Wreck Tour 158: The Derbent

Wreck Tour 158 The Derbent
Wreck Tour 158 The Derbent

How often do you get the chance to dive an almost-intact tanker? This WW1 U-boat victim lies off Anglesey and is well worth a visit, says JOHN LIDDIARD, Illustration by MAX ELLIS

IT’S A LONG TIME SINCE we ran a Wreck Tour of a tanker, the last ones being the Acclivity (97, March 2007) and the Kimya (98, April 2007). These were both small motor ships of 389 and 997 tons respectively.

This month’s tanker off the north of Anglesey is an altogether different beast. The Derbent was a steamship of 3178 tons, built in 1907 and torpedoed in 1917.

When I dived the Derbent, skipper Scott Waterman hooked the shot across the port side of the bow (1). It wasn’t an easy wreck to shot because it has an intact hull and is completely over on one side.

With the tide still running, the shot tended to drag along the keel and off the wreck, so Scott took a few attempts before he was happy that it was firmly hooked in.

With a view to seeing as much as possible in a single length of the wreck, our tour first heads down the slope of the hull to the tip of the bow (2).

On the way a number of hull-plates have rotted through, so there are opportunities to shine a good dive light into the forecastle and see what may be visible among the debris.

To either side of the bow the holes for the hawse-pipes are intact, but the hawse- pipes, the section of deck above and the sides of the bow are all missing, leaving a cut-out across the bow (3).

For those who like exploring interiors, this provides access that could lead all the way back through the forecastle, but beware of silt and entanglement.

There may be debris from the anchors and hawse-pipes below and further out from the wreck, but I haven’t looked. The anchors and chain may also have been salvaged.

Our tour will remain safely above the deck, where the anchor-winch remains firmly in place (4).

Anchor-winch and winch brake
Anchor-winch and winch brake

Immediately forward of it, a short mast-footing would have supported a small derrick for lifting anchors onto the deck.

Behind the anchor-winch, pairs of bollards are arranged to either side of the deck and two pairs towards the centre of the deck (5). An associated reel of mooring-cable has fallen to the seabed below (6).

Bollards at the bow
Bollards at the bow

The upper side of Derbent’s hull is at about 32m and the seabed at 42m, so by mostly following the centre-line of the deck the average depth of the dive can be kept at about 37m, gaining a few minutes’ bottom time.

The Derbent was a tanker, but even tankers had small holds, so on leaving the forecastle for the main deck we immediately encounter the coaming and open hatchway of the forward hold (7), which leads down and under the forecastle.

This was a common location for tankers to have a hold, with the actual tanks being in the square section of the hull from here aft.

A mast-foot sticks out of the main deck (8), and in good visibility the fallen mast can be picked out on the seabed below.

Next on the deck are the sealed hatches of oil-tanks (9), arranged in a grid of four large hatches about the base of a ventilator, then two smaller hatches, one of which has fallen open. To either side of the deck are rectangular lockers (10), the covers fallen off and contents missing.

The remains of the amidships superstructure (11) now span the deck, with hatchways through on either side. Steps that would have led up to the boat-deck and wheelhouse have fallen to the seabed below.

The wheelhouse itself would have been constructed largely of wood and has now rotted away, as has much of the decking from the boat deck. As an aside, one reason why wheelhouses continued to be made of wood was to minimise interference with the compass.

The superstructure is small, and our route soon drops back to the main deck (12), because the engine is located aft.

Small hatch-coaming to the forward end of the aft superstructure
Small hatch-coaming to the forward end of the aft superstructure

The remains of a catwalk (13) that would have led from the wheelhouse to the aft superstructure has now sagged to the seabed in a disjointed parabola.

A large winch now spans the width of the deck (14). With no nearby cargo-holds to serve, this would have been used for hauling hoses on board when loading and unloading the cargo of oil.

The main tanks in this section of the hull are again secured beneath four large hatches (15), with a mast-foot in the centre and the actual mast fallen to the seabed below. The deck and sides of the hull now rise for a long quarterdeck that continues to the stern, covering more cabins, the stoke-hold and engine-room.

Open hatchways lead through for those who would like to explore below deck, while above a railing (16) spans most of the width of the deck.

Ladders from the main deck lead up to open hatches that I suspect would have been covered with cuddy cabins 95 years ago. The open framework of a deckhouse spans most of the width of the deck.

An opening in the deck now provides access to the stoke-hold. One of the boilers has fallen out (17) while a second boiler (18) remains secured to its mounts inside. The ventilator-hatches and frame that would have covered the opening have fallen to the seabed below.

A smaller opening next aft reveals the top of the Derbent’s triple-expansion steam engine (19). A small winch (20) behind this would have been used mainly for handling mooring lines.

The final part of the stern rises up another deck level with more cabins inside, though it is beginning to break from the main body of the wreck.

Then on top of this are the walls of a deck-house (21). These remain intact, I suspect, because they were reinforced to take the stress of mounting the Derbent’s stern gun on the cabin roof.

Heading over the side of the stern past another pair of mooring bollards and down towards the keel, the rudder is missing but the four-blade iron propeller (22) is still in place on the tail of the shaft.

The four-blade iron propeller
The four-blade iron propeller

Finally, heading back across the hull our tour finishes at the stern gun (23), now resting along the port side of the hull.

This was originally mounted on top of the cabin (21), but dropped here after a failed salvage attempt when the weight of the gun began pulling the bow of the salvaging boat under.

As with most of the wreck’s structure, it is covered in big plumose anemones. As the shallowest point of the wreck, it is also a good place to release a delayed SMB to ascend and decompress.


THE DERBENT, tanker. BUILT 1907, SUNK 1917

BUILT BY ARMSTRONG WHITWORTH & CO LTD of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and powered by machinery by Wallsend Slipway Co Ltd, also of Newcastle, the 3187-ton tanker Derbent was launched in 1907.

On 30 November, 1917, she was employed by the British Admiralty, carrying a 3860-ton cargo of fuel oil from Liverpool to Queenstown (now Cobh of Cork).

U96 struck with a single torpedo, six miles ENE of Lynas Point. The Derbent remained afloat for two days, leaving plenty of time for the crew to escape.

It had been a busy week for U96 and Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Jess, who had left a trail of four other ships sunk from Berry Head, round Land’s End and across the Bristol Channel before the Derbent became the last victim of the patrol. U96 survived the war, only to be broken up in 1919.

Both our tanker victim and U-boat assailant are linked by literary namesakes. The World War Two-type VII-C submarine U96 was the number of the U-boat on which Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s book Das Boot was set, the story of a U-boat’s patrol in the Atlantic in 1941.

The story was subsequently filmed as a TV mini-series and also edited as a feature film.

Derbent is a port on the Caspian Sea and the southernmost city in Russia. The name has been used for more than one tanker; which is surprising, because the Caspian Sea is landlocked.

A more famous Derbent is the subject of the novel The Tanker Derbent by Russian author Yuri Krymov. The publication date of the original is unknown, but it’s believed to have been in the 1930s. It was turned into a movie in 1941.

A 1960 English translation does not give the original translation date.

It is a tale of heroism at sea in which the Derbent steams to the rescue of another tanker, with stirring Soviet patriotic messages thrown in.


The Derbent Wreck Tour
The Derbent Wreck Tour

GETTING THERE: Follow the A55 across North Wales to Anglesey and across the Menai Bridge. Take the first slip road and turn right to the town of Menai Bridge. Turn towards the waterfront by the newsagent and post office opposite HSBC and then continue to the pontoon by the harbour office.

HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates for the Derbent are 53 28.414N, 004 14.155W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The bow points south-east.

TIDES: Slack water is essential, and occurs 30 minutes before high or low water Liverpool.

DIVING & AIR: Quest Diving Charters operates from Menai Bridge, 01248 716923.

ACCOMMODATION: Anglesey tourist information.

LAUNCHING The closest slip is at Amlwch.

QUALIFICATIONS: A nice easy wreck shallow enough for basic training dives.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1977, Holyhead to Great Ormes Head. Ordnance Survey Map 114, Anglesey. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Volume 5, West Coast & Wales, by Richard & Bridget Larn.

PROS: A rare chance to dive an almost intact tanker.

CONS: Can be difficult to hook a shot in

DEPTH: 35 m – 45 m


Thanks to Scott Waterman.

Appeared in DIVER February 2012


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