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Wreck Tour 43: The Borgny

The Borgny
The Borgny

This Norwegian steamer sank in the Solent in 1918 and it deserves to be more often dived than it is, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS

I WOULD LIKE TO DEDICATE THIS MONTH’S Wreck Tour of the Borgny to Alex Poole, a friend who died recently in a diving accident overseas. Those who read the credits at the end of each Wreck Tour may recognise Alex’s name as one that has cropped up more than once. He helped with many of my sketches, including this month’s, of the Borgny.

He also appeared as the diver in quite a few of the photographs, though he does not appear this month.

We dived the Borgny with Graeme Herlihy from his RIB. Graeme hooked a shot over the upturned keel close to the stern (1).

The Borgny must have settled on its starboard side initially, tilted over and supported by upper parts of the ship. As these decayed, some parts settled upside-down and others collapsed without turning further.

The basic shape of the stern is intact, though upside-down, with plates missing and an easy view inside. The keel is at 26m and the seabed at 32m.

Following the keel back to the stern, a four-bladed steel propeller and the rudder are still in place (2), the propeller-blades covered in small anemones with dead men’s fingers near the tips.

In the opposite direction, the keel and propeller-shaft bend and twist towards the seabed, where the stern has settled upside-down but the central part of the ship has collapsed onto the starboard side (3). Huge shoals of pouting shelter beneath the keel, writhing out of the way as we swim forward.

The strain has broken the shaft at the join between two sections, with the shaft continuing a few metres further away from the keel (4). This section of shaft leads beneath broken plates to the remains of the steam engine (5), a crankshaft with connecting-rods leading to badly broken pistons. Even so, there is enough structure to support an overhanging section of the hull above.

Forward of the engine is a tight cluster of broken tubes (6). At first I thought this might have been part of a condenser, but now I think it more likely to be the remains of a second boiler, possibly a small donkey-boiler.

Immediately forward, the main boiler is intact and partly buried in wreckage (7). Though the tubes appear the same size, this is obviously a much larger structure than the broken tubes would ever have formed.

The wreck is now a mass of flattened plates, still retaining some curvature near the keel and rising a metre or so from the seabed. Towards the deck side of the wreck, the first notable items of wreckage are a partly upside-down winch and nearby mast (8). This is soon followed by the anchor-winch, completely inverted and partly obscured by its mounting-plate (9).

Following the edge of the wreckage, an anchor has fallen from the bow still in its hawse-pipe (10), resting on the gravel along the side of the wreck. There are no signs of the corresponding starboard anchor, which is presumably buried beneath the bow.

Like the stern, the bow itself is upside-down (11), its line rising just off the vertical from the seabed with keel uppermost. There is enough structure left to support a space worth exploring inside the bow (12).

Returning across the broken forward hold to the deck/port side of the wreck, level with the engine-room there is a thick section of mast just off some upright ribs poking out of the gravel (13). There are traces of coal among the gravel in this area, more likely from the ship’s bunkers than from the cargo.

A ship of this size with a single boiler would have had bunkers in a saddle configuration, each side of the boiler and engine-room. The Bretagne off east Devon (Wreck Tour 21, November 2000) illustrates a similar but more intact example of such a configuration.

Close to the base of the mast another winch is partly upside-down (14), almost at the same angle as the forward winch (8).

Further aft there is another section of mast or spar. Its smaller cross-section suggests that it might have been from a cargo-derrick originally attached to the base of the mast (13).

Close to where this meets the more intact stern part of the hull (15) is a considerable scattering of coal, here definitely from the Borgny’s cargo.

Staying near the seabed, there is plenty of room to swim under the cavern formed by the overturned stern of the wreck, a gloomy light penetrating through rectangular holes where plates have fallen from the hull (16).

The inside is full of pouting that swirl madly to get out of the way. Above, the remains of the propeller-shaft tunnel obscure the last section of the shaft, while the remains of the steering are partly buried below the rudder-post.

At the stern, more fallen plates should allow easy exit between the ribs at the seabed (17), though be prepared to retreat, because such exits could easily be closed by shifting gravel. When I dived the Borgny, an old trawl-net was draped round the stern along the seabed.

Any time remaining on a dive-computer can be spent looking through holes in the stern while ascending to the keel (18).

A CASE OF CONFUSION

The 1,149-ton Norwegian steamer Borgny, 68m-long with a beam of 11m, was sunk while heading up-Channel near the Isle of Wight on 26 February, 1918, carrying 1,500 tons of coal from Newport for Rouen.

Those are the basic facts, writes Kendall McDonald, but in reality the Borgny created a right tangle, not only for the Royal Navy, but for her skipper Ole Anton Hansen and, much later on, for wreck-divers.

The Borgny sank in 10 minutes with no loss of life, but the Admiralty blacklisted Captain Hansen, accusing him of sailing up-Channel with a stern light showing and for failing to comply with his sailing instructions.

Captain Hansen wrote a letter of protest to his employers, who in turn passed it on to the Navy. The captain said that he had followed orders, which was why he had kept as close to the shore as possible. it was a dark night and he had been alarmed to find another ship very close in his wake.

In those circumstances his orders indicated that a dimmed light could be shown, and that is what he did. it was only later, when he headed out to pass around the Isle of Wight, that he was hit by a torpedo.

The Admiralty, after reading his letter and checking his report, withdrew his name from the blacklist. However, it never queried that he had been torpedoed, though there was thought that because no U-boat commander had claimed sinking the Borgny, she had in fact hit a German mine.

The saga of Captain Hansen’s ship came to life again when divers over a period of several years kept diving a wreck about eight miles from Yarmouth, and entering it in their logs as the Borgny.

That had to stop when diver Richard Rimmer found the brass letters from the bow that spelt out New Dawn, a stern drifter used by the Admiralty as a minesweeper but herself mined on 23 March, 1918.

Where then is the Borgny? Well, all those wreck-divers who have this wreck-site logged as the Asborg should get out their Tippex. This is definitely the Borgny – Hurn SAC found the brass letters from her stern!

GETTING THERE: From the roundabout at the M27, Junction 1, turn south on the A337 through Lyndhurst and continue to Lymington. 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.

DIVING AND AIR: From Lymington, Wight Spirit, skipper Dave Wendes, air from TAL Scuba, Christchurch.

ACCOMMODATION: The New Forest is a popular tourist area with all levels of accommodation from camping to hotels readily available, Visitor Information.

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 35.414N, 001 41.665W (degrees, minutes and decimals OSGB, not the default WGS co-ordinates of the GPS system). The bow lies to the north-east, with the stern rising furthest from the seabed.

LAUNCHING: There is a slip in the marina at Lymington. It is tidal and dries towards low water.

QUALIFICATIONS: I would recommend a minimum qualification of a reasonably experienced sports diver. A maximum depth of 32m makes the Borgny ideal for nitrox.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2045, Approaches To The Solent. Ordnance Survey Map 196, The Solent & The Isle Of Wight. World War One Channel Wrecks, by Neil Maw. Shipwreck Index Of The British Isles Vol 2, by Richard & Bridget Larn.

PROS: A little-dived wreck which is just about right for a no-stop dive or minimal decompression.

CONS: Unpredictable visibility. Slack water can be short on spring tides.

Thanks to Alex Poole, Graeme Herlihy, Jonathan Peskett & Dave Wendes.

Appeared in Diver, September 2002

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