Bristol Channel Divers
The D-Day landings of June 6th 1944 are pretty well known to most people. What is not always realised is that there is a significant amount of wreck diving to be had in this area. Being based in the South of the UK, the Normandy beaches are more accessible to most than that wartime UK mecca that is Scapa Flow. So, if you've dived Scapa and want to know what Normandy has to offer, then read on.
This week long liveaboard on MV Maureen was a UKRS trip organised by Megan Clarke. The trip coincided with the 57th anniversary of the D-Day landings so we thought it would be appropriate to make a small gesture to commemorate the occasion. A wreath was laid in the sea and a minute's silence was observed by all aboard MV Maureen.
We all met up in the pub in Dartmouth on the Friday night having loaded the kit to discuss plans with Mike. We wanted to dive the Murree on the way over to Normandy if possible and this meant that we would spend the night docked in Dartmouth before sailing at 5am to catch the slack. There was always a possibility we would not be able to dive this wreck due to the weather which was not looking too promising. One or two had decided not to dive this wreck anyway due to kit configuration, but the general consensus was to go for it.
There were twelve of us dotted around the various cabins on MV Maureen and there was plenty of space for the generous sprinkling of twin-sets and stages on the kitting up deck. The skipper very ably mixed nitrox to our requirements and all the facilities you would expect were available. Mike also had to tinker with the electrics now and again to cope with the usual UKRS power requirements. Mike and Giles put the shot spot on every time and even managed to negotiate with various French fishermen. Three cooked meals of very high quality were provided by Penny - she does vegetarian too!
In a rough sea, the Maureen can roll quite a bit (is this why the skipper is called Rowley?) and some of us saw more of Penny's cooking than we might have liked - it was quiet at breakfast the first morning. Attendance improved throughout the week as we all got our sea legs.
This is a large cargo freighter which lies in about 70m in the middle of the busiest shipping lane in the world. Due to her position and the rather choppy swell, the skipper insisted we come back up the shot. To this end, we deployed distance lines when on the wreck although with good vis, this probably wasn't necessary. The shot was on top of the bridge in about 45m. There is a lot of monofillament on this wreck and unfortunately, I managed to get myself tangled in it (twice!) so I called the dive after 15mins not being too happy with the way things were going. None the less, this is a vast wreck which needs to be revisited. I think Zak had the best dive on this as he was on a mix so at least he remembers it all! Being on air, and having deployed a line, we did not stray below 50m. Thanks to Zak and Rich for returning my reel which fell off when we started the ascent.
The Ussa is broken into 3 parts in about 27m and the shot appeared to be on the centre section. We dived this at 7:30pm so it was getting a bit dusky. There was a bit of a current running which stirred up the silt (honest!) and it was generally quite dark and dirty. We also had to reel off from the shot on this one as she sits right next to the western approach to Cherbourgh harbour. However, we did manage to find the boilers and some major pieces of superstructure. Returning to the shot revealed a fan of distance lines radiating out and the blinking of Al's strobe(s).
A most spectacular dive this one marred only by the requirement (again) to reel off from the shot. The Leopoldsville is not a D-Day wreck. She sank on Christmas eve with huge loss of American life. A converted liner, she lies in 60m on her side so the first thing you see is the rows of portholes staring up at you. Much of the superstructure is intact and there is loads of opportunity for penetration. We found china and gas masks inside. Much of the teak decking is still in place and we found some very large winches. I would very much like to dive this wreck again.
We clipped markers on to the bottom of the shot (except Al who strapped a bucket load of strobes to the line) and Mike asked the last pair up to free the grapple. Upon returning to the shot we found we were the last. A quick look revealed that the shot was somewhere down amongst the wreckage at 58m. I had a little look but decided it was too late in the dive to be going that deep - skipper's wrath or not. Just as we made that decision, Mike himself came down on his rebreather with Giles to take some pictures so we left the problem to him and headed back to the deco trapeze to find everyone hanging there. Due to Mike's late dive, the current was running quite a bit and we had fun hanging on until Mike let the trapeze loose to drift. 24mins on the bottom for 29min deco on air although we had deco mix for safety.
Not much to say about this one although others enjoyed it. Poor vis and dirty with a bit of current. Did find large sections of the centre of the hull and the boilers (I always seem to find these - maybe it's all I can recognise!). We were joined on this dive by a bunch of French divers in semi-drys who seem to amuse themselves by shining their torches in our eyes - intentionally! Hmm. Saw Al strobing away in the distance.
This is a true D-Day wreck - a Landing Ship Tank (LST). These were large landing craft used to deploy Sherman tanks onto the beaches at Normandy. The shot was right next to the engine room in 26m. We managed to get into the engine room and down the side of the engine to find a watertight door which led into the cargo section. In here are...Sherman tanks. Some are still in place chained to the deck. The thing is, this section of the wreck is upside down so these guys are hanging from the ceiling now. The wheels and tracks are clearly visible as are the tank bodies. Oddly, we did not see the main guns which could have been burried in the silt. There are lots of artefacts here - testament to France's strict look, don't touch policy. Outside the wreck still more tanks are strewn in the sand. I think this wreck brought home exactly what we were diving more than any of the others. Plenty of open spaces to penetrate and stuff to see including electrical equipment and ordnance.
HMS Lawford is a destroyer escort lying on her port side in 24m. The bow anti-aircraft gun is still in place pointing towards the bows with rows of what looked like shells still in their racks just astern. It is possible to enter all deck levels at a point where she was sliced in half in a cross-section. We swam along the middle deck under the superstructure to emerge near the gun. Found an intact bulkhead light with domed glass and a brass or bronze mounting ring. Again, lots of electrical equipment and cabling. A very enjoyable dive despite the rather poor vis.
The Barsac lies upright in 40m. We had planned to head towards the stern to see the intact rudder and prop which we did. I ignored my buddy trying to change the plan when she realised we were close to the superstructure and intact bridge so we missed what others claimed to be a very interesting dive through the cabins etc. We did find the prop although the journey there was largely uninspiring - most of the features were forward of the shot. Next time I'll take note!
The Suzy B lies upright in 24m. She is split open lengthways to expose her innards. Plenty of lobster here if you're interested in that although like the artefacts, you're not allowed to bring them up. We followed the prop-shaft tunnel to the stern to find the steering gear. We also found a rather distraught Al who thought his buddy might still be inside the wreck. Fortunately, we'd just seen him searching so were able to reassure strobe boy that all was well.
We ended up on the bow section in about 41m. The rest of the wreck lay off to one side. I tried to go over there but my buddy called me back. This time I took notice although perhaps we should have gone to look at the rest of the wreck. The bow section was quite small and like Picadilly Circus with us all swimming around. Swam right up to the bow inside.
Didn't do this one as the wind had picked up and it looked a bit dicey getting back onto the boat. The ladder can be quite slippery when the boat is rolling. None the less, others had a good dive!
This is truly a small wreck. Lying in 34m, we could get round the whole craft in about 10 min. We did get into the engine room where you can swim through to the superstructure. Plenty of wreckage off to the stern including the rudder and steering gear. We also made our way down a small passage to the starboard side of the engine room to be met by a huge conger living in a coil of cable. The anchor winch is intact and still attached to the bows above the chain locker.
All in all, an excellent trip. There are loads of wrecks to dive (see Mark James's book - the Normandy Wrecks). We could have had better vis - some of the dives were a bit dark and there were loads of disgusting crawly things in water but otherwise we had very good diving and the weather held for the whole week. Definitely worth a return visit.
Many thanks to Megan for organising, Mike, Penny and Giles Rowley for putting us on target every time and feeding us like royalty. Finally thanks to all those who were diving for making it a very enjoyable trip.
Respect Our Wrecks!