settling in aboard Scimitar at Castletown.

CONSIDERING THAT WEYMOUTH AND PORTLAND are pretty much my local dive spots, there are some big gaps in my logbooks and collection of wreck sketches when it comes to many of the wrecks of the area.
But a week of fine weather is forecast, with reports of good visibility and the promise of more to follow - how unlike last season!
This provides all the motivation I need to see what gaps I can fill.
A few phone calls later and Smudge at Scimitar Diving in Portland not only has space for me, but is visiting wrecks that are either on my wish-list or wrecks I could happily re-visit.
The gods of diving and weather are making up for lost time, being especially kind to me with Saturday morning ropes-off at a nice and lazy 11am.
The World War One wreck of the steamship Moidart is about as far to the west round Portland Bill and into Lyme Bay as Smudge likes to take Scimitar on a day trip, especially with escalating fuel costs. He keeps a light hand on the throttle, and allows plenty of time for the journey and shotting the wreck.
We divers have a mixture of rebreathers, twin-sets, big singles and pony cylinders, pretty much what you would expect from any group in the UK these days, and all suited to various bottom times from no-stop dives to extensive decompression on a wreck at 33m maximum depth.
The first part of the journey is consequently occupied with the usual kit-fiddling, as we put the finishing touches to preparing our equipment.
Scimitars modern hull with high freeboard makes it easy to sit on deck and enjoy the sunshine without being threatened by spray, except for a short leg through the Portland Race, when the wheelhouse suddenly becomes popular.
The 1303-ton Moidart was torpedoed by UC77 on the night of 9 June, 1918, the torpedo striking the starboard side just aft of amidships.
The Moidart sank in less than a minute, leaving the crew swimming among scraps of floating wreckage. Only six of the 21 crew survived, by clinging to an upturned boat.

THE DAMAGE IS APPARENT within minutes of reaching the wreck. The shotline is draped across just forward of the boiler, so I make a quick circuit of boiler and engine to see that aft of the engine the upright hull tumbles into a few scattered fragments that disappear into the seabed.
Forwards, the Moidart is not doing too badly for a wreck just over 90 years old, with the remains of the holds, cargo winches, anchor winch, bollards and anchors all being easy to follow to the bow and back.
Just forward of the boiler, I suspect that two pulleys attached to the deck were for routeing the steering chains and that the wheelhouse would have been above. I have a look off to either side to see if I can find the actual helm, but without success.
Aft of the engine, I range out among the debris to see if I can find the separated stern part of the wreck, reported to be 15 to 20m away.
With bottom time approaching an hour, slack water coming to an end and decompression mounting, I take a direction from the propeller-shaft and head out across the sand. Again I have no success, so pop my delayed SMB and have an easy drifting decompression.
Back on board Scimitar, I ask the other divers about details of the wreck. No-one has seen the helm, but one found his way to the stern by following a chain of debris aft by the starboard side of the wreck. I note this for next time I am on the Moidart.

Apart from me and a couple of local divers filling odd spaces, everyone is from the Yorkshire Divers Internet forum which, in addition to online chat, has become a virtual diving club.
Having said that, I dont notice any Yorkshire accents. Obviously, diving with Yorkshire Divers does not have the same strict birth requirements as playing cricket for the county used to have.
Despite that 11am start, I could have been even lazier. Smudge and Helena also own Cutlass, a virtually identical boat they took over from Breakwater Diving with the gas station and pontoon by the Aqua Hotel.
While I was diving Moidart, Cutlass was at the wreck of HMS Landrail. Being closer to Portland, Cutlasss divers left half an hour after we did.
I had opted for the Moidart because it came highly recommended by more than one diving friend, and I had never dived it. I had dived HMS Landrail before, back when it was thought to have been HMS Hazard and subsequently HMS Bittern.
HMS Hazard is now known to be wrecked close to the Isle of Wight, while HMS Bittern has yet to be found. HMS Landrail was an 1886-vintage gunboat, obsolete by 1906 and being used as a gunnery target when she foundered under tow from the range in Lyme Bay back to Portland.

EVEN FINDING A PARKING SPACE right next to the pontoon was easy, as long as I paid the rip-off Pay & Display prices. The Pay & Display parking was virtually empty, divers stopping for long enough to drop off kit, then parking for free on the road outside.
The benefit of a late start on Saturday is negated on Sunday when we switch to the opposite tide and an early start at just after 7am for the Alex Van Opstal.
Even this early in the morning, the free parking in the road is already full.
I suspect that this is down to divers leaving their cars there while in the Aqua Hotel and other accommodation along the road. I come prepared with a heavy pocketful of coins, and park right next to the boarding pontoon.
While the Moidart was sunk by torpedo in the final year of WW1, the 5986 ton Belgian cargo and passenger liner Alex Van Opstal was sunk by a mine at the beginning of WW2, on 15 September, 1939.
The Alex Van Opstal is not a new wreck for me. I had dived it last time I was in Weymouth, fighting a building current because the spring tide had already turned under water before it went slack at the surface.
The tricky part of diving this wreck is finding the way across the second hold, where the wreckage virtually disappears into the sand. The best place to shot is close to the bow, and it is easy to follow the more substantial wreckage back to the left and round the keel to swim in circles.
Today I manage to cover the length of this fairly large wreck, from bow to rudder along the deck and port side, then follow the propeller-shaft back to the thrust bearing.
Yet still I have not covered it all with my sketch slate - there is a big area of wreckage amidships of which I have only skirted the perimeter. I have fond distant memories of dives on the Alex Van Opstal in visibility as close to perfect as it gets in the English Channel - days when I could see everything, unlike todays low average visibility.

BACK AT PORTLAND, a group of students are getting the most from their car-parking fee. A big minibus is surrounded by a growing sprawl of dive kit that is slowly taking over the end of the car park. I cant blame them. Its not as if anyone else wants the space, and the bright sunshine does present an ideal opportunity for drying everything out.
On the boat, Smudge had served up post-dive pasties, chocolate biscuits and muffins. I had thought that would be enough for me, but the smell of a hot bacon and brie baguette being delivered from the Aqua café gets the better of me, and I order one for myself.
I make sure to sit upwind from a ripe-looking pair of under-the-drysuit socks that a diver has left hanging from one of the parking bollards.
By Monday, the Yorkshire Divers mob are back off to just about everywhere but Yorkshire, and the spaces on Scimitar are taken by a group from St Albans BSAC.
The early start has moved back a bit with the tide, then forward to allow time to get to the Aeolian Sky, a modern 10,715-ton freighter that sank following a collision on 4 November 1979.
Having already done a pretty thorough Wreck Tour (27, May 2001), this is not a site that would at first seem high on my priority list. On the other hand, the Wreck Tour book has just been published and, should things go well enough to warrant a second volume, the Aeolian Sky tour will need updating.
The perfect sky and sea conditions are still with us. It is just a nice day to go diving. Underwater, the visibility is picking up, and I realise that it is a good job I am diving the Aeolian Sky again.
The shot is by the superstructure, and since 2001 the upper deck and bridge wings have broken loose and fallen upside-down to the seabed.
The rest of the wreck is pretty much as I remember it, except that the bow has settled slightly to port, splitting further from the rest of the hull.

I HAD STARTED OUT with thoughts of doing a no-stop dive, spending just long enough to do a quick length of the wreck and then waving goodbye without getting into decompression. In the end I settle in to simply enjoying the dive, and end up with 10 minutes hanging on a delayed SMB anyway.
Another day and another potentially early start would, I hoped, take me to the Frognor, a 1476-ton Norwegian steamship torpedoed by U17 on 29 April, 1918.
Smudge double-checks the tides and calculates that slack water for the Frognor is not going to work. Instead, we have a later start for the Elena R, a wreck long on my to-do list, but one I didnt reach last time I tried to dive it, as my dive computer went into reset spasms.
This time, everything is perfect. Smudge drops the shot in the middle of the wreck, slack water is spot on, and visibility is getting quite good.
Perhaps this is due to the nature of the seabed on the edge of the Shambles bank, a mixture of heaps of old mussel shells and scoured patches down to bare rock, especially where the current rips round the bow and stern.
The 4576-ton Elena R suffered a similar fate to the Alex Van Opstal, striking a mine on 22 November, 1939. Since then, salvage and tides have taken their toll, leaving the wreck mostly an outline of the hull among the banked mussel shells. Amidships, the boilers are half-clear of the seabed. The engine is collapsed and buried in debris.
I make my way aft, using a slight bias in the faint current across the wreck to help me on my way.
It is quite a lively wreck, with plenty of pouting and pollack above, spider crabs crawling all over, and conger eels in any tube-shaped hole, from broken steam-pipes to hollow masts.
The stern stands a good 4m clear of the seabed, fallen to port. A brass collar on a section of the steering mechanism rests on the seabed, polished to a sparkle by the shifting bank.

WORKING FORWARD AGAIN takes a bit of effort, as the current is increasing. Slack water is not that long on the Shambles bank. I stay close to the seabed on the downcurrent port side, gaining what shelter I can and poking my head up to look across the half of the wreck I had missed on my journey aft.
Forward of the stoke-hold, it looks as if every lobster-pot ever snagged on the wreck is having a party in one big pile.
The forward holds are near buried, but finding my way along the wreckage is fairly easy in the clear water. The difficult part is zigzagging across the wreck with the mounting current.
Eventually I reach the bow. It has fallen to starboard, and getting to the deck side of it for the anchor-winch is quite a fight. My time is up, and I drift back across the chain-box while releasing a delayed SMB.
Back in Portland, things are a quiet contrast to the weekend. The car park is empty, as there is plenty of space on the road outside. Air and mix fills at the gas station are while you wait, rather than the big backlog that had built up on Saturday evening.
But the café is open for another hot bacon and brie baguette. And the minging socks are still hanging from their bollard, abandoned by their owner - or perhaps he expected them to walk home by themselves. I cant see anyone handing them in as lost property.

Cargo winch between the forward holds.
Aft cargo winch on the Moidart.
Bollards on the wreck of the Alex Van Opstal.
Cargo winch.
Drive gear to cargo winches on the Aeolian Sky.
The upper deck of the superstructure and bridge wings have broken off and lie upside-down.
Land Rover chassis.
Smudge gives the briefing as the divers prepare.
Conger eel in steam pipe on the Elena R.
Cargo winch across the stern.
Upturned chain guide, where the anchor chain would be routed down to the chain-box.
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.
DIVING & AIR: Scimitar Diving operates the boats Scimitar and Cutlass and the gas station by the Aqua Hotel, 07765 326728,
ACCOMMODATION: Aqua Hotel, 01305 866910, Ferry Bridge Inn, 01305 760689.
launching Slips are available at Weymouth, Ferrybridge and Castletown.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head to Bill of Portland. Admiralty Chart 2610, Bill of Portland to Anvil Point. Ordnance Survey Map 194, Dorchester, Weymouth & Surrounding Area. Dive Dorset by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. WW1 Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw. Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and South Devon by Nigel Clarke. Weymouth tourist information, 01305 785747.