This Danish steamship is one of the treasures of the North-east, says JOHN LIDDIARD – with seal sightings a bonus. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
Many ships have come to grief on the Farne Islands, a few miles off the Northumberland coast, and it’s about time we featured one of them, so this month’s Wreck Tour is the Chris Christensen. Admittedly the Somali (Wreck Tour 13, March 2000) is in the general area, but that vessel was a war casualty and did not in fact come to grief on the Farnes.
The Danish steamship Chris Christensen was typical of many merchant ships through the first half of the last century, with its two boilers and triple-expansion steam engine beneath an amidships superstructure and wheelhouse, two holds forward and two holds aft.
It ran aground at the southern end of the Longstone in 1915. After that it must have pulled at least partly free of the rocks before sinking, because the bows point away from the reef and the debris from the stern is higher on the slope towards the reef.
When I asked skipper Ian Douglas to help with some details on how to find this wreck, he commented that he had never even looked for GPS numbers. He just lined up the transit and judged the approximate distance offshore to drop the shot.
Trouble is, the mast that once formed part of the transit is no longer there, so only those who really knew it could still use it.
I can’t fault Ian’s method, because each time I have dived the Chris Christensen the shot has been reliably close to the starboard boiler (1), depth here being about 32m.
The starboard boiler has rolled 90° towards the centre of the wreck, with the two fire-holes at the front of the boiler now one above the other. Forward of the boiler, many of the rocks on the seabed are actually coal (2).
Continuing forward along the starboard side, the general line of the wreckage twists about 20° to port (3), which indicates that the hull of the Chris Christensen broke just forward of the wheelhouse.
All that remains now is debris on the seabed. It’s easy to follow the line of the wreck further forward to the lower part of the bow, standing upright from the seabed (4). The upper parts of the bow and forecastle can be found spread to starboard and forward from this.
Just to starboard, a cargo-winch rests upright on its mounting-plate (5). Immediately in front of this, the anchor-winch is upside-down and hidden partly beneath its mounting-plate (6). These two winches would have been separated by the length of the forward hold. I suspect that the damage to the bows and movement of the cargo-winch is a result of commercial salvage work when the wreck was in a more intact state.
A little further forward, one of the anchor hawse-pipes (7) rests almost against the upside-down remains of the upper part of the bow (8). This is the deepest point on the wreck, at about 33m.
Exposed to the current, the wreckage is covered with white and yellow dead men’s fingers, with an army of sea urchins munching their way around.
A large anchor is tight in against the starboard side of the bow or, strictly speaking, the port side of the bow, as this section is upside-down. Just behind this section of bow rests a tightly wound drum of cable (9), followed by a much smaller anchor (10).
This begs the obvious question: which anchor belonged to the Chris Christensen? The large anchor is certainly of the right type and plenty large enough for a ship of this size, but the smaller one is much too small and looks more like the type that would have been found on a trawler. Perhaps it was carried by the Chris Christensen, or perhaps it was lost at a later date.
Following the port side of the wreck forwards and the starboard side back, just inside from the edge of the wreckage, will bring you across an area of black-and-white-tiled floor (11). It always amazes me that features like this have survived where nothing remains of the rest of the superstructure.
The port boiler (12) rests upright and slightly forward of the starboard boiler. A hole towards the top provides a view in among the boiler tubes. Conger eels seem to enjoy hiding in this kind of hole, so have a good look and you might be lucky.
Crossing back towards the line of the keel, behind the starboard boiler the three-cylinder steam engine (13) has collapsed to starboard. Other than that it is remarkably intact and it’s easy to pick out details of the inner workings of the engine.
Just aft of the engine and a little to port, the spare propeller is wedged up above the seabed (14). Back at the engine, the propshaft provides a line towards the stern (15), with another cargo-winch just to starboard (16).
The last piece of wreckage before ascending the slope is the remains of the emergency steering wheel (17). It is now well decayed, but in a more intact state it featured in one of my favourite underwater photographs, one of those pictures I look at time and again and think: I wish I’d taken that. It can be seen on the cover of Dive North-east, with a diver dressed in a seaman’s jacket and not much else, holding the wheel and braving the weather. The photographer was Mike Brett.
Heading up the slope, the propeller and rudder can be found at about 27m, with the propeller wedged upright among small rocks and gravel (18).
At 20m the slope ends with a vertical wall most of the way to the surface (19), an ideal location to fizz off in the shallows and make the most of any remaining gas while admiring the soft corals.
As with any dive you might do in the Farne Islands, it’s well worth keeping a look-out for seals.
WHAT MADE THE LONGSTONE FAMOUS
Every wreck-diver knows the Longstone, writes Kendall McDonald. The lighthouse there in the Farne Islands is forever linked with the names of Grace Darling and her father William, and their rescue of the Forfarshire survivors.
But many other wreck-divers will know the Longstone reef for another shipwreck – that of the Chris Christensen, which ran aground on its south-eastern tip on 16 February, 1915, and is now known as one of the best dives in the area.
This 1491-ton Danish steamer was 85m long, with a beam of 11m. She had a draught of 5.5m and was built in 1903 with a single boiler and a three-cylinder triple-expansion engine amidships.
When wrecked, she was travelling in ballast with her four holds empty from her home port of Aarhus, Denmark, bound for Newcastle-upon-Tyne to pick up a general cargo. All her crew of 19 got off safely.
Although the Chris Christensen struck only the tip of the reef, and was riding high when she did so, she was so badly holed that within days she had slid off the edge of the reef and sunk into more than 30m of water.
TIDES: Slack is essential and occurs two hours after low water at Seahouses.
GETTING THERE: From the south, follow the A1M and A1 north, then take the B1340 to Seahouses. From the north, turn off the A1 on the B1342 to Bamburgh and continue along the coast to Seahouses. Once in Seahouses, just follow your nose to the harbour.
HOW TO FIND IT: The wreck is just off the south end of the Longstone. The chart co-ordinates are 55 38.38N 001 36.27W (degrees, minutes and decimals). Looking north along the Longstone you will see the lighthouse at the far end. Line up the small chimney between the window and the edge of the building. Come in along the transit and you should get an echo from the boilers in 32m, just before the seabed begins to slope up towards the Longstone. The wreck is 30-40m from the rocks.
DIVING AND AIR: A large number of hardboats work from Seahouses. Sovereign Diving operates two boats skippered by Ian and Andrew Douglas, who can supply air and nitrox.
LAUNCHING: At Seahouses, boats can be launched on the beach within the harbour, but not from the main slip. Beware of the silt at low water. Further south, beach-launching is possible across the sand at Beadnell.
ACCOMMODATION: Local skippers either operate their own B&B or can put you in touch with B&Bs to provide packages including accommodation and diving. Camping is available at Beadnell and Bamburgh.
QUALIFICATIONS: Depth makes the Chris Christensen unsuitable for novices, though the sloping reef makes an easy ascent, avoiding any need for hanging decompression stops.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 156, Farne Islands to the River Tyne. Admiralty Chart 160, St Abbs Head to the Farne Islands. Ordnance Survey Map 75, Berwick-upon-Tweed & Surrounding Area. Dive North-east by Dave Shaw & Barry Winfield. Northumberland Tourist Board.
PROS: Ideal for computer dive profiles, with a nice wall above the wreck and seals in the shallows.
CONS: Strong currents and slack water time is short.
Thanks to Ian Douglas.
Appeared in Diver, October 2001