When this Greek steamer was holed off Pembrokeshire, it started one of the longest lifeboat rescues on record. Now it's a great novice dive, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
IT'S BEEN A WHILE SINCE WE FEATURED a Wreck Tour suitable for new divers, so this month’s is the Nicolaou Virginia, a well-flattened and salvaged 6,800-ton steamship that ran aground off the Pembrokeshire coast in 1946.
With the bow in 6-8m and the stern in 12m, this wreck could even be used as a training dive in a basic Open Water or Club Diver course, but there is still enough for experienced divers to enjoy on a nice, long, easy dive.
The wreck has been salvaged down to the bottom of the hull, leaving only the boilers and assorted machinery standing proud of the seabed. There isn’t much for an echo-sounder to find, other than the boilers. Even so, once you know the spot, there’s time to swim a search pattern to locate the main body of the wreckage.
With this in mind, most divers will approach the wreck by swimming out in a southerly or south-easterly direction from the eastern end of the reef off Flimston Head (1), which is also marked as “The Wash” on OS Map 158.
Inshore, a cave and tunnel system is cut back into the cliffs. Swimming out from the reef, you might pass some scraps of wreckage among the kelp, but the main body of the wreck is free of kelp on a flat, clear seabed.
The outline of the bow can easily be picked out from among the debris. Despite the flattened state of the wreck, the anchor-winch (2) and two smaller winches rest upright and pretty much where they would be on a plan view of such a ship.
With a calm sea, a prerequisite for diving this wreck, and shallow water, you can expect much better visibility than that found in Milford Haven or the nearby Skomer Marine Nature Reserve. Underwater navigation on the Nicolaou Virginia is easy.
Heading sternwards on the starboard side of the wreck, the first few metres are just the flat base of the double-bottomed hull. Some patterns of girders could be the remains of a hold surround, but just as easily random girders that have fallen in this position.
It’s worth keeping right to the starboard side for a bit because there are some nice shiny brass pipes sticking out from under the wreck (3). It’s about here, on the centre-line of the hull, that a row of upright girders sticks up slightly from the wreckage. Because this is just forward of the boilers, it might indicate the area where a split coal-hold was located.
The first of three large boilers stands upright by itself on the starboard side of the wreck (4). Towards the centre-line again, a similarly curved plate with rivet holes could be a section of skin from a salvaged boiler, or perhaps a condenser (5).
The other two boilers are also upright, but closer to the port side of the wreck and leaning slightly together (6). Behind the boilers, the engine lies splayed out from its base (7), with one piston and connecting-rod fallen to starboard and the other pistons and rods fallen to port.
The propeller-shaft lies well away on the starboard side of the wreckage (8). My guess is that it ended up over this way during salvage work, but it would also have been pushed in this direction during storms from the south-west.
Just off the starboard side, within easy sight of the propshaft, lie a couple of cargo winches (9), with a further winch lying next to the propshaft (10). Where the propshaft ends (11) the wreckage fizzles out, with the main area of debris from the stern further to port.
In the centre of the stern is another large winch (12), several times the size of the smaller cargo-winches. When I first saw this, I did a bit of a double-take because it looked like an anchor-winch, and I thought perhaps I had got the wreck back to front! I soon calmed down, because just behind this winch is a very obvious rudder-post and steering quadrant (13).
There are no signs of the rudder or propeller in this area, though the outline of the stern is marked by broken girders and a row of three small bollards (14).
Moving back towards the boilers on the port side of the wreckage, a solid pin with three hoops on one side lying along the wreck (15) is the hinge from the rudder. Immediately forward of that is an area of debris that could be the broken outline of the rudder itself (16). There is no sign of the propeller, but that would no doubt have been one of the first things to be salvaged in 1946.
A bit further forward, and about halfway back to the engine, a mast lies from the centre-line across the port side of the wreckage, with another small cargo-winch nearby (17). From here forwards, the wreck is fairly featureless until you reach a set of curved boat-derricks lying collapsed beside the boilers (18).
Even so, there are many holes along the broken hull in which you can search for odds and ends of wreckage and marine life. Forward of the boilers on the port side is pretty much the same, save for a length of pipe sticking up approximately 2m above the wreckage (19).
There is sparse but easily visible debris on either side of the main area of wreckage, but if you have seen enough of the wreck and want to wander off, I would recommend that you head inshore and to the east.
Two other ships have been wrecked over this way, though they are more thoroughly broken up, and the debris fields are mixed together. If that is not enough to keep you busy, there are always the huge caves cut beneath the cliffs to explore.
The 6,869-ton Greek steamer Nicolaou Virginia, laden with grain from Bahia Blanca in Argentina and heading for Glasgow, was lost in dense fog in the early hours of 27 March, 1946. At 4am she ran hard ashore on Flimston Head on the South Pembroke coast, her SOS triggering one of the longest lifeboat rescues on record, writes Kendall McDonald.
The SOS, reporting that the steamer was badly holed, was relayed by Land’s End to the Coastguard and Tenby’s lifeboat, the John R Webb, was launched. Despite the fog, she soon found the wreck and joined a tug and the salvage steamer already standing by.
The Tenby boat was there all that day and the following night, taking off six men from the 36-strong crew before being relieved after 34 hours at sea at 9am on the 28th by the Angle lifeboat the Elizabeth Elson.
That lifeboat stood by all that day and at 9pm took off 26 of the crew and transferred them to the salvage steamer. The remaining four men on board the Nicolaou Virginia were taken off when the Elizabeth Elson headed for home on 29 March, after being at sea for 22 hours. Later that day, salvage operations were abandoned. The Greek ship was soon a total loss.
GETTING THERE: Follow the M4, A40 and A477 to Tenby, or continue on the A40to Haverfordwest, then B4327 to Dale.
ACCOMMODATION: Check Pembrokeshire tourist information for details of B&Bs, hotels and camping.
LAUNCHING: Launch from the slip at Dale in front of the sailing school. Parking is 50m further back along the road. The journey should be attempted only in very calm conditions because of the dangerous tidal race that forms over Crow Rock. It is also possible to launch from the harbour at Tenby for a longer boat journey.
TIDES: The Nicolaou Virginia is close in to the shore and out of the main current. However, current can be a problem towards the stern of the wreck for one hour either side of high water Milford Haven. The time of diving is also restricted by the firing schedule of the artillery range ashore.
HOW TO FIND IT: The chart co-ordinates are 51 36.36N 5 00.15W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies pointing north-west towards the shore, flat on the seabed from 12m to 6m, with the boilers standing 4m proud. The bow of the wreck is to the south-east from the eastern end of the outermost reef at Flimston Head (marked as The Wash on OS Map 158).
QUALIFICATIONS: An ideal wreck for novices, but still enough to provide a fun shallow dive for more experienced divers.
PROS: Shallow, bright and easy. Tides are not a problem when diving.
CONS: A long boat-ride over some potentially treacherous water. The army firing range on top of the cliff can often restrict access.
Appeared in Diver, June 2001