This colourful adventure playground, a small tanker off Northumberland, is just the right size to explore at its depth, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
OUR WRECK TOUR THIS MONTH takes us back to Northumberland to explore the Acclivity, a small coastal tanker that was carrying a cargo of linseed oil when it sank in 1952. The wreck used to be upright, but has been rolled by storms. It now lies nearly half-buried on its port side in 29m.
Wherever the shot hits the wreck, it will most likely be caught across the upper starboard side of the hull. Orientation is easy on a wreck this small, and wherever the shot has actually caught, it is only a short swim along the anemone- and hydroid-covered hull to the stern.
So this is where our tour will begin, on the keel by the Acclivity's propeller (1). The three-bladed screw is intact and shows no obvious signs of damage from striking the submerged object that left the ship without power and sinking 55 years ago. Behind the propeller, the rudder has drooped to port (2).
Staying close to the seabed and “ascending” the stern, many hull-panels above the waterline are rotted through, leaving a lattice covered in plumose anemones (3). Above the stern, the steering-engine is enclosed in a rectangular box about the rudder-post, with a short tiller-arm attached to the top for emergency steering, now pointing to the seabed in line with the rudder (4).
There is little sign of the wheelhouse or any other superstructure that once rose above the stern. I suspect that it was mostly built of wood and simply decayed, leaving only a pair of curved boat-derricks and the remains of the funnel fallen to the seabed below (5).
Like the superstructure, the wooden deck has completely decayed to leave layers of partially complete ribs the only obstruction to swimming through two decks to the diesel engine (6).
From the superstructure, steps lead down (7) to the raised central section of the main deck, the site of some particularly lush growths of anemones.
Larger tankers would have a walkway on stilts above the main deck to provide an unobstructed way forward above a low deck that could easily be awash in a heavy sea (for example, the San Tiburcio, Wreck Tour 94, December 2006).
On the much smaller Acclivity, the same function was provided by a central part of the deck raised by less than a metre.
The amidships area is where the Acclivity is most damaged. First the raised section of deck has broken away to leave a gap along the middle of the deck (8), then the ship is almost broken in two, with the entire deck missing and broken to the seabed (9). This is actually an enormous hole right through the ship, but more of that later.
After a gap getting on for 10m, the raised section of the deck continues forward to the forecastle with an intact railing (10). Just before it joins the forecastle, the deck is pierced by an open hatch (11).
Fittings on the bow deck include a small pair of bollards and the anchor-winch (12). Over the edge of the deck, on the upper starboard side, the anchor is still in place, tight in its hawse-pipe (13). The corresponding port side of the bow is well-buried beneath the seabed.
Just behind the anchor-winch, the deck is broken by a large hole, easily large enough to swim inside (14) and continue aft through the tank space, which is unobstructed all the way to the break amidships (15).
We skipped past this earlier, but both the deck and keel are broken to leave a gap arched by the starboard side of the hull (16).
With the hull weakened by this hole, the Acclivity is nearing a critical point of breaking up. A good winter storm from the wrong direction could easily flatten most of the wreck to the seabed.
Up to this point, most of our tour has been along the centreline of the Acclivity, close to the 29m-deep seabed. Now back at the stern section, rising to the starboard side, the deck for the remaining distance aft is guarded by an intact railing (17).
The Acclivity is only a small tanker, so our tour can easily be achieved in a no-stop dive, especially if nitrox is used. Any remaining time can be spent 5m shallower on the upper side of the hull (18), home to a field of anemones and hydroids. At the right time of year, it is well-grazed by nudibranchs.
For a no-stop dive, ascent could be back up the shotline. For a decompression dive, a delayed surface marker buoy will be needed to drift as slack water ends.
INCLINED TO HIT TROUBLE
ACCLIVITY IS A STRANGE NAME TO GIVE A SHIP. According to the dictionary, it means “the upward slope of a hill“. It is difficult to see how that fits a small British motor tanker of 389 tons, built of steel in 1931 and designed for cargoes of vegetable oil and wine, writes Kendall McDonald.
For 20 years after her launch, the Acclivity carried cargoes of that type around the ports of Europe and the Mediterranean without mishap. Long and narrow at 39m, with a 6m beam, it was driven by a single bronze propeller powered by a diesel engine.
On 20 January, 1952, it was carrying a cargo of linseed oil from Thames Haven to Newburgh, Fife. It was off Craster and pushing through some increasingly heavy weather when a huge shuddering made it clear to its master that its propeller had struck something and was now running well off-balance.
He shut down his engine and called for assistance, and the Acclivity was soon taken in tow. For a short time this went well but, once some 10 miles south of the Farne Islands, the weather got worse and water coming in through the damaged prop-glands became too much.
The ship foundered, but its crew took to their boats and were picked up. No one knows what it was Acclivity hit, but one seaport wag suggested that it might have struck “the upward slope of an underwater hill”.
GETTING THERE: From the south, follow the A1M and A1 north, then take the B1340 to Seahouses. From the north turn off the A1 on the B1341 to Bamburgh and continue along the coast to Seahouses. Once in Seahouses, just follow your nose to the harbour.
TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs approximately two hours after high water and low water at Seahouses.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 55 28.117 N, 001 32.776 W. The bow lies to the south-west, with the deck against a small reef. A north-west to south-east search should cut across the wreck, rising a good 5m from the seabed.
ACCOMMODATION: B&B with Sovereign Diving.
QUALIFICATIONS: An easy dive at slack water, though depth demands a minimum of PADI Advanced Open Water or BSAC Sports Diver.
LAUNCHING: There are slips at Seahouses and Amble.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 156, Farne Islands to the River Tyne. Ordnance Survey Map 75, Berwick-upon-Tweed & Surrounding Area. Ordnance Survey Map 81, Alnwick and Morpeth. Dive North-East by Dave Shaw & Barry Winfield. Northumbria Tourist Board 0191 3753000.
PROS: A colourful wreck with holes to explore, just the right size for the depth if you don’t want to get into decompression.
CONS: The Acclivity is nearing a critical point of breaking up and a good winter storm from the wrong direction could easily flatten the wreck to the seabed.
Thanks to Andrew Douglas.
Appeared in DIVER March 2007