To the Farne Islands we go to sort out a jumble of steamship wreckage that came to grief on a treacherous reef. You’ll need your wits about you on this one, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
This month’s Wreck Tour is a bit of a magical mystery tour. There is more than one wreck on the Knivestone, at least two wrecks in the area of our tour, and no one is 100% sure what either wreck is, though the most likely candidate for the main area of wreckage is the 2135-ton Belgian steamship Jan Van Ryswyck.
I have dived here several times from Sovereign Diver II, skippered by the late Ian Douglas, an excellent skipper and genuinely nice bloke. I was always amazed by the accuracy of Ian’s dive briefings, all the more remarkable because he wasn’t a diver himself.
He just listened to his divers after every dive and built a mental picture of where everything was. As I sat putting together the route for this month’s tour, I could almost hear Ian describing it to me.
There is no precision work with an echo-sounder or shotline at the start of this dive. The boat comes in close to the rocks and drops divers on a shallow kelpy plateau among the seals (1), the depth being just 3-5m.
To find wreckage, head directly out from the rocks and down the slope. The kelp grows thinner and more sporadic but never clears completely. The slope ends in a gully that runs along the face of the rock. This is about parallel to the large gully that splits the reef on the surface.
The exact location clearly depends on where you start and direction taken, so I will cheat and describe the dive from the north-east end of the gully (2).
Here the wreckage fizzles out at about 16m, with the gully continuing and widening further out. There are numerous small pieces of steel poking out of the pebbles and gravel on the floor of the gully, all polished of the worst rust and slowly being eroded away.
Ascending slightly along the gully, the pebbles on the floor give way to more substantial rock, with a couple of large ribs lying along the gully. At 14m the gully opens out into a saddle to deeper water, with the centre of the saddle occupied by a large four-bladed iron propeller (3). The tip of one of its blades is missing.
Past the propeller, a shaft much too thin to have been the propeller-shaft lies propped against the reef.
Rather than continuing down the other side of the gully, turn right and across the saddle.
There are again lots of small scraps of wreckage, but nothing substantial until about 10m from the propeller at a depth of 16m, where the remains of a steam engine lie down the slope (4).
It’s a fairly standard three-cylinder triple-expansion engine, orientated with the end that would have connected to the propeller-shaft pointing up the slope and back towards the prop. The base of the engine and crankshaft are level, with all the pistons fallen to one side.
From the top of the engine, the remains of a substantial hull rib leads down the slope to a section of hull (5) at about 20m.
Nearby two boilers stand upright (6), one propped against the other to leave a triangular swim-through between. The sides and tops of the boilers are covered in white and yellow dead men’s fingers. Holes rotted in the sides show the fire-tubes inside.
Assuming that the propeller, engine and boilers are all from the Jan Van Ryswyck, the line fits in with the course from Antwerp to Grangemouth.
It would have struck the Knivestone from the south, and to end up in this orientation it must have continued across the rocks, tearing the bottom out of the hull before sliding down the opposite side and sinking.
Such a pattern of sinking does not seem to be unusual in the Farnes. Both the Chris Christensen (Wreck Tour 32, October 2001) and Britannia (Wreck Tour 45, November 2002) lie pointing away from the rocks, having either run along them or right across them.
A little further out from the boilers, the last significant piece of wreckage I have encountered is a steel box with ribs across the top (7). Swinging further out reveals a few odd scraps of wreckage but nothing substantial. I suspect that there are some large bits of the bow out there somewhere.
Retreating back past the boilers and engine, a section of keel lies against the rocks to one side of the saddle (8).
Back in the gully (9), identifiable pieces of wreckage include a pair of small bollards and a pile of chain that does not look heavy enough to be anchor-chain from a ship of this size. Perhaps it was part of the steering, or possibly anchor-chain from another ship.
Further along, some larger ribs and plates have survived (10), though the wreckage soon fizzles out again at the end of the gully. Searching down the slope here reveals nothing more, though there are some quite pretty boulders with dead men’s fingers.
Continuing along the face of the Knivestone is more successful. Another large four-bladed iron propeller (11) could have been a spare from the Jan Van Ryswyck, but it is quite a way from it and not where it might be expected to have fallen.
A little further on, a single boiler rests against the edge of the slope (12), indication of another ship having come to grief on the Knivestone and most likely the owner of the propeller.
The last identifiable items of wreckage in this area are an anchor (13), then, halfway up the slope, another anchor (14) on the way back to the kelpy plateau at 5m. It’s an ideal depth for a safety stop while playing with the seals.
REEF OF DOOM
More than 60 ships lie in one underwater graveyard in the Farne Islands, all put there by a reef that in olden times they called the Knavestone, probably because of its treacherous nature, writes Kendall McDonald.
Today that same reef is known as the Knivestone. The Knivestone Rocks, possibly renamed for their cutting edge, are fully visible only at low-water spring tides, when they dry to 3m and become a favourite sprawling spot for a large colony of seals.
Much of the wreckage on the western side of the reef comes from the largest ship to be wrecked in the Farnes, the 5,753 ton steamship Abessinia, which ran on to the reef while on her way from Chile to Germany on 3 September, 1921.
The 135m German steamer, with a beam of 15m, is much broken. The really big ironwork is probably the Abessinia’s, near a huge boiler, but some of the wreckage is mixed with that of other steamships.
To the north between the reef and Whirl Rocks is a large collection of wreckage of the next biggest steamer, which local divers say comes from the Jan Van Ryswyck. She was a Belgian steamer of 2,135 tons, 87m long with a 13m beam, and hit the reef in thick fog while carrying iron, steel and a general cargo from Antwerp to Grangemouth on 21 May, 1924.
But her wreckage is jumbled with that of many another ship. Forget all the sailing ships, the sloops, brigs, schooners and luggers lost here, and concentrate on the steamships. Their ironwork may well be mixed in with the remains of the Jan Van Ryswyck.
The 484-ton Norwegian steamer Gier hit the reef in 1908 and broke in two. Some salvage was carried out before a storm smashed her into deep water. The 2,000-ton Emma of Gelfe hit the north of the Knivestone in 1914 and sank. The 1,336-ton Norwegian Gustav Viceland followed her down in 1916.
The Port Leven, a Scottish steamer from Aberdeen, struck and sank in 1917; the GR Gray, a tug on Naval service, sank the following year; and the Horley, a steamer from Dundee, hit the reef and sank in 1922. Identifying a piece of wreckage as from a particular ship is no easy task. Even iron propeller-blades among the wreckage might have come from a ship that was later floated off.
GETTING THERE: From the south, follow the A1M and A1 north, then take the B3142 to Seahouses. From the north turn off the A1 on the B3140 to Bamburgh and continue along the coast to Seahouses. Follow your nose to the harbour.
DIVING AND AIR: Sovereign Diving. This operator can also supply air and nitrox.
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.
TIDES: The Knivestone is covered at high water, so is best dived at low-water slack, which is 1 hour 30 minutes after low water Seahouses. The north side of the reef also gains some shelter on the ebb tide, but diving requires experience and discipline to stay in the sheltered area.
HOW TO FIND IT: Chart co-ordinates of the Knivestone are 54.39.00N 001.36.00W. The natural lay of the rocks is from north-east to south-west. Aim to enter the water as close to the rocks as possible on the north side, then swim out and up and down the gullies.
LAUNCHING: Boats can be launched on the beach within Seahouses 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.
QUALIFICATIONS: An easy dive at slack water, with plenty to see without getting too deep.
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 information.
PROS: A nice combination of wreckage, scenery and marine life, with the bonus of seals in the shallows.
CONS: A very exposed site. Even with a dive starting at slack water, poor navigation can lead divers into dangerous currents by the time they ascend.
With thanks to the late Ian Douglas.
Appeared in Diver, November 2003