanent feature of Dorset’s underwater world, the Brioney Victoria lives in 21m of water, only minutes from Portland or Weymouth and a mile and a half out from Ringstead Bay.
Putting the artwork there wasn’t as easy as it might sound. Most if not all of the attractions divers seek out in the UK are either results of war, maritime accidents or the creation of Mother Nature herself, and obtaining permission to place these dive-sites never entered the equation.
If you want to deliberately sink an attraction, however, be prepared to jump through a few hoops.
The project-managers of Simon Faithfull’s REEF Project discovered this, with two of the main hoops being that permission was required from the Crown and that any object to be sunk in the area “must be made from Portland stone or a similar material”.
Online investigations made early on, in December 2011, eventually brought Simon and Portland’s Wreck to Reef (W2R) project together.
Wreck to Reef is an established organisation long in the planning stages of putting its own Dorset dive attraction on the seabed and so conveniently had all the relevant legal permissions in place. So Simon’s plan was to piggyback W2R’s in-place permissions.
THAT WAS HOOP ONE, but how would he get through hoop two? You build a boat from concrete, of course!
A concrete hull was found on Canvey Island listed on eBay, and was delivered to Portland by truck.
The wheelhouse was fabricated separately with the help of Gary Webber at Quest boatyard and then fitted to the hull to form the complete boat – voila!
Simply plonking a concrete boat on the seabed wasn’t the end of it, because six video cameras had to be fitted permanently at strategic points around the vessel, not only to document its journey to the seabed but for an online audience above the waves to monitor the area as it slowly transforms from boat into reef.
To power six video cameras you need a constant source of power, so a permanent heavy-duty yellow buoy was purchased, fitted with solar panels and connected to the Brioney Victoria with a mooring chain and suitable wiring.
The build itself was finished in July 2014 and the soon-to-be-wreck made ready for its maiden and only voyage that August.
On scuttling day the Brioney Victoria was taken on tow from Portland to a designated spot off Ringstead Bay, the seacocks left open and, with Simon still aboard, began to fill with water.
Surprisingly it took more than 40 minutes for the boat to disappear, and as she did so Simon leapt from the gunwales into the water.
For further effect, a flare was left burning aboard as the vessel was sent down to begin life as an artificial reef and art installation combo.
I was invited to dive the site a few weeks after it was scuttled, and to observe the installation in situ. Smudge of Scimitar Diving had kindly agreed to take Simon, me and one or two others out to the site on what was a beautifully clear sunny day – we weren’t the first divers to visit the Brioney Victoria, but one can always pretend!
I ADMIRED SIMON’S enthusiasm as we chatted about the project en route. It was clear that although he had done some diving in the past, his experience was limited.
He was keen to have some photographs taken of him diving not only on his creation but also within the wheelhouse at the helm and without his equipment in place.
A brave move, I thought, knowing that even some of the most experienced UK divers I know prefer to keep their mask and regulator in place, especially within the confines of a dark wreck at 20m-plus and in reasonably cold water.
Tied in and kitted up we left Scimitar and descended the mooring-chain hand over hand.
With some choppy seas brewing above, we were pulled in every direction on our descent, and on reaching the Brioney Victoria realised that the mooring-chain was actually snagged under the hull and slapping at it like mad as it swung us about in the swell.
Disappointingly, visibility wasn’t on our side that day, so we lit the wreck up with some hefty torches to get the job done. A couple of laps of the site revealed that the Brioney had already become a safe haven for several small shoals of juvenile fish, and a lone conger had quickly claimed part of the inner hull as its home.
The boat lists heavily to one side on the seabed and, being completely intact, is super-easy to navigate. Free from sharp or rusting metal, the concrete ship-shaped artwork is diveable without gloves (in warm-enough conditions) and eliminates the worry of cutting water-softened hands or damaging drysuits.
IT’S POSSIBLE TO VENTURE inside the site, but it’s a small area best suited to one diver at a time. More than one boatload of divers would overcrowd the site, but in good visibility the Brioney Victoria will eventually provide enough interest to entertain photographers, critter-geeks and fun-divers alike.
The vis was questionable, but I was impressed by Simon’s enthusiasm to remove his mask and regulator while we fired off shot after shot. Job done, and with the artist’s eyes now red and foaming from salt water, we made for the surface and back up that angry mooring-chain, which I’m told has since been fixed.
The video cameras (at the time of writing) still need to be repaired or replaced, but overall it’s an interesting project. I plan to visit again in August to see how this new eco-system has progressed one year on.
The REEF Project has received mixed reactions in the Portland area, with its cost being a hot topic. It will be interesting to see how the debate develops, but let’s hope the Brioney Victoria becomes a regular attraction for the diving community.
Brioney Victoria co-ordinates: 50 36 58N, 002 20 51W. The nearest launch or boat charter is at Weymouth or Portland, where operators include Scimitar Diving (www.scimitardiving.co.uk), Sabre Boat Charters (www.sabrecharters.co.uk),
Skin Deeper (www.skindeepdiving.co.uk) and Old Harbour Divers (www.old harbourdivecentre.co.uk). Expect to pay around £20 for a boat-dive.