Wreck Tour 23: The Witte Zee

The Witte Zee
The Witte Zee

This intact tugboat wreck off the Isle of Wight is just the right size for a good one-off dive, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS

THE WITTE ZEE WAS A 328-TON OCEAN-GOING TUG and has some interesting similarities with the much-smaller Stanegarth in Stoney Cove (Wreck Tour 18, August 2000), particularly the towing equipment on the stern part of the wreck. It's a case of function dictating similar design, but more of that later.

I was diving from a friend’s RIB, and the Witte Zee was not an easy wreck to hit with a shot. It is only a small target and, with a short period of slack water, we were trying to lay the shot while the tide was still running.

The first two attempts just dragged past the wreck but on the third attempt we managed to get the shot solidly hooked on. When I got down to the wreck, the shot was across the centre of the ship, which is quite a convenient place to start, so that’s where this month’s tour begins (1).

The deck here is a few metres above the seabed, at about 30m. The wooden decking is still reasonably intact, though crowded with fittings to support the ship’s boats, remains of davits and small cleats and bollards for securing the boats.

Towards the centre of the deck is a large oval ring, marking where the funnel used to protrude (2). All that remains is the steel ring, protruding a few centimetres and filled with a jumble of latticed steel and pipework.

Crossing the deck and looking over the side, you'll see a line of portholes just below deck level (3). There is an equivalent line of portholes on the port side of the Witte Zee, but I picked the starboard side on which to focus for the sketch, primarily because there is a very slight list to starboard and a derrick from one of the ship’s boats rests between the seabed and the deck (4).

Back above deck, the base of the superstructure rises approximately 1m above deck level, with a line of deck-lockers stretching across the back.

Located close to the fittings for the ship’s boats, I suspect that they would have contained some of the supporting paraphernalia that seems to gather around boats.

A little further forward there is a hatch into the side of the superstructure (5). Other routes for entry include large gaps in the wooden decking, which has decayed considerably in this area. There are some interesting opportunities for exploring inside here, although, as always, you should take care to avoid silting out and getting lost.

In front of the superstructure there are pairs of mooring bollards (6), then the anchor-winch (7). The port side of it has fallen apart, leaving a pile of large cogs on the deck. Either side of the anchor-winch are pairs of substantially larger and more robust bollards, which would be used for attaching tow-cables (8).

The actual bow (9) is very rounded and solid-looking, though the thinner plates above deck level have decayed in many places, leaving just a frame.

I descended to the seabed at 36m looking for the hole that sank the Witte Zee, but could find no sign of it. I guess it is now buried below the silt and gravel.

Heading back along the centre-line of the wreck, the area of the wheelhouse at the top of the superstructure has collapsed and decayed (10). This would have been of much lighter construction than other parts of the tug, possibly even built entirely of wood.

Continuing back past the funnel to the mast (11), there is a small section of railing across the deck where it drops one level to the main working deck occupying the back half of the tug. It is from here to the stern that those similarities to the equipment and layout of the Stanegarth can be observed.

The main feature here is a substantial samson post that would have been the main point of attachment for towing cables (12). Tucked under the deck forward of this is a large winch that would have been used to pull cables to the post.

The engine-room ventilation-hatches are still complete but have collapsed inwards (13). This is an unusual pattern of collapse. Perhaps there was still air inside this part of the tug when it went down and water pressure folded the whole set of hatches inwards, before breaking them sufficiently to let water into the engine-room.

Inside, the engine-room is very cramped and not easy to penetrate. At the aft end of the ventilation-hatches, a curved beam spans the deck (14). Its purpose would have been to support tow cables and prevent them fouling on or damaging the many deck-fittings of the tug.

Next to it is a large hold, still partially filled with coiled cables (15), followed by another curved beam (16) similar to the one in front of this hold.

Immediately behind this beam is a smaller H-shaped samson post, followed by a smaller hold with its covering hatch collapsed inwards (17). Below the stern, the rudder has bent to starboard (18).

The propeller is now buried beneath the seabed save for the tip of one blade, which can be seen protruding from the silt and gravel beneath the port side of the stern.

The seabed here is at 34m, a couple of metres shallower than at the bow. On a wreck this intact and small, it is easy to find the way back to the middle of the vessel (19) and either ascend the mast (20) and pop a delayed SMB or ascend the shotline.


She was a famous ocean-going tug with a famous salvage firm, but the Witte Zee was lost at the very beginning of a standard refloating operation on 23 February, 1964, writes Kendall McDonald.

On that day the 7,300-ton freighter Brother George ran ashore on the Brook Ledges, which cover two miles of the Isle of Wight’s south-west coastline. The Ledges have been a ships’ graveyard from the earliest times, but there seemed no reason to think that the Brother George, on her way from Manchester to her home port of Rotterdam, would not come off easily if pulled by a big tug.

Several raced to her aid, but the huge power of the tubby 40m Witte Zee belonging to NVL Smit & Co of Rotterdam got her there first and it got the contract.

Captain Klein eased in through the shallow water – the Witte Zee drew only 4m – to get close to the stranded freighter but, just as his crew were about to fire a hawser-heaving line across by rocket, a particularly big wave hit the tug’s stern and she rolled heavily.

It came back up sluggishly and Klein realised that it had been badly holed in the bow by one of the unseen rocks of the Ledges.

Other tugs were still nearby and the Abeille 10 and the Gatcombe took the flooding tug in tow and headed for the Solent. But it was clear that it was sinking and the Yarmouth lifeboat Earl and Countess Howe took the last of the tug’s crew off as the seas started washing over its deck.

Two hours later, the Witte Zee foundered. The Brother George was pulled free by other tugs not long afterwards, but was so badly damaged that, after being towed to Rotterdam, she was sold for scrap.

GETTING THERE: From the roundabout at the M27 Junction 1, turn south on the A337 through Lyndhurst and continue on to Lymington. For the marinas, head towards the town centre until the road takes a sharp right turn uphill to the high street. Rather than go up the high street, continue straight on and follow the road downhill to the river and marinas. New Milton is a few miles further along the A337 and Keyhaven is off to the left, down some narrow country roads towards Hurst Castle.

DIVING AND AIR: Graeme Herlihy (from whose RIB I dived) recommends New Dawn Dive Centre. The shop is located at New Milton and operates the hard boat New Dawn Diver from Lymington.

ACCOMMODATION: The New Forest is a popular tourist area with all levels of accommodation from camping to hotels readily available, try the New Forest Tourist Information centre, or the office for the Isle of Wight.

LAUNCHING: The closest slips are at Lymington and Keyhaven on the mainland side of the Solent and Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. The slips at Lymington and Keyhaven are tidal and are dry towards low water.

TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs one hour before and five hours after high water Portsmouth.

HOW TO FIND IT: The co-ordinates are 50 35.817N, 1 28.355W (degrees, minutes and decimals, OSGB). These are taken from a differential GPS with the wreck showing on the echo-sounder. However, the GPS was set to display OSGB co-ordinates and not the default WGS co-ordinates of the GPS system. The wreck lies with the current, so a search with an echo-sounder perpendicular to the shoreline of the Isle of Wight, and consequently crossing the wreck, presents the best chance of success.

QUALIFICATIONS: I would recommend a minimum qualification of a reasonably experienced Sports/Advanced Open Water Diver. A maximum depth of 36m at high-water slack makes the Witte Zee ideal for nitrox.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2045: Approaches To The Solent. Ordnance Survey Map 196, The Solent & The Isle Of Wight. Dive Wight And Hampshire, by Martin Pritchard & Kendall McDonald.

PROS: A virtually intact ocean-going tug that does not seem to be dived that often; big enough to make the dive interesting, yet small enough to see it all in one dive.

CONS: Difficult to shot. Slack water can be very short on spring tides.

Appeared in Diver, January 2001


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