“The Best Wreck Dive in Britain” – that is the P&O liner Salsette, which lies 43m deep in Lyme Bay. Few wreck-divers will disagree with that top rating, so JOHN LIDDIARD makes it the first ship in the year 2000 to feature in Diver‘s inimitable Wreck Tour series. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
The Salsette was definitely the toughest Wreck Tour I've had to put together so far. It took more than the few dives I managed to get on it in 1999. The wreck is big and complicated, 134m long, 34m to the starboard railing and 44m to the seabed. I had to call on the help of several of the Weymouth skippers and pick the brains of many divers to fill in details for this one.
Torpedoed by UB-40 on 20 July, 1917, the P& O liner Salsette might have been just another of many wartime shipwrecks off Britain's southern shores, but since it was first dived in the early 1970s, a plethora of portholes and other non-ferrous fittings have made the Salsette the Mecca of South Coast wreck-diving. Ask any Weymouth skipper and it seems that just about every charter group wants to dive this one.
You need a pretty long dive to see all of the Salsette in one go. I have selected a route that runs roughly from stern to bows; if you don't manage it all, just start at the other end and work backwards on a subsequent dive.
The starting point very much depends on where the boat skipper places the shotline. With digital GPS and colour video sounders, you can challenge the skipper to see how close he can get to a particular point on the wreck.
Beginning at the stern, make for the starboard railing and follow the rounded hull down towards the keel (1). I have heard that a propeller is still there, though I have not seen it myself. Presumably it is attached to the port shaft beneath the keel, because the starboard shaft is clear. A tidal scour gives a maximum depth of 48m here.
Back on deck, the 4.7in gun is still fixed to its mount above the upper deck (2). This is one of the few structures to survive above the main deck. Other cabins and superstructure have long since rotted and crumpled to the seabed.
Going beneath the gun towards the seabed, the upper deck has partially collapsed and skewed to starboard, leaving a swimthrough between decks on the port side (3). The cover of the upper deck ends by a large capstan (4).
The starboard side of the hull and deck has caved in (5) to provide a large cavity full of debris, though the actual torpedo hole is further forwards towards the boiler rooms amidships. With two decks of cabins below the main deck, there is considerable scope for wreck penetration from this hole.
Back on the main deck, a mast lies collapsed to port (6), with a crane just below it. My guess is that the broken area of the wreck just aft of this mast was the site of one of the holds.
A large rectangular hole in the deck (7) is filled with debris and has some steel lattice walkways round the edge of it, suggesting that this was once a gallery above the engine room. It is possible to penetrate forwards from here past large-scale engine-room machinery and out through the torpedo hole in the starboard side below the waterline.
Just forwards are two cylindrical structures at deck level, thought to be water tanks (8). Another large debris-filled hole in the main deck again contains areas of steel lattice walkway, suggesting further engine-room areas (9).
The Salsette once held the coveted Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic and is listed as having eight cylinders of quadruple expansion engine, presumably four cylinders for each shaft, so there is a fair amount of boiler and engine machinery below decks. Part of the problem with being precise here is that the original plans for the Salsette were deliberately destroyed when shipyard companies changed hands many years ago.
Over the starboard rail in this region is an area of open companionway below the main deck (10), another area to explore for penetration to lower decks.
Forward of the engine-room debris, a large winch is situated across the centre line of the ship (11), with another debris-filled hole to lower decks. As nearby holes are engine room and flues, this could have been a ventilation hatch. Photographs of the Salsette show a number of ventilators above this area.
Continuing forwards, the next rectangular debris-filled hole is the remains of the aftmost flue from the boiler room (12). Towards either side of the deck is another pair of capstans. On the starboard side an area of hull plates is missing (13), providing another route below decks.
Moving on towards the bows and back on the main deck, the next hole is again filled with debris, but has some railings on one side (14). Might this have been a stairway? The Salsette had two funnels and the flue from the forward funnel is the next major hole, again, alas, filled with debris (15).
Nearing the front of the area of the superstructure, the wheelhouse has mostly gone, but the outline of the supporting steel frame can still be found on the wooden deck (16), with an upright section remaining in place towards the port side.
In front of the superstructure is a pair of cut-out sections in the deck and hull with a walkway (17) forward to the foc'sle. These provided access to the forward hold. The hull has split open on the starboard side (18) where the bows are settling slightly towards the seabed. On the deck above, a crane is located on a pivoting base (19), now pointing down across the wreck. Just forward of this, a few more plates are missing from the starboard side of the hull, giving access inside.
We are now among the usual bow fittings, with another capstan (20) on either side of the deck, bollards and cleats for tying off mooring ropes. In the centre of the deck is a huge anchor winch (21). Chains stretch forward and are routed through narrow channels to a pair of anchors, held tight against either side of the bow (22). Beneath the bow, the seabed is again deepened by a tidal scour to 46m.
Between the anchor chains is the base of a small crane used for fitting anchors. The mast for this crane is still upright (23), rising to 32m and the shallowest point on the wreck. This makes a good place to release a delayed SMB and ascend.
Although I have described the Salsette in a single route from stern to bows, it will take a few dives before you feel you really know your way around this superb wreck.
Given a chance, there are many parts of the Salsette I would like to explore in more detail and perhaps that is why so many divers want to return again and again. There is just so much to discover.
TIDES: Slack water is 3 hours after high water Portland. On neaps, the tide also drops to a diveable state (but not fully slack) 2 hours before high water Portland.
GETTING THERE: Follow the A37 or A354 to Dorchester, then the A354 to Weymouth. Avoid the seafront and continue on the A354 along the back of the harbour. Turn left just before the fire station. Boats pick up either across the bridge at Weymouth Quay by the Sailor's Return pub or further along the cobbled Old Harbour area. For Portland, continue on the A354 past Chesil Beach, turning left to the old dockyard area as the road starts to climb the hill to Portland.
HOW TO FIND IT: The position of the Salsette on GPS is 50 29.67N 2 43.07W (degrees, minutes and decimals). There are no convenient transits, so you have to search with a GPS and echo-sounder.
DIVING AND AIR: From Weymouth – Channel Chieftain, skipper Pat Carlin 01305 787155; Skin Deep, skipper Ian Taylor, 01305 782556; Tiger Lily, skipper Chris Caines, 01305 821177; Old Harbour Dive Centre 01305 760888. From Portland – Portland Dive Centre, 01305 820870. On the web, take a look at DEEP Sea for charter boats. Air, nitrox and trimix are available from Old Harbour Dive Centre.
LAUNCHING: Slips are available at Weymouth, Portland, West Bay and Lyme Regis. Harbour and launch fees are payable.
ACCOMMODATION: The area is littered with B&Bs and small hotels. Campsites are out of town, usually very smart and a bit expensive. Contact Weymouth Tourist Information, 01305 785747.
QUALIFICATIONS: Experienced sports divers who are prepared to make decompression stops. Mixed-gas diving is not required, but you won't get much bottom time without planning a deco dive and a rich nitrox mix is always a good idea for deco stops.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head to Bill of Portland. Ordnance Survey Map 194, Dorchester, Weymouth & Surrounding Area. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. World War One Channel Wrecks, by Neil Maw. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 1, by Richard & Bridget Larn. The Diver Guide to Weymouth & Portland Area, Weymouth & Portland BSAC. On the web, try DEEP Sea for boats and diving services and the Reading BSAC for wreck information on the Salsette. Weymouth Tourist Information, 01305 785747.
PROS: Fairly intact with a lot to explore. Well serviced by hardboats and RIB shuttles. Air and nitrox easily available.
CONS: Slack water essential. Its fame tends to attract divers who are not really experienced enough to dive it.
Many thanks to Ian Taylor, Pat Carlin, Janine Gould, Chris Caines, Callum Beveridge, Steve Kendall, Alex Poole, Helen Jarratt and many members of Dorset Sub-Aqua Club.