This Victorian collier wreck out of Swanage will provide a good experience for most levels of diver, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
HAVING INDULGED MYSELF at 65m with last month’s Wreck Tour of HMS Patia, this month we tour a nice easy wreck. The Betsy Anna lies on a flat gravel seabed at 25m, just a bit too deep for those with entry-level qualifications, but a no-stress dive for all divers with the next qualification up.
Ten or so years ago this wreck was thought to have been the Dagmar. Since then, Dave Wendes has recovered a nameplate with serial number from the donkey boiler and identified it as the Betsy Anna. The real Dagmar, an armed merchantman sunk in 1941, has been identified further west, between St Alban’s Head and Portland.
Much of the structure of the Betsy Anna has collapsed to the seabed, so our tour begins on the main boiler (1), which stands 4m clear of the gravel and general wreckage.
Behind the boiler, the triple-expansion steam engine has collapsed to port (2), leaving the pistons still connected to the crankshaft by a jumble of connecting rods.
From the crankshaft, an exposed thrust-bearing and then the propeller-shaft lead the way aft. Just off to the starboard side of the thrust-bearing a cargo winch rests upright on the seabed (3), indicating that the general collapse of this part of the wreck was to starboard.
Further aft, the propeller shaft is partially covered by the remains of a tunnel (4) before disappearing into the stern. As hinted by the winch earlier, the stern has also fallen to starboard. A section of deck with railings and bollards has broken loose and stands upright (5).
Behind this, the steering quadrant (6) is partly buried in the seabed, with the rudder-shaft and rudder (7) twisted out of place.
As the wreck has collapsed to starboard, our route back amidships follows the starboard edge of the wreckage. A couple of hull-plates and a pair of bollards (8) lead out from the stern.
Just beyond these, the steering chain emerges from the gravel and runs along a U-shaped section of guide (9).
The chain then curves away from the wreck (10) before meandering back and disappearing into a raised and upturned section of deck (11). This would have been the floor of the wheelhouse before the Betsy Anna collapsed.
Just forward, another block is the helm and steering engine (12). Look carefully at the end towards the main body of the wreck and there is the rotted hub of the ship’s wheel, still in place. It is rare on a wreck this broken that the components of the steering form an almost continuous link that can be followed from rudder to helm and wheel. Right next to the helm, the fluke of an anchor sticks out of the gravel. It’s not a usual place to find an anchor.
Just a bit forward from the helm and in towards the main body of the wreck is a petrol-driven pump (13).
This was not part of the Betsy Anna‘s engineering, but of salvage equipment trying to keep the ship afloat.
The Betsy Anna originally ran onto the rocks at Prawle Point in Devon, and was on the way to Cowes for full repair when the leaks beat the pump and she foundered.
From the pump, an upright section of ribs running along the wreck (14) would have originally been a bulkhead for a bunker space.
Behind this is the smaller donkey boiler (15), with the fire-holes facing those of the main boiler (1). Here it’s worth having a look for the resident conger eels.
To head for the bow, we cross the debris of the forward hold (16). To either side, the hull has splayed outwards, rather than falling to one side, as it did amidships and further aft.
Forward of the hold, the associated cargo winch (17) is square across the line of the ship, further indication that the hold collapsed rather than fell to one side. Even so, the bow itself has fallen to starboard.
Now almost at the bow, our route stays close to the seabed and moves out to starboard, where two pairs of bollards stand upright off the bow (18).
On the bow, the deck is open at the back but intact further forward, with the anchor-winch firmly in place (19).
On the upper port side, the plates that would have filled the first line along the hull, just below the deck, have all gone to leave open ribs (20), and a view through the bow past shoals of swirling pouting.
There is no sign of the anchors.
These may well have been removed at Prawle Point or Salcombe during the initial salvage.
Perhaps one was even on the deck forward of the wheelhouse, and is now the anchor buried next to the helm (12).
One of the exposed ribs on the bow makes an ideal point to tie off a delayed SMB when ascending after the dive.
Thanks to Martin Jones, Dave Wendes and Mike Potts.
FOGGED AND STORMED
BETSY ANNA, collier. BUILT 1892, SUNK 1926
BETSY ANNA WAS THE NAME she sank under, though divers who first found her in the 1980s still have the name Dagmar in their logbooks. In fact her real name at launch in May 1892 was Ashington, writes Kendall McDonald.
Built by W Dobson and Co in its Newcastle-upon-Tyne yard, her first owners were the Ashington Coal Co.
This small 880-ton steel collier with a single funnel plodded around the ports of Europe in the coal trade for most of the next 30 years.
In 1906 she was bought by a Netherlands coal company and sailed under the Dutch flag. Her home port was Amsterdam and her new owners changed her name to Betsy Anna in honour of the English wife of a director.
The 206ft-long Betsy Anna had a beam of 30ft but it was her shallow 14ft draught that would lead to her sinking. Her three-cylinder 120hp triple-expansion engine with one boiler and single propeller continued to be reliable until, in early August 1926, she was ordered back from Fleetwood to Rotterdam.
She made good time until, heading up the Channel, she ran into dense fog off the coast of Devon. She ran well in over the rocks of Prawle Point before grinding to a halt, jammed in the rocky gully between Prawle Island and Gull Rock, almost exactly under the coastguard station on the point.
The crew managed to scramble over the weedy boulders to shore at the first low tide.
Though Betsy Anna was holed and taking in water at the bow, she settled firmly on the rocks for several days. Her owners thought she would become a total wreck, and sold her to a salvage company in the Isle of Wight.
The salvors stopped the leaks by cementing baulks of wood into position and pumped the ship dry.
They then floated her out at high tide, local tugs pulling her into Salcombe over the Bar and beaching her again in Mill Bay for sturdier repairs.
On 11 October, Betsy Anna was towed out again for full repairs, but she never reached Cowes. Near the Needles, the weather broke into a full gale, her towing hawser snapped and she drifted for some time with heavy seas breaking over her, before finally filling and sinking in Poole Bay.
GETTING THERE: Follow the A351 past Corfe Castle to Swanage and follow the signs for the town centre and pier. Parking on the pier is limited, so be prepared to drop divers and kit and use the car park further up the hill.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 36.979N, 1 49.964W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies with the bow just north of east.
TIDES: Slack water occurs one hour before and six hours after high water Dover. Visibility is usually best at high water slack.
LAUNCHING: Slip at the Swanage boat park, near the lifeboat station.
AIR: Air and nitrox are available on Swanage Pier from Divers Down, 01929 423565.
ACCOMMODATION: There are many B&Bs, small hotels and campsites. Contact Swanage Tourist Information, 01929 422885
QUALIFICATIONS: An easy dive for anyone with more than an entry-level qualification.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2615, Bill of Portland to the Needles. Ordnance Survey Map 195, Bournemouth, Purbeck & Surrounding Area. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. South Coast Shipwrecks of East Dorset and Wight, by Dave Wendes
PROS: Plenty to see and shallow enough for a long dive. Uncrowded compared to the Kyarra on a busy weekend.
CONS: Just too far from Swanage for a quick out-and-back shuttle like the Kyarra.