Two steamers, one iron, one steel, both built in 1880 and both destined to sink off the Isle of Wight, but which wreck has JOHN LIDDIARD been diving? The clues must surely be there… Illustration by MAX ELLIS
WHEN I DIVED THIS WRECK, it was thought to have been the Clyde. Since then, Dave Wendes has advised me that some taps have been found that indicate a Scandinavian origin, and the wreck may actually be the Spyros.
The identity is by no means certain, and at the moment you could flip a coin to decide which ship this wreck actually is. Both vessels had similar dimensions and fittings, so other clues to confirm identity are few and far between.
Our tour begins amidships by the boiler (1), an old design with a turret-shaped steam-dryer assembly on the top. The purpose of this is to apply a little extra heat and get the last traces of moisture out of the steam, because any moisture is fixed in volume and does not contribute to powering the engine, as the dry steam does.
Orientation is fairly easy. The dryer is towards the aft end of the boiler and the engine behind that, although our route will first go the other way, towards the bow. Forward of the boiler and on the starboard side, a figure 8-shaped machine visible between the deck beams is the steering-engine (2), fallen here from a wooden wheelhouse that would once have spanned the ship above the deck.
The frame of a bulkhead separates the machinery from the second hold (3). The deck has decayed to drop the intact hold-coaming into the hold. Similarly, much of the hull has decayed to leave only a framework of upright ribs along both port and starboard sides of this hold.
Staying inside the hold and towards the starboard side, the winches that would have once been mounted on deck between the hatches now both rest along the inside of the starboard side of the hull (4). The hatch-coaming from the forward hold has also dropped into the hold, but not quite all the way, held up by the remnants of a few deck-beams.
Forward of this is the bow, which I suspect was flush with the deck rather than a raised forecastle, though with the general decay it is hard to be sure.
A curved derrick lies along the bow (5), the top resting close to the end of a small anchor-winch that stands on its end. There are no signs of anchor hawse-pipes. Here the derrick would have been used to hoist anchors over the side of the ship, the chains guided by a simple fairlead either side of the bow. Both anchors rest together (6) just beside the anchor-winch.
Off the bow and on the seabed at 33m, there are no signs of further debris from the wreck, although an old lobster-pot has caught right at the tip of the bow.
Aiming for a non-stop tour at just over 30m, a fast route back to the boiler and engine is along the port side of the deck (7), simply because this is more intact than the starboard side.
The engine (8) is a two-cylinder compound unit, as fitted to both the Spyros and the Clyde. Scraps of coal among the debris at the bottom of the engine-room are more likely from the bunkers than the Spyros‘s cargo of coal.
The engine-room bulkhead is just a frame across the wreck, with a mast-foot secured firmly against its centre-line (9). Behind this, a cargo-winch has fallen on one end into the hold (10).
The deck about the aft hold (11) retains more structure than that about the forward holds, with the hold-coaming still held in its original place.
Like the bow, the stern (12) has broken down considerably compared to the rest of the hull. I suspect that it continued the flush-deck and that there was no raised quarter-deck. Any accommodation would have been in wooden deck-houses.
Beneath the stern, the propeller (13) is just visible with a single remaining blade, the other three blades having broken off. Behind the propeller, the rudder-post rises right at the stern to a simple steering-bar (14).
Rather than being hidden beneath the stern, I suspect that the rudder simply extended from the back, in line with the primitive design of the rest of the ship.
The Spyros (or Clyde) is such a small and simple wreck that it can easily be toured in a brisk no-stop dive, so ascent on the shotline or a delayed SMB are both reasonable options.
JUST A BIT OF A BUMP
It should be listed as an “unknown“, but divers regard all unknown wrecks as a challenge. So the identity of this ship off St Catherine's Point has, as a result of some determined diving, been whittled down from all the unknown wrecks off the Isle of Wight to only two.
Front-runner is a small iron steamer called the Clyde, which hit a breakwater as it left Portland Harbour in the early afternoon of Sunday, 25 May, 1902. Nobody on board worried about that. “Just a bit of a bump, that's all,” said the Mate.
And the 307 ton ship, which had been built in 1880 by the Whitehaven Shipbuilding Company, 40m long with a beam of 6m and drawing a mere 3m, continued on its way, driven by its two-cylinder compound engine of 70hp and single boiler.
The Clyde was carrying a cargo of lead ore from Aberystwyth to Antwerp. It had put into Portland early in the morning for coal. It was when it was leaving that the “bit of a bump” took place.
There was no sign of any damage, and the matter was not even entered in the log. But it was clear by 9pm that it should have been. Water started coming in so fast that it seemed as though the keel was badly damaged.
Captain Tom Brown knew his ship was doomed. The crew couldn’t stem the flow and at 10.20pm he ordered abandon ship. From their boats he and his 10 crew had not long to wait before the Clyde put its bow down and slid quietly under. The men were all picked up and landed safely at Dover the next day.
Also challenging for the unknown spot is Spyros, a Greek steel steamer, which in many ways was similar to the Clyde. It too was built in 1880, in Rostock. It was small, with a gross tonnage of 387, 45m long with a beam of 7m and a draught of 4m. It was driven by the same type of engine, a two-cylinder compound, single boiler producing 51hp.
In its tramping around Europe, it was named first Citos, then Nacka, then Jyden before taking its last name of all.
In December, 1921, Spyros was travelling from Newcastle upon Tyne to St Ives with a cargo of coal. On Tuesday, 20 December, huge seas were whipped up by gale-force winds, and as Spyros drew level – though well out to sea – with St Catherine's Point, the battering it was taking sprang a major leak in one of the holds full of coal.
Spyros turned in towards the land for shelter, but when the water reached the engine-room, it lost power and foundered. Few of the crew survived.
Which ship is the wreck? Divers so far have found a brass tap on the boiler – with what looks like German writing on it – and dive-boat skipper Dave Wendes recovered an engine-room repeater telegraph chiselled with English lettering. This wreck seems unlikely to remain “unknown” for much longer.
GETTING THERE: From the roundabout at the M27 junction 1, turn south on the A337 through Lyndhurst and continue on to Lymington. Head towards the town-centre until the road takes a sharp right and turn uphill to the High Street. Rather than go up the High Street, continue straight on and follow the road downhill to the river and marinas.
TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs 10 minutes after high-water Dover, or 45 minutes before low-water Dover.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 36.710N, 001 34.480W (degrees, minutes and decimals).
AIR : TAL Scuba, Christchurch, 01202 473030
LAUNCHING : There is a slip in the marina at Lymington. It is tidal and dries towards low water.
QUALIFICATIONS: Suitable for fairly experienced sports divers. The average depth of just over 30m makes the Spyros or Clyde ideal for nitrox.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2045, Approaches to the Solent. Ordnance Survey Map 196, The Solent & the Isle of Wight. Dive Wight and Hampshire, by Martin Pritchard & Kendall McDonald.
PROS: Just about the right size to see all of it in one dive, with enough to interest those happy to accumulate some decompression.
CONS: Which ship is it, the Spyros or the Clyde?
Thanks to Dave Wendes and members of the Hampshire Police Diving Club.
Appeared in DIVER May 2006