Brave the currents off the Farne Islands to enjoy the remnants of this colourful steamer with a touch of mystery, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
When Ian Douglas suggested diving the Britannia, I did a slight double-take. Hadn’t the Royal Yacht been turned into a floating museum in Edinburgh? Then Ian explained that this was, in fact, a small, 740-ton steamship of that name that ran over the Crumstone in the Farne Islands and broke her back in 1915.
The remains are now well broken up, with the main areas of wreckage being the bow at the bottom of the slope in 26-30m, and the engine and stern in the shallow gullies between the rocks.
There are many variations of ways to dive this wreck, ranging from dropping a shot on the bow to starting in the shallow gullies and working down the slope. For convenience, this month’s Wreck Tour will begin at the bow (1).
As with many well-broken wrecks, the strength of the bow has resulted in it surviving with some structure when the rest of the hull has been smashed to pieces. The bow rests on its starboard side, a wedge-shaped cavern interrupted by ribs across its throat. Out in the current, it is covered in white and yellow dead men’s fingers and small anemones.
Just behind the bow, the anchor-winch lies upside-down, covered by its mounting plate (2). Nearby, the anchor hawse-pipes lie crossed on the seabed (3). A section of chain emerging from one is draped diagonally across the winch.
A single anchor lies on the seabed behind the hawse-pipes, but might not be an original anchor from the Britannia. To me, it looks a little insubstantial for a ship of this size (4).
Next comes a mast, perpendicular to the line of the wreckage and suggesting that the whole of this part of the wreck had originally come to rest on its starboard side before breaking up. On the other side of the wreck, a few hull-plates show the line of the keel.
Behind the mast is a cargo-winch, intact but also upside-down and covered by its mounting-plate (5).
Something that caught me a little by surprise is a pile of millstones (6); each about 1.5m across and 15cm thick. An unlikely cargo, until you consider that they might have been used as ballast. According to one account I heard, they must each weigh at least 2 tons, because a lifting bag rated for that weight had failed to lift one!
The wreck is now on a noticeable slope, a scattering of small bits of wreckage with the last recognisable item being an engine of some sort with a heavy spoked wheel attached (7) at a depth of about 20m. Perhaps the term ‘recognisable’ is a bit out of place, because I haven’t got a clue what it is. As with all the wreckage seen so far, it is covered with soft corals and anemones.
From now on, the slope is bare of any major items of wreckage, though the small rocks are still home to a crust of pink calcifying algae and other colourful marine life. The slope levels out to a plateau at 10m (8), with larger scraps of wreckage resuming about 10m back onto the plateau (9).
The wreckage continues into gullies cut back into the shallow reef. Following a smaller gully to the east (10) leads to a section of keel and an intact four-bladed iron propeller partly obscured by kelp (11).
In the other direction, the entrance to a second, wider gully is guarded by a boiler standing on end (12). The casing of the boiler is broken by large holes and many of the tubes inside are also broken, making it possible to look right through the boiler.
A second, more intact boiler lies further into the gully (13), resting in a more usual orientation with two fire-holes at the outer end. Behind this is a three-cylinder steam engine (14), with a section of propeller-shaft resting against the side of the gully.
The gully narrows and is partially blocked by a large boulder (15), with a swim-through beneath. It continues right through the rock to a kelpy plateau on the other side, a favoured hang-out for some of the Farne Islands’ playful grey seals.
On my dive, Ian directed us to swim through the gully; he would then pick us up on the other side of the rocks. I looked for further wreckage here but couldn’t find anything significant. Which brings me to a bit of a mystery. Just how much of this wreck is actually the Britannia?
The ship’s drawings in Dive North-east suggest that there was only one boiler, so there might have been a second ship of similar size wrecked in pretty much the same place. Yet, where is the rest of it?
On the other hand, the Britannia is suspected to have been rebuilt in 1892, right at the time when steam engineering was developing, so perhaps an old single boiler was replaced by two more modern boilers, each smaller and more efficient. Either way, there are still questions to be answered.
TWO RIGHT FEET
They say that in the autumn of 1915 you could always tell a Farnes fishermen, not only because he was wearing new Army boots, but because both his left foot and his right foot were in boots made for the right foot!
This little local deformity was entirely due to the wreck of the 740-ton British steamer Britannia, writes Kendall MacDonald. On 25 September, 1915 she was sailing from Newcastle to Leith with a general cargo that included British army supplies, when she ran into thick fog around the Farne Islands.
To add to the captain’s problems, he knew that he was close to the most easterly of the Farnes, where a reef made up of the Crumstone and Callers Rocks provides a deadly trap for shipping, even in daylight.
The Crumstone is never awash, but is very low in the water. The Callers are even lower and covered at high water. The Longstone light was usually fair warning of the Crumstone, but a wartime blackout had been imposed, and the Britannia look-out saw nothing before she struck. The 63m-long ship ran well up on the rock and stuck hard.
It was a calm night, so calm that the first officer rowed into Seahouses for help. At first light the wreck was spotted by local fishermen, who took the other 18 crew and two passengers off before starting to salvage her cargo.
The next day the weather worsened and a swell began to pound the reef. The Britannia’s back broke very quickly, but nothing slowed the salvage.
Most obvious in the cargo were hundreds of pairs of new Army boots. But Army quartermasters had taken the precaution of packing the right and left boots separately to stop looting. Their caution paid off when a full storm broke – just as the fishermen-salvors were extracting a case of right-footed boots – forcing all salvage to be abandoned. Few left boots ever came ashore!
That storm was the end of the Britannia, which had been built in Leith in 1885 as a passenger / cargo vessel for North Sea work. The wreck is now owned by Mansfield BSAC. It bought it for £30 from the Curry Steamship Company, which owned the vessel at the time of her loss.
GETTING THERE: From the south, follow the A1M and A1 north, then take the B3140 to Seahouses. From the north, turn off the A1 on the B3142 to Bamburgh and continue along the coast to Seahouses. Once in Seahouses, just follow your nose to the harbour.
DIVING AND AIR: A large number of hardboats work from Seahouses. Sovereign Diving operates two boats skippered by Ian and Andrew Douglas. The operation can also supply air and nitrox.
ACCOMMODATION: Local skippers either operate their own B&Bs or can put you in touch with B&Bs to provide packages including accommodation and diving. Camping is available at Beadnell and Bamburgh.
TIDES: Slack is essential and occurs one hour after high or low water at Seahouses.
HOW TO FIND IT: The wreck lies in line with a gully through the Callers, a series of rocks just to the west of the Crumstone, to the south side of the rocks. The chart co-ordinates are 55 37.65N, 001 36.10W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The bow section is 30-40m from the rocks.
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, it is possible to undertake beach-launches across the sand at Beadnell.
QUALIFICATIONS: A good dive on which newly qualified sport divers can build experience, with the shallow parts providing plenty of interest for beginners as long as there is not too much surge.
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: A colourful wreck that leaves many questions.
CONS: Strong currents and a short slack water. Difficult surge in anything but a flat sea.
Thanks to Ian Douglas.
Appeared in Diver, November 2002