Newpaper report by Lorriane Shearer
The trip to Orkney ended up being a bit longer than planned, (and a LOT colder, Bbbbrrrrrrrrrrr!) but what a wicked trip!!! As a few of you (???!!!) now know, we had a bell up, but this trip was always about much, much more than that.
You all know Kevin as the mild mannered 'Clark Kent' chap, who posts on various diving forums (mildly!!) amusing stuff on them, but what most people don't realise is that if you shove him into the nearest phone booth, he re-emerges in his true persona as Super(wreck-researcher)Kevin, complete with his 'Elvis' underpants correctly worn over his tights!!!:
Kevin's absolute passion is wreck research and he spends huge amounts of his time, and money, researching and locating lost wrecks. I have been very lucky to have been able to dive on some of his projects, trying to find information that will confirm his I.D.'s (The German submarines U102 and the U92 were recent ones) so when he asked a few of us, over a year ago, if we'd be interested in a project about the Duke of Albany, the answer was a resounding 'YES!'
Kevin had been interested in locating this wreck for years, and about six months ago, after beavering away and wearing his Superkev underpants threadbare!! , made the breakthrough he believed confirmed the ships resting place.
Four of the five of us made a trip up to Orkney in the summer, but decided to wait until later in the year, when all of us could make it, to try and dive on the 'Duke'. Kevin, meanwhile, was working on other projects as well. It was all getting very exciting!!
So, at the end of November, we alll joined Andy, skipper of the Jean Elaine, on Saturday.
The weather on Sunday was forecast to be reasonable, but unfortunately we wouldn't be able to get out to the Duke of Albany site in time for the tides, so we decided to dive on another site, one of two possible locations for another wreck that Andy and Kevin had been researching. The sea state was reasonable (since I get seasick making cups of coffee, my idea of a 'reasonable' sea state is somewhat different from other people's!) but we arrived at the site and Andy threw in the shot to the wreck, which was in about 70m.
We kitted up and waited for slack water.
Paul and Paul went in first, followed by Mark, and then Paul and I. (See, too many Pails!!) The vis was about 15m as we descended the shot and the water was cold on my face and I was surprised when we reached about 50m to see the two Paul's, who were on open circuit, coming back up the shot. Paul 1 (that's easier!!) indicated that the wreck was flat and then Paul 2 indicated, disappointingly, that the wreck wasn't the one we had hoped, but since we were in the water (and not up top, chucking up!) Paul 3 and I carried on down the shot to see what we could of this undived wreck. It was quite flat, and much of it was buried in sand, but interesting and we spent about half an hour exploring it, before heading back up the shot.
More puzzles to solve for Kevin!!
That night, back in Stromness with Kevin, we discussed the day's dive. Despite the fact that it wasn't what we'd hoped, it was still a very positive result for two reasons.
Firstly, the wreck that we were looking for could only be one of two sites, and we had eliminated this one, and secondly, during the week, whilst Kevin was searching for information to try and identify this wreck, the information from the divers helped him eliminate this wreck as one of his other projects, and he now has positive I.D. on two other wrecks!! Result!
The weather the next day had blown up a little and we weren't able to get offshore, although we did dive in the flow. And then came disastrous news. The weather was going to deteriorate further and we would have no chance to get out to the Duke of Albany till at least the following weekend. Mark had to travel home on the Wednesday because of work, and the two Paul's decided, reluctantly, that they also couldn't stay beyond the weekend, and they travelled home.
The weather for the rest of the week was fairly rough and very cold, although Paul and I, and even Andy, managed some good dives on the James Barrie and Kron Prinz, amongst others, but we were waiting with fingers crossed for a weather window.
The week passed uneventfully, (Well, the DIVING was uneventful, the PUB was a different matter!) and the weather got colder. The snow made the water look cold, and there was even snow on the deck of the boat one morning, as I discovered when I crawled up on deck whilst it was still dark in bare feet!!
Then, the weather finally promised us a break. Tuesday morning was looking as though it would be calm enough to chance running out to the Duke of Albany, and Andy was up for a four a.m. start.
Kevin joined us on the boat, along with Barry White (Deep Baloo) a Stromness diver, and we headed out on the five hour run to the site. It was rough!! (And not just by my pathetic standards, either!!)
The Duke of Albany was a Fleetwood to Belfast ferry, a 100m steamship built by Brown and Co, Glasgow, in 1907. In WW1, she was commissioned by the Royal Navy as an Armed Boarding Steamer. She was in company with the Duke of Clarence off the Pentland Skerries when, on the morning of 26th August, 1916, she was torpedoed by the German submarine, UB 27. The men on watch saw a bright red torpedo heading for the ship just below the surface. The torpedo hit towards the stern, killing two men, and the ship sank quickly, in just seven minutes. She was carrying depth charges, and as she sunk, these exploded and a further twenty two men died. As a direct consequence of this, in the future, all ships were required to make safe their depth charges if a vessel was in danger of sinking.
As we sailed out to the site, we reviewed some of the information we could look for to confirm the ships identity. (Apart from the bell with a name on it, we didn't dare hope for that!!) She was twin screwed, so it would be worth checking out the props. She carried distinctive china, with the ships name on it. Her stern had decorative scrollwork, with the name in brass letters. Perhaps we could find the makers name plate.
We arrived over the site at about ten thirty, and Andy threw the shot in. The wreck was lying in about 80m, Paul and I were using Inspiration Visions and Barry was using an Inspiration Classic and we would be using trimix because of the depth. As we waited for the tide we kitted up and discussed planned bottom times. Paul and I decided we would probably do between 30 and 40 minutes, and Barry would do slightly less and would follow us in with the lazy shot. Using rebreathers would give us much more flexibility to change these plans, because we would have no information on the condition of the wreck until we actually got on it.
By eleven o'clock, the top buoy seemed to have no tide on it, but the smaller buoys were still being held down, indicating that it was not yet slack, and we waited for a while longer before deciding to jump in.
On the way down the shot, the vis was between 10m and 15m, with quite a curve on the line indicating there was still tide on it and we could feel the current as we got down to about 30m, but it wasn't anything extreme and we descended easily.
Andy, who seems to have a bit of a gift for this, had done it again!! The shot was pretty much perfect, lying forward of the boilers on a flattened area of the deck amidst what was an obvious collapsed stairway. The ship has a slight list to starboard, but we didn't really notice this until Paul commented that one boiler looked bigger than the other.
Paul and I swam along the starboard side, heading back towards the stern, the vis was about 10m, but although the water was clear it was quite dark. The stern section is quite mangled, particularly as we passed beyond where the torpedo hit. We swam off the stern and out onto a small sand covered debris field, but there was no sign of the stern scrollwork. As we swam back and looked at the props, we could see that they were bolt on props and that the port one was higher. We thought that the shaft was twisted until we realised that it was the angle that this section of the ship was lying, explaining why one boiler looked higher, and that some of the blades were completely sheared off. We began swimming back towards the shot, keeping an eye out for glimpses of white porcelain from the officers mess, but
couldn't see any.
Paul, who was swimming to my right as we swam back, suddenly came over all peculiar!! 'Er, Leigh, er, is, er, er er????!!!' (How odd?! Paul is usually Much more articulate than this!)
I moved over to see what he was looking at. It was a funny, knobbly shape inside a pipe? As we dropped lower, I couldn't believe we were looking at what I thought we were looking at!! It couldn't really be the ship's bell, with the ringer still inside it, upside down and heavily concreted in??!!
Our eyes adjusted as we came to rest next to it. Yup, it was!! It most definitely wasn't a pipe! It was the BELL!!! How the bl**dy hell were we gonna get that out then? Out came the tools. Paul worked on freeing one side, digging with a crow bar, whilst I worked at the other with another bar and a hammer. It wasn't moving, but there was black iron clouding the water as we chipped away at it. We were over twenty minutes into our bottom time when we'd first seen it, and this was hard work!!
And then Paul managed to catch his loop with the end of his crowbar! Lots of coughing and spluttering as he managed to retrieve it and get it back in his mouth! He took a few minutes whilst we re-assessed, and I asked him if he wanted to head back to the shot whilst I carried on digging? We rechecked our bottom time. Over half an hour gone, but we could stay as long as we had to. No, we would stay and carry on. And then, it moved. Just a little, but it moved. We carried on digging. There were clouds of silt around it now, it WOULD be coming out! And then, Baloo appeared. He was on his way back to the shot from the other direction an heard us banging. At first he thought we were just trying to prise off a valve and then, as the realisation sunk in (aided by Paul yelling politely, 'No, not that, this, It's the F"$£!^g Bell!!', highly amusing when yelled frantically in a helium squeak!!) he started working as enthusiastically as we were to free it.
And then, in a cloud of silt, it came loose.
Paul pushed the last of the steel pin out from the top of it, and I threaded the rope through that would carry it up to the surface under a lift bag.
We looked up and watched as it slowly started to rise into the green water above us, and then it was our turn to think about heading up. We swam to the shot and checked our bottom time and deco again. We'd spent over 50 minutes working hard, and our computers were showing 193 minutes of deco. Yuk!! But we would be able to shorten this a little by running the units on a higher set point on the shallower stops. That's just the price you've got to pay.
We headed up the line, slowly, and then with a couple of hours left, we reached our 6m stop. Out came the mp3 players, the absolute best toy for whiling away deco, and kept ourselves amused listening to hard rock (and in Paul's case, playing air/water? guitar!)
The weather up top was obviously getting much worse. The water was a lot darker and the sea was really moving. I spent most of the last hour cold, miserably puking into my loop.
The relief when my deco cleared was immense. Baloo had cleared his deco about ten minutes before me, and Paul had about another five minutes.
As my head broke the surface, I couldn't see the boat, there were just massive waves, but as I was lifted to the top of one, suddenly, the boat was there, not far away. Hooray!! My first sight was of Kevin, on the bow, clapping and grinning like I've never seen anyone grin. It was that wide the top of his head was falling off!!!
Getting back on the boat was highly entertaining, I crawled most of my way across the deck, it was too rough to walk, but then Kevin unclipped me from my unit and pulled me into a massive bear hug. It was an awesome moment.
Absolute, incontrovertible proof that this WAS the Duke of Albany. Stunning.
Paul climbed aboard, and his words, too, were that the best moment was when he surfaced and saw the look on Kevin's face as he gave him the 'thumbs up'.
The worst part of all that deco was that we couldn't be on board at the moment Kevin and Andy saw the bell in the water under the lift bag. All the years of hard work and research culminating in that one moment of absolute vindication. I am totally humbled, and I know Paul and Baloo are, to have been privileged enough to be allowed to be a small part of that triumph.
Not a lot more to add to that, except to say that we ran for Kirkwall, the weather was too rough to get back to Stromness, and even the ensuing puking couldn't, on that day, make me miserable anymore!!
A HUGE thank you to all the members of the team, it really was total teamwork in the truest sense, but especially to Andy for all his hard work and effort, and most of all, to Kevin, to whom we also owe a whole new wardrobe full of Super Underpants!!! (In the interests of more research, of course!)
What's next, then, chaps??!!
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