This German freighter sank off Anglesey just 16 years ago and it can now be enjoyed in different ways by advanced and less-advanced divers alike, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
IT’S BACK TO NORTH WALES AND LIVERPOOL BAY for this month’s tour of a modern 998-ton freighter. The Ardlough is configured, like most modern freighters, with a tall superstructure at the stern to look forward over a deck stacked with containers.
So to begin, I am assuming that a shot has been skilfully hooked in at the top of the superstructure (1) at about 25m, a feat that a good skipper with time and patience will easily achieve.
The entire stern section of the wreck is tilted aft and to starboard. To orient yourself at the start of the dive, remember that forward is with the highest corner of any area of deck to a diver’s left-hand side; the lowest corner in the direction of a diver’s right fin.
Our tour will follow an “extended-range” route, involving depth and long enough on the wreck to get into a fair bit of decompression. For a simpler and shorter route, just cut out the part that leads off to the bow and back.
Basic orientation established, from the top of the superstructure the port bridge wing (2) is down one deck at the upper (port) side of the wreck. The entire wreck is an enormous splodge of orange and white, everything being plastered in a dense covering of plumose anemones.
With the intention of visiting the bow first, before returning to the superstructure later, the main deck is reached by descending two decks further, ideally along the forward port corner of the superstructure, because this leads to the most intact corner of the hold (3).
The aft section of hold is almost empty. Presumably it held containers that have floated clear. The next points of interest are mounds of bulk cargo shrouded in heavy white polythene sheet (4).
These lie diagonally across the hold and can be reached most easily by following the broken deck across the rear of the hold to the starboard side at about 40m, where it reaches the seabed and then the edge of the hatch-coaming forwards.
Forward across the white polythene dunes, the side of the hull regains some shape and begins to rise again from the seabed. Just off the starboard side are a group of containers (5). Some of these are rotted through and there is at least one liquid container, a cylinder inside a standard-size frame so that it can stack with other containers.
Continuing along the starboard side of the hull, the bow (6) is upright and reasonably intact. The back of the bow section rises vertically from the seabed to the main deck (7), with steps either side cut into the forecastle, rising to the bow deck at 33m (8).
Outside of these steps and still on the starboard side, intact sections of railing guard single heavy-duty bollards and pairs of smaller bollards. Forwards and in the centre of the bow deck is a big anchor-winch with chains descending into the hawse-pipes (9). To either side are further pairs of small bollards.
The starboard side of the bow is stoved-in from the collision with the dock wall in Liverpool that eventually sank the Ardlough (10). Just forward of the collision damage, the starboard anchor is still in its hawse-pipe (11), though a substantial length of chain has run loose to the seabed below.
Rounding the bow, the bow bulge can be seen below, rising a surprisingly long way from the seabed, then the port anchor is visible, also firmly secured in its hawse-pipe (12).
Back on the bow deck and heading aft, a set of large and small bollards (13) matches those on the starboard side.
To complete a circuit of the whole wreck, it is now time to make haste back towards the stern. Along the port side (14) offers the most direct and shallowest route, because the first part of the hull is upright and intact, though the hull has folded down to the seabed midway along the holds (15).
Back at the superstructure, a line of windows across the front (16) provides holes to peer into and distract you while crossing to starboard again. As you round the corner, the first lifeboat-davit can be seen intact (17), though there is no sign of the second of the pair, except for some torn mountings on the deck.
Drop over the side of the hull and into the scour beneath the stern. The propeller and rudder are both still in place (18), with a gap big enough to swim through, allowing you to ascend back to the deck on the port side of the stern.
The stern deck itself has a big capstan in the centre (19), with pairs of small bollards on either side.
The back of the superstructure and accommodation is both one of the prettiest parts of the wreck and interesting in structure, with a series of anemone-covered steps and ladders (20) rising three levels to the top of the wheelhouse and doorways into cabins and the engine-room.
If you have time, or didn’t take the detour to the bow, there is plenty of scope for exploring.
To ascend, it should not be too hard to relocate the shotline. Alternatively, the funnel and mast (21) can be followed to as shallow as 22m before you release a delayed SMB.
Normally I would advocate launching a delayed SMB by tying a reel into the wreck, but to do so here would be too likely to foul the shotline and could present a hazard to divers already decompressing. The solution is to get neutrally buoyant and swim cross-current for at least 10m before sending the delayed SMB up from midwater.
HOLED IN THE HOLD
A leak in her hold was caused when she hit a lock wall when leaving Garston Docks, but it must have been a big hole by the time the Ardlough, a heavily laden, 998-ton West German steel motor vessel, 80m long with a beam of 14m, finally sank. She was bound from Liverpool for Belfast in September 1988, writes Kendall McDonald.
The Ardlough didn’t get far. Her Mayday call went out from the middle of a gale at 3.24 in the morning on 26 September, before she had even left Liverpool Bay. Her West German captain and his eight Filipino crew were lifted off safely by an RAF search & rescue helicopter just as the 12 containers on deck broke loose as she sank.
What those 91 deck containers held is not listed separately, but in addition to these her cargo included steel in the shape of bars, sheet and rods; coal; rolls of newsprint; tobacco; biscuits; foam blocks and one container of low-level radioactive material routed to Belfast. Other cargo included drums of hydrogen peroxide and sodium hypochlorite.
The Ardlough, which had been built in East Germany in 1968 as the Barbel Bolten, was soon buoyed by Trinity House and was wire-swept to 16m in 1993. Salvage was carried out, but some of the containers were swept great distances from the wreck and never found.
GETTING THERE: Follow the A55 across North Wales to Anglesey. Once over the bridge, take the slip road and turn right to Menai Bridge (the town, not the bridge itself). Turn towards the waterfront by the newsagent and post office opposite the HSBC bank. The boat picks up from the pontoon in front of the harbour office.
TIDES: Slack water occurs at high water and low water Liverpool.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS position of the South Cardinal buoy is 53 34.780N, 003 50.440W (degrees, minutes and decimals). From the buoy, head north with an echo-sounder to find the wreck.
ACCOMMODATION: Scott Waterman of Quest can put you in contact with the whole range of local accommodation, ranging from B&B in the pub by the harbour office to camping outside town.
QUALIFICATIONS: Superstructure accessible to sports divers, though exploring the whole wreck is more of an extended-range dive.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1978, Approaches to Liverpool. Ordnance Survey Map 114, Anglesey. Anglesey Wrecks and Reefs by Andy Shears & Scott Waterman. Tourist information 01407 762622,
PROS: A good club dive with the superstructure accessible to new sports divers and deeper parts providing a challenge to the more experienced.
CONS: Strong up and down currents outside of slack water.
Thanks to Scott Waterman.
Appeared in Diver October 2004