This classic British coaster torpedoed near the end of WW1 lies off the Dorset coast and provides plenty to interest JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
I HAD ASSUMED that the Ailsa Craig was named after the island in the Firth of Clyde, but with the ship being built by the Ailsa Shipbuilding Co and operated by Hugh Craig & Co, perhaps that assumption is a coincidence.
With a big granite island famous for quarrying perfect curling stones in mind, I had also imagined this popular wreck to be a bigger steamship. Then, about a week before diving the Ailsa Craig, I thought I had better read up on it, and realised that it was a 601-ton coaster.
I have developed quite a taste for these ships. While hundreds if not thousands of similarly designed coasters were built and, as coasters, many sank in diveable depths, there are always enough differences to keep them interesting, yet enough similarities to make diving them easy.
On a small wreck, skippers typically like to drop a shot on the biggest echo towards the middle, which as usual is the boiler (1).
At 35m to the seabed, most divers will be able to achieve a full circuit of the Ailsa Craig requiring no more than a few minutes of decompression, especially if nitrox is used. Our route forward from the boiler is consequently to the starboard side of the wreck (2), where a hull-plate has fallen across the aft hold.
Between holds is the usual cargo-winch (3), then, as our tour crosses the forward hold, a pair of ribs from the starboard side of the hull remain upright (4).
Inboard from this, a section of the hatch-coaming remains intact (5).
The bow has, unusually, collapsed slightly backwards and to starboard, the opposite direction to most of the rest of the wreck. The small deck-hatch (6) that our route next crosses was actually at the aft of the forecastle, with the pile of chain next to it having slipped back out of the forecastle (7). The anchor-winch (8) is still attached to the remains of the deck, though tilted as described.
Off the starboard side, a reel of mooring cable and a pair of bollards (9) lie on the seabed. Close to the stem, the anchor hawse-pipes (10) are also on the seabed off the starboard side. I suspect that the stem-post (11) may actually rise shallower than the boiler, but just doesn’t show as clearly on an echo-sounder.
Now heading aft again towards the port side of the wreck, the bollards from this side of the bow have fallen much closer in (12) and are followed by another pair of upright hull ribs (13).
As we cross the forward hold, just forward of the cargo-winch is a section of intact wooden deck (14). Then, aft of the cargo-winch is an Admiralty-pattern anchor (15), a spare that would have been stored secured to the deck by the winch.
These small coasters typically either had a wheelhouse aft, immediately forward of the boiler, or between the forward holds.
The Ailsa Craig’s helm (16) can be found just a little further aft and to port, showing that the wheelhouse was amidships.
Heading back in towards the boiler, some large steam-pipes (17) can be seen on the floor of what would have been the stoke-hold.
Sections of deck-grating (18) lead aft along the port side of the boiler to a solidly standing two-cylinder compound engine (19).
Cutting back across to the starboard side of the wreck, between the engine and the boiler, a small two-cylinder pump (20) can be seen lying flat among the wreckage.
Now following the starboard side of the hull aft and around the stern, a small winch (21) has fallen off the starboard side of the stern.
Beneath the stern, a four-blade iron propeller remains in place, and the rudder (22) is hard to port.
Ascending the stern, the steering quadrant is similarly oriented, showing that the rudder-shaft has not broken.
In the centre of the stern is a solid box-based gun-mount (23), typical of that fitted for defensive armament to many ships in World War 1.
Hydrographic Office reports from 1982 note that the 13-pounder gun was still in place, and boxes of ammunition scattered nearby. Divers must have salvaged these since, because no trace remains.
The deck forward of the stern has collapsed, and a very solid framework from a cabin (24) has fallen angled about 45° from the line of the wreck.
Finally, the top of the compound engine (25) provides a convenient place to pop a delayed SMB and ascend.
IN DANGEROUS WATERS
THE AILSA CRAIG, coaster. BUILT 1906, SUNK 1918
THE 601-TON AILSA CRAIG was launched on 6 September, 1906, by the Ailsa Shipbuilding Co Ltd of Troon in the Firth of Clyde, and operated by Hugh Craig & Co, a Belfast-based coal-merchant and ship-owner.
It is likely that the Ailsa Craig carried cargoes of coal in our coastal waters and across the English Channel for most if not all of her working life.
On her final voyage, the Ailsa Craig was carrying 705 tons of coal from Cardiff to Granville for the French State Railway. Her master, Captain Millikew, was on the bridge at the time the torpedo struck, in the process of ordering a course change to zig-zag, as per Admiralty orders.
At 7.10 am on 15 April, 1918, Captain Millikew actually heard the torpedo from UB80 strike the starboard side of the ship momentarily before it exploded. It ripped out the bottom of the keel and blew the hatch-covers from the holds.
It was obvious that the Ailsa Craig was going down fast, and he ordered abandon ship.
Within two minutes the crew and DEMS gunners had taken to the port lifeboat, and were clear of their sinking vessel.
Kapitänleutnant Max Viebeg, commanding UB80 from the Flanders Flotilla, was responsible for quite a few well-known English Channel wrecks, including the steamships Martha and Grane on the patrol previous to torpedoing the Ailsa Craig, and the Boma and Stock Force on subsequent patrols.
UB80 survived the war to be surrendered to Italy and broken up for scrap in 1919.
GETTING THERE: Leave the M5 at Junction 25 (Taunton) and take the A358 past Chard to Axminster, then the A35 and B3165 to Lyme Regis and follow the signs to the Cobb.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 33.684 N, 002 47.526 W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies with its bow to the west.
TIDES: Slack water is 3.5 hours after high water Portland.
LAUNCHING: Slips are available in Lyme Regis. Harbour and launch fees are payable.
QUALIFICATIONS: Comfortable for a BSAC Sports Diver, but deep enough to require a deep speciality for those from a PADI background.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head to Bill of Portland. Ordnance Survey Map 193, Taunton & Lyme Regis. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. WW1 Channel Wrecks, by Neil Maw.
PROS: A fine example of a classic British coaster.
CONS: I can imagine the wreck being crowded if there is more than one boatload of divers on it.
DEPTH: 20m – 35m
Thanks to Douglas Lanfear.
Appeared in DIVER September 2012