Wreck Tour 60: The St Jacques

The St Jacques
The St Jacques

Who’s been messing about with the buoy? This French steamer wreck out of Milford Haven might be hard to pin down, says JOHN LIDDIARD, but the reward is a cracking dive with an intact condenser into the bargain. Illustration by MAX ELLIS

Getting started on the St Jacques caused some confusion. Steve Lewis’s buoy was still on the wreck, but its location did not tally with its supposedly being left on the stern, the GPS numbers or the traces of the boilers on the echo-sounder. It seems that some divers had been having fun moving the buoy from one end of the wreck to the other.

So despite an initial intention to begin this month’s Wreck Tour from the stern, we will in fact begin on a plate just below the keel at the bow (1). By the time readers get to dive it, the wandering buoy could be anywhere but I hope that, by studying the tour, orientation will not be too difficult. I could easily see the shadow of the bow (2) and immediately recognised where I was.

The bow is separated from the main body of the wreck and rests on its starboard side. Crossing the port side of the bow, the starboard anchor rests snugly in its hawse-pipe.

Moving round to the deck-side of the bow, the deck and everything fitted to it has fallen clear. The anchor-winch (3) is just forward and “above” the bow, floating upside-down beneath its mounting-plate on the coarse white sand.

One broken winch-spindle lies just forward, though it is hard to tell if this is from the anchor-winch or from one of the cargo-winches serving the forward holds.

Further forward off the wreck, the forward gun-mount (4) rests on one side, the base-plate vertical to the seabed and the pedestal that would have supported the gun partly buried.

St Jacques wreck, aft gun and mount, showing the breech
Aft gun and mount, showing the breech

Two sets of bollards from the bow rest just “above” in orientation to the wreck (5). The bow deck would have been made of wood, with the various fittings secured via steel mounting-plates, through the wooden deck to the ribbed frame of the bow. With the wood decaying, the mounting-plates have fallen loose with the deck-fittings.

Returning to the bow itself, the anchor-chain has fallen from its box to lie in a pile against the starboard side (6), with another pair of bollards just off the wreck (7). The bow is open, with an easy swim through between the ribs, a location enjoyed by sizeable shoals of bib.

Anchor in place on the port bow
Anchor in place on the port bow

In addition to falling to its starboard side, the bow has also twisted offline to starboard from the main body of the wreck. Plates of the hull emerge from the sand, partly buried behind the bow (8) and no doubt the situation changes through time as the sand shifts with storms and tide.

These plates soon rise to reveal the box-structure of a double hull. There are no significant features on this part of the wreck, but I did spot a good-sized lobster at home between the ribs.

Continuing aft, most wreckage has fallen to port. On the wreck a small curved set of boiler-mounts (9) at the starboard side indicate a point where exploration off to starboard is worthwhile to find the donkey-boiler (10), the casing partly broken to reveal the fire-tubes inside.

All around this area you’ll see a fair amount of debris from the stoke-hold and engine-room, providing a home for more lobsters and another big shoal of bib.

Lobster among debris in the engine-room
Lobster among debris in the engine-room

Hatch-coamings from the coal-bunkers rest on one side, in line with the keel, still attached to a broken frame from the deck (11).

The two main boilers (12) have also rolled to this side of the wreck, like their smaller sibling broken open to reveal the fire-tubes.

Returning to the box-section of the bottom of the hull and keel, most of the remains of the triple-expansion engine have also fallen to the starboard side of the wreck (13). The cylinders are cracked open, though the pistons are still linked by a tangle of connecting-rods and valve-rods to the crankshaft.

To the port side of the engine, a rare sight is a mass of condenser-tubing resting parallel to the crankshaft (14). Just behind this, and further to port, is the crown of the low-pressure piston from the engine (15), an anomaly as the rest of the engine and pretty much everything else on the wreck has fallen to starboard.

Behind the engine, the crankshaft links to the propeller-shaft through the thrust-bearing (16).
Again diverting to the starboard side of the wreck, a cluster of winches and a section of mast mark the midpoint between the two aft holds (17).

The propeller-shaft continues aft along the line of the keel, supported on its bearings until it breaks at a join just short of the stern (18). There is only a short section more of shaft until the St Jacques breaks completely. The final section of stern should be visible just a few metres away, and is, like the bow, lying on its starboard side.

The iron propeller (19) is still attached to the shaft and looks a bit awkward. The angles between these blades suggest there might be five, but on reflection I think it is a four-bladed propeller slightly bent. With only two and a half blades showing above the sand, it’s hard to tell for sure.

It might just be a trick of perspective and, at 37m, a touch of narcosis.

The rudder is missing, but the rudder-post is still in place behind the propeller, with an easily recognised steering-quadrant at the top of the post (20). I looked hard for signs of the rudder further out but without any success, finding only a few miscellaneous scraps of metal.

”Above” the rudder-post is the stern gun (21), lying on one side and still attached to its mounting-plate.

The last identifiable item of wreckage I could find was the spare propeller (22), lying almost flat and, like the main prop, partly buried in the sand with only two and a half blades showing.

REVENGE ON THE STALKER

Capitaine Henri Hauville, who had commanded the 2,459-ton French steamer St Jacques since she was built in 1909 in Dunkirk, had kept her out of trouble for all three years of the war so far, writes Kendall McDonald.

Perhaps Capitaine Hauville was overconfident, or perhaps his crew were not keeping as keen a watch as they should, but those onboard had no idea that they were being stalked by a German U-boat on the morning of 15 September, 1917.

As they crossed the Bristol Channel five miles off the entrance to Milford Haven, loaded with Welsh coal from Barry for Bizerta, the periscope of UC51 followed them. Watching through the lenses was Oberleutnant Heinrich Galster. Moments later he put just one torpedo from a bow tube into the St Jacques’ starboard side.

The 88m-long St Jacques took more than 15 minutes to sink, and her crew had plenty of time to take to the boats.

Almost exactly two months later, on the morning of 17 November, UC51 ran into a U-boat trap. On 5 and 11 November British minelayers had laid 680 of the Navy’s new H2 mines deep, south of Start Point.

Galster obviously found those mines. Following a huge explosion, his U-boat was seen by the Navy’s armed trawler Lois to surface amid oil and debris, wallow and then capsize before sinking. There were no survivors.

UC51 has been dived recently in 68m. The wreck was reported to be intact except for the heavy damage sustained to the stern.

TOUR GUIDE

GETTING THERE: Follow the M4, A40 and A477 to Pembroke Dock, then cross the bridge to Neyland and follow the signs for the marina.

DIVING AND AIR: Pembrokeshire Dive Charters, Steve Lewis.

ACCOMMODATION: Pembrokeshire Dive Charters can arrange accommodation if requested at the Lawrenny Castle Hotel in Neyland.

TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs approximately two hours before high water Milford Haven, but can vary by up to half an hour with weather and spring tide.

HOW TO FIND IT: GPS co-ordinates are 51 38.435N, 5 06.771W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies mostly flat to a sandy seabed with bow to the east and is very difficult to locate, the bow and the boilers being the highest points.

LAUNCHING: Slips are available at Neyland and Dale.

QUALIFICATIONS: An advanced air or nitrox dive requiring moderate decompression to make it worthwhile.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2878, Approaches To Milford Haven. Ordnance Survey Map 157, St David’s And Haverfordwest Area. Shipwreck Index Of The British Isles Vol 5, West Coast And Wales, by Richard & Bridget Larn.

PROS: A rare chance to see a condenser that hasn’t been salvaged.

CONS: Not much shows up on an echo-sounder.

Thanks to Steve Lewis, Dave Liddament & Scott Lawrence

Appeared in Diver, February 2004

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