This schooner-rigged steamship was the victim of a storm off south-west Wales in 1903 but makes for an easy dive in usually clear vis, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS.
AFTER THE COMPLEXITY of last month’s sunken train-set, the small 452-ton steamship Count D’Aspremont brings us back to the hazards of navigating the coastal waters of West Wales, with numerous rocks and reefs and roaring currents round the headlands.
On 9 December, 1903, the Count D’Aspremont struck Horse Rock in the middle of Ramsey Sound and, four hours later, was carried off by the rising tide into deeper water.
The wreck settled well over on its port side, just short of falling completely upside-down, and has broken apart from that orientation.
The starting point of our tour is again the boiler (1), which rises to 22m from a seabed that generally slopes from 25m to 27m beneath the wreck.
The boiler is rolled just past 90°, as shown by the two fireboxes on the back of the boiler being one above the other. The Count D’Aspremont was fitted with a two-cylinder compound engine (2).
Heading aft from the boiler, this can be seen poking out from under the nearside of the arch of hull that continues aft. The engine protrudes from the port side of the wreck, but it is actually the starboard side of the hull, because of how far it has rolled over.
Staying on this side, just a little out from the hull a single small piston stands up from the seabed.
This is too small to have been part of the main engine, and was possibly from a pump, or perhaps the drive engine for a cargo-winch (3) just a little further along.
The downhill side of the wreck is the interesting side, with many rotted plates in the hull (4) giving plenty of opportunities to poke a head inside and look along the steel cavern and the propeller-shaft above.
To get inside would be a bit of a tight squeeze, and you would have to remember just which hole is big enough to fit through to get back out again.
At the stern, the four-blade iron propeller (5) is still in place, although the rudder (6) has broken off and lies just off the stern against the rocks. Various scraps of debris lie off this side of the wreck, but I could find no sign of the steering gear.
Considering the age of the wreck, this was most likely a tiller mechanism rather than a quadrant, connected to the helm by cables or chains.
Heading back past the boiler, a drum (7) projecting from the side, which is actually the top of the boiler, is a dryer for the steam. Straight from the boiler, steam could contain droplets of water that, when passed into the engine, decrease the efficiency. The dryer heats the steam again to create “dry” steam without the water droplets.
Out from the boiler and a little further forward, a pair of bollards (8) have fallen clear of the main debris of the hull.
Back in to the hull from these and a similar distance forwards, the helm (9) rests tucked in against the hull.
The line of the flattened hull is broken by a right-angled edge of plates and ribs (10) that is twisted out to port, with another pair of bollards just off the end. This is not a significant piece of wreckage by itself, but gives a hint of how the remains of the bow have fallen later.
Back on the main line of the hull, it soon fizzles out with a reel of mooring cable (11). A few ribs can be traced in the gravel, but this is essentially the end of the continuous wreckage of the hull.
Following our clue earlier, where the right-angle edge of ribs (10) was twisted out to port, and knowing that the wreck generally has rolled to port, we get a good indication of where to look for more wreckage.
Just a little further forward, and in line with the port side of the hull, anchor-chain (12) is piled up where the chain-box has decayed, with a line of chain leading off slightly downhill. The line is just about straight, but then folds back at the end.
Following this established line a little further, we come to a pair of derricks (13) and the anchor-winch (14), resting upside-down and partly hidden beneath its mounting-plate.
From the anchor-winch, one of the anchor hawse-pipes (15) is easily in sight, though there is no sign of a second hawse-pipe or of either anchor. It is possible that the Count D’Aspremont had only one, or perhaps the other was torn loose when it struck the rock.
A ribbed section of wreckage (16) just to starboard from the hawse-pipe is actually the stem of the bow. The final scraps of wreckage are a couple of hull-plates (17) in 27m.
Our tour now returns through the scraps of bow to the main body of the wreck (18) and across to the starboard side (19).
With this being the keel, there is not much to see, though further aft past the boiler there are a few valve fittings (20) scattered on the seabed.
On a wreck this easy to navigate, if the current has not picked up too much and there is not too much decompression to bubble off, ascending the shotline is an option.
However, when the tides do pick up in Ramsey Sound it will be sudden, violent and turbulent. This would not be the time to try popping a delayed SMB from halfway up a shotline. A more cautious alternative is to make the entire ascent on a delayed SMB from the wreck.
OUT FOR THE COUNT
COUNT D’ASPREMONT, cargo steamship. BUILT 1874, SUNK 1903
The Count D’Aspremont had a chequered career typical of many of the small steamships that navigated our home waters. This 452-ton schooner-rigged steamship was built in 1874 by Caulston, Cooke & Co, one of the many Tyneside shipyards, with a 65hp compound steam engine by Christie, Gutch & Co, also of Tyneside.
The original owner was G Reid of Newcastle, but a year later the ship was sold to Balguerie & Sons of Rotterdam and renamed Othello.
In 1892 she was the Count D’Aspremont again, now owned by shipbroker Thomas Harris of Swansea, and then in 1898 purchased by the Anglo American Agency Ltd of Cardiff.
Operating out of South Wales, the Count D’Aspremont’s main outbound cargo would have been coal, but it was on a return journey to Newport from Dublin, in ballast, that the vessel, commanded by Captain Wood, became stranded on Horse Rock. It was 6pm on 9 December, 1903.
In a Force 8 gale from the south-south-west, perhaps Captain Wood was taking the tricky route through Ramsey Sound to get some shelter from the sea.
Sunset would have been almost two hours earlier, and Horse Rock is difficult to spot at the best of times.
The 11 crew came safely ashore in their own boat. Four hours later, the flood tide carried the Count D’Aspremont off the rock, and she sank 300m to the north.
GETTING THERE: Follow the M4 and A40 to Fishguard and on to Goodwick (where the ferry terminal is). Celtic Diving is next to the Ocean Lab, and the tourist information centre on the waterfront.
HOW TO FIND IT: GPS co-ordinates are 51 52.299 N,005 19.263 W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies about 300m to the north-west of Horse Rock, across the tide with bow to the west.
TIDES: The Count D’Aspremont is best dived on low-water slack approximately two hours 10 minutes after low-water Milford Haven.
DIVING & AIR: Celtic Diving, The closest source of nitrox is Old Mill Diving Services near Milford Haven, 01646 690190.
ACCOMMODATION: B&B at Celtic Diving.
LAUNCHING The public slip is located by Celtic Diving, just along the waterfront from the entrance to the ferry terminal in Goodwick. It dries for a couple of hours either side of low tide.
QUALIFICATIONS: PADI Advanced Open Water or BSAC Sports Diver.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1482, Plans in South West Wales. Ordnance Survey Map 157, St David’s & Haverfordwest Area. Shipwrecks Around Wales Volume 2, by Tom Bennett. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 5, West Coast and Wales, by Richard & Bridget Larn. Fishguard tourist information, 01348 872037.
PROS: Usually some of the best visibility in the area.
CONS: Short slack water.
DEPTH: 20m – 35m
Thanks to Bob Lymer, Mark Deane and Jim Hopkinson.
Appeared in DIVER October 2011