It was women and children first when this huge Pakistani freighter sank in the English Channel – only they weren’t supposed to be there! JOHN LIDDIARD visits the scene some 10 years on. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
Would you believe that one of my most memorable dives of 1999 was in a 2m-deep swimming pool?Suppose I told you that this pool was on the superstructure of a 12,000 ton container ship at a depth of 50m!
I was diving the wreck of the Murree, one of a fleet of freighters owned by the Pakistani National Shipping Corporation and making regular runs from Europe to the Middle East and Karachi until it came to grief in the English Channel in 1989.
The dramatic rescue of the 40 people on board was later featured in the BBCs 999 series, with a mixture of reconstruction and actuality video shot by the helicopter crews.
With the wreck sitting upright on a 70m seabed and the superstructure rising to 38m, the Murree spans the border between deep-air and trimix diving. All the divers on our dive are on air, so placing the shot near the top of the wreck is critical.
The skipper rigs a 45m line with a grapnel to place it as close to the bridge as possible. The first attempt drifts a bit, then holds, but our skipper is not satisfied. The shot is pulled and re-positioned to his satisfaction.
For the first few metres the visibility is OK, if a bit milky. As I descend the line, the water gradually clears until conditions are near-perfect.
The usual concerns of whether the shot will be properly placed on the wreck go through my mind, but are soon put to rest as I pass 30m, and the panorama of the superstructure opens up below me. Other divers can be picked out by their lights and streams of bubbles.
True to our skipper’s intention, the shot is nicely placed in the middle of the port bridge wing, at just over 40m (1). Taking a minute or two to settle down, I notice that the deck is carpeted in brittlestars, with a scattering of dwarf plumose anemones. On vertical surfaces the anemones prevail, giving the wreck a mottled orange and white colour – a good covering for only 10 years under water.
Moving towards the stern and downwards, the superstructure narrows, with a cut-out for one of the ship’s boats. The boat is long gone, davits hanging out from the otherwise featureless sides of the wreck (2).
Halfway down the steps leading to this deck, an open hatchway leads beneath the wheelhouse (3). The cabin stretches across the ship, partially silted, with many loose cables dangling from the ceiling. Out of the main current, anemones growing on the cables are longer and more delicate.
Windows at the front are broken, providing a reasonable amount of ambient lighting. On the way in, a side door leads to a bathroom.
Back outside, and continuing towards the stern, a huge mast looms out of the gloom ahead (4). More exposed to the current, it is covered in magnificent long white plumose anemones.
As I stop to take a few pictures, my buddy descends to the stern railing at just short of 60m (5). It was from this deck that the crew and their families were winched to safety by the RAF rescue helicopters.
I cross to the starboard mast to get a few pictures of the nets draped over it (6), my buddy visible below and ascending to rejoin me as I ascend one level through the framework of a sun canopy at the stern of the superstructure (7).
It is here that we find one of the more amusing points of our dive, the ship’s swimming pool (8). Catching me unprepared and slightly fuzzed at 50m, it takes a few moments for me to realise just what it is. Having found it, I just have to dive it, a quick 2m down to the bottom. The few small anemones on the floor of the pool seem to be losing a war against a writhing carpet of brittlestars.
Forward of the pool, we ascend through another railing for a sun canopy. Here, an oblique box on the deck marks the ventilator-hatches for the engine-room (9). One is open. Peering inside, the sheer size of the interior defeats the beam of my dive-light.
We have to remove our deco tanks and tie them off to a nearby railing to fit in here. Descending through the opening, we pass ladders and catwalks surrounding odd bits of machinery. Level with the main deck outside, we can just make out the top of the engine below us.
Back on deck, the starboard side of the superstructure has a good array of nets draped across it (10). Nevertheless, the railings for the sun canopy hold the netting well clear of the deck.
Moving forward again, towards the starboard bridge wing, we see that the funnel has collapsed to the side of the superstructure (11), resting in place over the cut-out for the starboard boat.
The supporting structure behind the bridge is open, showing another possible route down to the engine-room (12). The starboard bridge wing (13) has a clear deck in a mirror image of the similar port bridge wing.
Large pollack, pouting and poor cod patrol across the deck and off the side of the wing. Not an enormous shoal, but they seem to be surviving the nets. A door leads invitingly into the wheelhouse, offering a clear view across to the corresponding door on the port side (14).
Inside, cables hanging from the ceiling are festooned with yet more anemones and closely packed white sponges. The bases of various bridge instruments poke out of debris on the floor. There is little point looking for souvenirs; some of the goodies were apparently liberated soon after the Murree sank, and turned out to be largely plastic.
There is plenty of light entering the wheelhouse through the large front windows. These also provide alternative points of exit, but be careful of netting draped across. Looking down to the cargo deck below, the outline of one of the huge cargo masts can be seen, collapsed back and almost touching the front of the superstructure (15).
The last pair to leave, we pull the shotline clear to dangle at 45m in blue-green water. All divers have taken care to ascend the shot. Situated at the edge of the Channel shipping lane, our skipper does not want anyone separating from the group on a delayed SMB.
The long ascent begins 40 minutes of decompression stops. Breathing nitrox 80 leaves plenty of time to dream of the opportunity to dive the Murree again, perhaps exploring deeper inside the accommodation. All just about on the limits of air diving – or perhaps I should take up trimix, because there is even more to explore on the Murree if we venture beyond air-diving depths.
Anyone who watched the 999 programme about the Murree on BBC TV must remember the amazing helicopter rescue of 40 people – the crew, their wives and children – from this big cargo and container ship.
The 11,940 ton Pakistani motor vessel, laden with general cargo and with her 45m deck stacked high with three layers of containers, was on her way down the Channel from Tilbury to her home port of Karachi when she ran into a storm with hurricane-force winds. It was 28 October, 1989.
As the ship battled through huge seas 15 miles south-east of Start Point, the force of the storm broke one stack free, washing the containers over the side. One of these, still held to the ship by a hawser, swung back into the ship’s side. Plates were split and the forward hold began to flood.
The captain’s Mayday call was received by Brixham Coastguard. A helicopter from RNAS Culdrose was soon on the scene, but the Murree’s foredeck was already under water. The chopper had to call for help on finding that instead of the 14 crew-members listed there were 40 men, women and children to be rescued.
Three helicopters were finally used to winch up everyone. While the rescue was going on, the Murree continued to take on water to the point that the forward deck was fully submerged, and containers were taking the full force of the breaking sea.
Last to leave were two helicopter crewmen. When the ship tipped vertically, bow-down, they had to jump some 30m down from her stern into the sea to avoid being sucked down with the ship as she sank. They were eventually picked up by one of the waiting helicopters.
GETTING THERE: I dived the Murree from the mv Maureen from Dartmouth. From the end of the M5 continue south on the A38. Turn left on the A384 for Totnes, then the A3122 for Dartmouth. In Dartmouth, Maureen picks up from the floating jetty just into the one-way system. Once you have unloaded, the nearest long-stay car park is the park-and-ride at the top of the hill, though you might be lucky enough to find somewhere closer on a side street.
DIVING AND AIR: The Murree sits about 22 miles south-east of Start Point, halfway between there and Alderney in the Channel Islands, recorded position 49 57.51N, 314.09W (degrees, minutes and seconds). Bearing in mind the equipment needed and the Murree’s proximity to major shipping lanes, this really has to be a hardboat dive, whether on a liveaboard or a day-boat from south Devon or Dorset ports. Maureen’s skipper is Mike Rowley.
TIDES: Two hours before and four hours after high water Plymouth.
ACCOMMODATION: If you are not diving from a liveaboard but planning to stay in the area, your skipper or local tourist information should be able to put you in contact with campsites and B&B accommodation.
QUALIFICATIONS: Very advanced air dive, with further possibilities opened up by technical nitrox or trimix.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 442, Lizard Point To Hope’s Nose. BBC TV 999 series. Shipwreck Index Of The British Isles Volume 1, by Richard & Bridget Larn.
PROS: Spectacularly intact with lots of structure to explore, even with only the superstructure in air-diving depth. Usually clear visibility.
CONS: Well out into the English Channel.
Thanks to Alex Poole, Mike, Penny & Giles Rowley, members of Bloxwich BSAC.
Appeared in Diver, June 2000