Wreck Tour 69: The Virginian

the virginian wreck tour
The Virginian Wreck Tour

This steam-trawler survived two world wars only to be mown down by a much bigger Empire ship in 1946. Yorkshire fishing's loss was divers' gain, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS

For this month’s Wreck Tour, I thought it was time to visit Yorkshire again. My original intention was to feature an unknown wreck only a few miles south of Scarborough. It is referred to by local divers as the Torpedo Wreck, after the remains of a torpedo that can be found among what’s left of the forward holds.

The trouble with “unknowns“ is of course the lack of information. Despite the best efforts of Kendall McDonald, our wreck history expert, this one remained an unknown, so we went 30 miles further out, on the Dogger Bank, to tour the trawler Virginian.

Meanwhile, if any reader can identify the Torpedo Wreck, perhaps we can feature it in a future Wreck Tour.

Our tour begins at the single boiler (1), which takes up most of the width of the hull. The Virginian was a 115ft-long steam trawler of 211 tons, with the boiler located approximately amidships. The wreck has settled with a list to port, so with the lower side of the hull to the left, a diver is facing the bow.

Forward of the boiler, the base of the main trawl-winch spans the deck (2). The wheelhouse would have been located above the boiler, overlooking the winch and the forward deck, though because it would have been built of wood, no trace remains.

The main drum of the trawl-winch has rolled off to the seabed on the port side of the wreck (3), angled slightly forwards.

The deck itself (4) is just a skeleton of steel ribs and supports, home to huge shoals of bib and poor cod. Any trace of the wooden decking has long since rotted away.

Further forward, the deck has collapsed completely about the remains of the hatch-coaming of the main hold (5). The starboard side is broken open. Could this be where the Virginian collided with the 7,177-ton troopship Empire Rapier? When you consider the difference in size between these two ships, I’m surprised that the Virginian wasn’t completely demolished.

The forecastle steps up above the main deck, though the entire structure remains open because the wooden decking has again rotted to leave a skeleton of steel ribs across the deck (6).

The pattern of ribs is broken by a line of three small openings, the foremost of which would have led to the chain-box. I suspect that the other two would have been a skylight and the companionway down, protected by a wooden cuddy.

The front section of the deck on the forecastle is steel, mounting a small anchor-winch (7). There are no hawse-pipes, and the chain would have been fed through a small fairlead either side of the bow; the port one remains as a solid ring just back from the tip of the bow.

Heading aft from the boiler, an eroded section of steel deck (8) has fallen to the port side to leave the engine exposed. The main engine is a conventional three-cylinder triple-expansion steam engine (9), with a small auxiliary engine powering a generator (10) to the starboard side of the engine-room.

Immediately behind the engine-room, a single derrick stands slightly to port (11). I think this would have been one of a pair for lifting a boat, but I could find no sign of the second derrick. A pair of bollards is mounted on the starboard side of the deck and I suspect that there is a corresponding pair on the port side, now obscured by the deck that has fallen away from above the engine-room.

Like the forward decks, the aft decks are just a skeleton of steel ribs, the wooden decking long since rotted away. The coaming for a single larger hatch is in the centre of the aft deck (12), with a solid cover askew on the deck just forward of it.

The stern is easily the prettiest part of the wreck. Steel ribs splay upward around the stern, where the gunwales would have been built up, covered in plumose anemones. In the centre, the steering quadrant points straight ahead (13). Below the stern (14), only the frame of the rudder remains. Not surprisingly, it too points straight ahead.

With a little bit of scour and the list to port, the Virginian’s four-bladed propeller can be seen still in place, forward of the rudder.

Propeller and frame of rudder below the stern
Propeller and frame of rudder below the stern

Having covered the wreck, the ascent depends on your skipper. I dived the Virginian from Gordon Wadsworth’s boat Jane R.

To avoid drifting into exclusion zones among the various rigs and production platforms of the gas and oil industry, Gordon has a system of tying his boat into a wreck that necessitates a return to the line for ascent (15).


Having survived both world wars, it seems hard that the steam trawler Virginian was to be sunk by another war survivor, writes Kendall McDonald.

Built at Beverley, in the yard of Cook Welton & Gemmel in 1906, the Virginian was owned by Onward Fishing Co of Grimsby. It was a highly rewarding boat for Onward, fishing the Dogger Bank from Hull with great success for nearly 40 years. It was 35m long with a beam of 7m and drew 3m.

On 5 November, 1946 it was going about its normal business, travelling out to the fishing grounds in ballast It was some 30 miles north-north east of the mouth of the Humber and had not yet put down any of its gear when out of the dawn at speed came the Empire Rapier, one of the large infantry landing ships that had taken part in the Normandy landings.

The Empire Rapier was one of 13 Empire ships built in America under Lease Lend and handed over in late 1943 to Britain’s Ministry of War Transport, for use as military transports. All were built by Consolidated Steel Corporation of Wilmington, California, and all were 7,177 tons and 127m long, with a beam of 18m and geared turbine engines.

And all were ready for D-Day with one 4in gun, one 12-pounder and twelve 20mm AA guns. When she hit the Virginian, the much smaller trawler stood no chance and sank within 10 minutes. The Empire Rapier was only slightly damaged and picked up the Virginian’s crew before continuing on to the Netherlands.

Two of these Landing Ships Infantry (Large) were sunk during the Normandy operations, but the Empire Rapier survived to be returned to US ownership in 1948, and to be scrapped in New Jersey in 1966.


GETTING THERE: From the south, follow the A1(M) north, then take the A64 past York to Scarborough. From the north, leave the A1(M) on the A61 or A168 for Thirsk, then take the A170 to Scarborough.

TIDES: Slack water is four hours after high or low water Scarborough.

HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS position is 53 40.868 N, 0 48.675 E (degrees, minutes and decimals), 25.83 nautical miles ENE from Spurn Head. There are no transits. The wreck lies bow to the north-west.

DIVING & AIR: Jane R, boarding at Scarborough, 0777 585 1150. This liveaboard spends most of the year in Norway or Oban, but can be available for charter from Scarborough because it switches location in late summer or early autumn.

LAUNCHING: Slip- or beach-launching available at Flamborough, Bridlington and Hornsea.

ACCOMMODATION: To stay ashore, contact tourist information: Scarborough 01723 373333; Bridlington 01262 673474; Hornsea 01964 536404.

QUALIFICATIONS: Suitable for BSAC Sports Diver or equivalent.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 121, Flamborough Head to Withernsea. Ordnance Survey Map 101, Scarborough, Bridlington & Filey. The Comprehensive Guide to Shipwrecks of the East Coast Vol 2, by Ron Young. Dive Yorkshire, by Arthur Godfrey & Peter Lassey.

PROS: An ideal size for a no-stop dive or just a few minutes of stops at this depth.

CONS: Not many diving charter-boats can get you there

Thanks to Gordon Wadsworth, Helen George, Andy Moll, Ron Young and members of Severnside BSAC.

Appeared in Diver November 2004


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