You won’t find many other divers on this East Coast steamship wreck, but you will find plenty to hold your interest, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
BEFORE I DIVED THE PEPINELLA Dave and Sylvia, joint skippers of Our W, told me that it was a really pretty dive. The concept of a really pretty dive was not something I would have expected where the English Channel meets the North Sea, but 30 miles from shore, about halfway between Kent and Belgium, the 1557-ton steamship Pepinella proved to be just that – a really pretty dive.
It is also an interesting wreck, with much of its non-ferrous metal untouched, because it is in French waters, and French wreck law does not take kindly to any English diver or boat getting caught with spidge.
With the shotline hooked over the boat deck (1), the highest point of the wreck is the captain’s cabin (2), where the roof is as shallow as 22m on a low-water slack, or 5m deeper on high water.
The sides have rotted away from the framework, and inside, the bathroom tiles are intricate pale blue squares around the bath and lavatory.
As befits the captain of an Italian ship, it was a designer bathroom, rather than the sort with Victorian black-and-white diagonals, as favoured on British ships.
From the aft end of the boat deck, two sets of steps (3) lead down across the ship, both heading for centre-line as you descend. There is easy access between the decks and lots to explore, but we’ll leave that until the end of our tour, and carry on descending by the port side and the port boiler (4).
The deck above the engine-room, the skylight and the upper parts of the hull in this area have all been cleared, the victim, I suspect, of a salvage grab. However, the triple-expansion steam engine (5) is intact, as is much of the steam pipework, so if the deck above was removed by a salvage grab, it wasn’t followed up very thoroughly.
Continuing aft, both sides of the hull have collapsed inwards, the port side more so.
The first hold aft is largely filled with debris, perhaps from above the engine-room. Between the aft holds, the section of deck with a pair of cargo-winches (6) and the mast-foot between the aft holds has dropped, but remains upright.
The aftmost hold shows less debris, and is partly filled with sand. The port side of the hull is now folded further inwards, but recovers just before the stern, where a pair of bollards (7) remain upright on a corner of intact deck.
Now going deeper and outside the stern, our tour leads down to the propeller and rudder (8), in a slight scour at 29m on a low-water slack. The propeller is a conventional four-blade cast-iron job, but the rudder is something of an oddity, a sheet of steel with steel bars bent into hinges and riveted across.
This is an incredibly primitive construction compared to that on other ships built in the 1920s, leading me to think that the Pepinella’s original rudder was damaged at some time, and the replacement or repair was a bit of a bodge.
Ascending the stern, the hull is slightly broken where it meets the deck. To either side are pairs of bollards with the steering quadrant (9) in the middle, aligned straight ahead, as is the rudder. I doubt whether the Pepinella took any avoiding action in its collision with the Sundak.
Just forward of the pairs of bollards, small pulleys on the deck would have guided the steering cables. In the middle of the deck is a skylight surrounded with small portholes (10) and a toilet below.
Of much more interest, and well worth the dive all by itself, lies the intact stern telegraph, to the port side of the skylight.
Having been biased to port on the way aft, the way back can be fairly biased to starboard, where an intact section of the starboard side of the hull (11) shows the original deck level. Passing the engine, we ascend a little by the starboard boiler (12) which is partly obscured by debris fallen from above.
Turning our route into a figure-eight, we now cross the wreck again, so we have seen the engine from all sides. Continue forward along the port side, either outside or through the companionway below the boat deck. Forward of the superstructure, steps (13) lead down to the main deck.
The forward holds are considerably more intact, with the hatch-beams (14) still lying across no 2 hold.
The foremost hold is open, with the deck, winch-gear from between the holds, and the mast-foot (15) having fallen into no 1 hold.
Our wandering route crosses the wreck again to exit the forward hold through a V-shaped gash (16) on the starboard side, just aft of the forecastle. This is where the bow of the Sundak cut into the Pepinella on 20 April, 1958.
There is little point in going all the way down to the seabed here, but it is worth staying low enough to round the bow and see both anchors (17) tight in their hawse-pipes below the bow.
Ascending to the deck, there are pairs of bollards and then railings to either side of the anchor-winch (18).
The final leg of our constantly crossing route is back along the starboard side, where a spare mast or derrick beam (19) is tied in under the gunwale.
Steps lead up to the superstructure (20) and again we have a choice between following round the outside or through the starboard companionway. The last cabin on the starboard side is the galley (21) and inside is a small Aga-style stove.
Diving on a low-water slack with a twinset of nitrox or a rebreather, time on the wreck could easily be limited by the building current rather than by decompression or gas.
Any remaining time can be spent hiding from the current while inside the superstructure, or above it or behind the captain’s cabin (22) before popping a delayed SMB to make a drifting ascent.
ONE NAME TOO FAR
THE PEPINELLA, steamship. BUILT 1928, SUNK 1958
THE PEPINELLA HAS AN INTERESTING MIX making up her general build. Most details follow the usual British pattern. This is hardly surprising, as she was built by J Crown & Sons at its shipyard in Sunderland in 1928, writes Kendall McDonald.
She was originally named Cedartree, but this name didn’t last long before she became Blue Bell, and then Silver Bell.
When an Italian firm bought her, the name changed once more to Pepinella. Not a wise choice, as it turned out. She was on her maiden voyage for her new name overseas in 1958 when she collided with the steamer Sundak and sank.
Pepinella had been redecorated with Italian touches such as small pale blue tiles around the bath and toilet.
The galley had a small Aga-type stove. Surprisingly for a ship of her age, the heavy rudder is made of bars of iron bent into hinges and then riveted to a solid iron plate.
GETTING THERE: Cross-channel ferry with Norfolk Lines from Dover to Dunkerque, www.norfolkline.com, 0844 847 5042. Then a short drive along the coast to Nieuwpoort.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 51 24.342N, 002 15.071E (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies with its bow to just west of south.The GPS co-ordinates are 50 31.38N, 001 45.85W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies with its bow to the north-west.
TIDES: Slack water one hour before high water Dover and five hours after high water Dover. Visibility is usually considerably better on neap tides and on the high slack.
AIR: Our W has an onboard compressor and a limited supply of oxygen for mixing nitrox. If you require large quantities of O2 or any helium, it is best to arrange it in advance.
QUALIFICATIONS: At a good depth for PADI Advanced Open Water or BSAC Sports Divers. Bottom times can be extended with nitrox.
LAUNCHING: Not suitable for RIBs.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 323, Dover Strait – Eastern Part. Admiralty Chart 1872, Dunkerque to Flushing. Wreck Site online database. The Shipwrecks of Suffolk, a PDF book from Ship Wrecks, covers wrecks across to the Belgian coast.
PROS: Few boats go there.
CONS: Few boats go there.
Thanks to Dave Ronnan, Sylvia Pryer, Martyn Bayon and Nigel Ingram.
Appeared in DIVER April 2011