During gunnery practice, it's accepted custom to aim for the target rather than the tugboat that's towing it. The Buccaneer fell victim to a gunner who got things back-to-front, but the Admiralty’s loss is the diver’s gain, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
THE ADMIRALTY TARGET TUG BUCCANEER is one of those nice wrecks that is ideally sized for the depth in which it is sunk. Anyone going to 46 or 47m should be prepared to do at least a little decompression, but you can see most of the Buccaneer on one dive without getting too heavily into deco.
It’s a difficult wreck to shot, a small target running along the tide. Shots have a habit of dragging along it rather than catching. With that in mind, skippers are usually happy just to catch it rather than being fussy about where on the wreck they aim the shot.
To make life easy, I will assume that our tour of the Buccaneer starts with the shot placed amidships (1).
The wreck lies on its port side, with the bow to the east. The upper starboard side of the hull is in about 37m.
Heading towards the bow, the bow deck is raised from the main deck with forecastle below (2). In the side are holes where portholes used to be located.
The rear half of the bow deck is taken up by the 3in gun (3). Both the gun and the platform are intact; even the hand-wheels are still there. The gun points forward along the ship, perhaps a little to starboard.
Forward of the gun is the anchor-winch (4), which is not particularly big, because the Buccaneer was only an 840-ton tug.
Over the bow both anchors are still in place, held snug and tight in their hawse-pipes by the anchor-chains from the winch (5).
Behind the forecastle, short steps on either side descend to the main deck (6). A hatchway between leads back into the forecastle, a tight and very silty space should you feel inclined to explore.
There is only a short space of open deck before the remains of the superstructure and wheelhouse (7). The lower level is framed in steel, so that although the wooden sides have rotted through, the overall structure is supported.
The upper wheelhouse level has not survived so well, with only a steel frame at the front surviving and the remaining wooden structure long rotted away.
Behind the wheelhouse is a raised deck above the boiler and boiler-room. The funnel is gone and the flue blocked with debris (8). Towards the port and lower side of the wreck, a pair of boat-davits stand empty.
When I last dived the Buccaneer, a fishing-net was strung across the wreck just aft of the boat-davits (9), caught on the stubs of a pair of masts set either side of the deck. With floats still attached, it billowed up above the wreck, so I advise caution here. It’s not difficult to avoid if you keep an eye out for it.
Clear of the net and continuing towards the stern, behind the boiler-room is another gun platform, this time on stilts to raise it well above the main deck (10). The platform is intact, complete with railing. The gun-pintle stands securely in the centre of the platform but there is no sign of the gun, either on the platform or on the seabed below.
Behind the gun-platform you will see the familiar engine-room ventilation-hatches (11). These are open, though not that big. A sufficiently adventurous and skinny diver could get inside. One of the steam engines is almost within arm’s reach from the outside.
Aft of the ventilation-hatches, a small cuddy with a half-height hatch marks the official entry from the deck to the engine-room.
The deck from here to the stern was dedicated to the Buccaneer’s dangerous (as it turned out) function of towing gunnery targets. A large winch spans most of the width of the deck (12), and steel cable is still wound on the drum, with numerous handwheels, brake-rods and other controls still in place. Either side are substantial-looking bollards.
The aft deck has fallen from the ship (13) to leave a jumbled mess of the below-deck space. Original photographs show arched cable-guides over the deck here and big Samson posts, all now buried beneath the debris of the deck on the seabed.
Some hull-plates have also fallen away to leave an open spider of ribs just above the stern. Right at the stern the steering-quadrant (14) is intact and still attached to the rudder-shaft.
Continuing behind and below the stern (15) and out of view on the illustration, the rudder is broken downwards from the shaft towards the seabed. Above the rudder, the starboard shaft stands clear of the wreck supported by an A-frame. The bronze propeller has been salvaged.
The port shaft is buried in the silt below the keel at 47 or 48m, the propeller still in place, though sometimes only the tip of a blade shows above the silt.
To end the dive, I strongly recommend getting to a higher point of the wreck on the starboard railing (16), then making sure you are on the downcurrent side of any fishing-net that remains (17) before launching a delayed SMB. Doing so from upcurrent of a net could ruin your day.
WHAT A ROTTEN SHOT!
Just who was responsible for the appallingly inaccurate shooting of HMS St James, a 2,325-ton just-delivered Navy destroyer, during live-ammunition firing trials at a towed target in Lyme Bay?
No one wanted to know. But the captain of the armed Portland Naval Base tug Buccaneer, which was towing the target on that sunny morning of 26 August, 1946, never had any doubts, writes Kendall McDonald.
Soon after a 4.5in shell sank his tug from under him, those who picked him and his crew out of the water were treated to a high-explosive outburst of language of a sort rarely heard even in the Navy.
He pinpointed the four 4.5in guns among the destroyer’s armament as the culprit. The inquiry that followed proved that at least the Buccaneer skipper’s aim was accurate.
The 840-ton Buccaneer was built in 1937 by Flemming & Ferguson. She was 50m long with a beam of 10m, and driven by a single screw powered by a three-cylinder, triple-expansion engine.
At the outbreak of WW2 she was fitted with a 3in gun at her bow. It was never used in anger. For most of the war she was a resident tug at Portland Naval Base.
GETTING THERE: If diving with a hardboat out of Weymouth, follow the A37 or A354 to Dorchester, then the A354. Avoid the seafront and continue along the back of the harbour. Turn left just before the fire-station. Boats pick up from the marina floats in front of the fire-station, across the bridge at Weymouth Quay by the Sailor’s Return or further along the Old Harbour area by the Old Rooms Inn. Arrive early, because you might have to wait for space to unload and then find somewhere to park and walk back to the boat.
DIVING AND AIR: Out-Rage, skipper Rod Thompson, Our W, skipper Woody. Air, nitrox and trimix are available from Old Harbour Dive Centre.
ACCOMMODATION: The area is littered with B&Bs and small hotels. Campsites are out of town, usually very smart and a bit expensive. Particularly convenient bed & breakfast is available at the Sailor’s Return on Weymouth Quay.
TIDES: Neaps recommended. Slack water is 3 hours 45 minutes after high water Portland. On neaps the tide also drops to a diveable state (but not fully slack) 2 hours 45 minutes before high water Portland.
HOW TO FIND IT: The position of the Buccaneer on GPS is 50 29.37N 02 41.70W (degrees, minutes and decimals). It lies along the tide with the bow towards Portland and can take several tries to shot.
LAUNCHING: There are slipways for RIB-launching at Weymouth, Portland, West Bay and Lyme Regis. Harbour and launch fees are payable.
QUALIFICATIONS: Experienced divers who are prepared to make decompression stops of more than a few minutes, though you don’t have to be extreme.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head To Bill Of Portland. Ordnance Survey Map 194, Dorchester, Weymouth & Surrounding Area. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. Shipwreck Index Of The British Isles Vol 1, by Richard & Bridget Larn. Diver's Guide To Weymouth & Portland Area, Weymouth & Portland BSAC. Shipwreck Guide To Dorset and Lyme Bay, by Nigel Clarke. Weymouth tourist information.
PROS: Fairly intact, a larger than average tug with the bonus of armament.
Thanks to Woody & Rod Thompson
Appeared in Diver, December 2003