This World War One U-boat victim was built on the Clyde but intended to navigate shallow South American rivers, so it has some unusual features, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Its final resting place is off Dorset. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
BEFORE I DIVED this month’s wreck, the 730-ton steamship Venezuela, I had to double-check with skipper Richard Styles that we were not diving the Borgny (Wreck Tour 43). The two wrecks are close together, and skippers keen to get a shot in have, Richard tells me, been known to drop it on the wrong wreck in the past.
With care the difference should be visible on an echo-sounder.
The Borgny is high at the overturned stern and flattens out forward to the north-east. The Venezuela is high at the boilers and flatter forwards and aft, with the bow to the north-west.
Apart from the echo-sounder, with the accuracy of modern GPS there should be no excuse for shotting the wrong wreck.
With the shot dropped on the boilers (1), orientation is easy because the starboard boiler is skewed slightly off-line, with its aft end further out than it should be. The outer casings of both boilers have a few holes rotted in them to leave tubes visible inside.
These often provide favoured accommodation for conger eels, although I didn’t find any on my dive.
Heading forwards along the starboard side, the side of the hull drops away and forward of the stoke-hold bulkhead the deck has dropped to be level with the seabed. A pair of bollards (2) rest in the corner.
Towards the centre, the hold hatch-coaming is partly intact, with a single winch-spindle resting across it (3).
The Venezuela probably had two holds forward, and the line between them is marked by some upright supports (4) that cross the wreck. The forward part of the wreck progressively disappears into the seabed, and the forward hold just has some scraps of hatch-coaming and small sections of hull rising above the sand.
Now in the area of the forecastle, the orientation of the bow can be imagined by the distribution of wreckage on the sand. The anchor-winch (5) rests a little to starboard, while a concreted pile of chain from the chain-locker (6) rests just to port, indicating that the bow had fallen to starboard before decaying and being subsumed by the sand.
In line with the anchor-winch is an iron chain-guide (7) and then a pair of anchor hawse-pipes (8) marking the forward extent of the wreckage.
To either side, scraps of hull just about follow the pointed outline of the bow.
Returning aft, towards the port side of the second hold are some lumps of coal (9). The Venezuela was carrying a cargo of coal from Swansea to Rouen when she was torpedoed.
By the port boiler, some of the deck forward of the boiler remains intact (10), with an open hatch to the bunker space towards the port side. What may be the helm lies below, though partly buried, so it’s hard to be sure. The bunker space extends alongside the port boiler (11).
Aft of the boilers is where this wreck becomes really interesting. Designed to navigate up rivers in South America, the Venezuela had a relatively flat hull and, more obviously, twin engines (12, 13) and shafts to keep its draft to a minimum.
The ship had a single aft hold, served by what is now just the broken spindles of a cargo-winch (14) immediately aft of the engine-room. The hold itself is covered with sand.
At the stern, the deck has slipped to port (15). The mechanism from the steering (16) is resting at an angle just in from this side of the deck. This would have connected to a T (17) at the top of the rudder-post.
Round on the port side, a pair of bollards (18) look as if they were left behind when the deck slipped.
In the middle of this deck would have been a French 90mm gun, raised and preserved by Swindon BSAC soon after it discovered the wreck in 1984.
I looked over the stern for any sign of the twin-shafts and propellers, but that part of the hull is now well below the seabed. Nevertheless, it’s still worth checking because sands shift and scours form, so perhaps they will be uncovered one day.
If diving on a good nitrox mix, you can probably do all this and hardly get into decompression, so a return up the shotline may be possible. But check that this is OK with the skipper first.
Thanks to Richard Styles & Trevor Small
LOST FOR 66 YEARS
THE VENEZUELA, freighter. BUILT 1907, SUNK 1918
COMPLETED IN 1907 for Navigacion Vap. Nicolas Mihanovich SA, of Buenos Aires, the 730-ton Venezuela was built in the Clyde by Bow, Mclachlan & Co of Paisley.
Bow, Mclachlan & Co started as a manufacturer of steering gear, then expanded into building small ships, specialising in shallow-draft steamships, tugboats, trawlers and “knock-down” ships. The latter were built in sections and the resulting kit transported and riveted together on location, an example being a series of steamers for the Uganda Railway in Lake Victoria.
In 1918 the Venezuela was purchased by Dodero Hermanos of Buenos Aires and sold on to the Société Anonyme de Navigation of Le Havre.
On the night of 14 March, 1918, the Venezuela was on passage from Swansea to Rouen with a cargo of coal when she came into the sights of Erwin Wassner, commander of UB59. Wassner fired two torpedoes, one of which hit.
A subsequent secondary explosion sank the Venezuela in minutes.
There were no survivors, although the Venezuela was subsequently recorded as having been lost in the vicinity of the Isle of Wight when two bodies wearing life-belts from the ship washed up at Bembridge and Sandown.
The ship’s papers were subsequently discovered floating in a drawer off Bournemouth. The wreck was discovered by divers from Swindon BSAC in 1984.
The Venezuela was the second of four ships sunk by UB59 on that patrol, the first being the Tweed on 13 March, then the South Western on 17 March and the Azemmour on 20 March, all in the area of the Isle of Wight.
UB59 itself was scuttled in Zebrugge by the retreating German forces on 5 October, 1918.
GETTING THERE: Follow the A350 into Poole and the signs for the ferry. Turn left along the quayside immediately before the harbour bridge and follow it to the Thistle Hotel. The boat pick-up point is opposite the hotel and parking is available in the hotel car park for a reasonable fee.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 35.78N, 001 43.39W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies with bow to the north-west.
TIDES: Slack water coincides with high water Dover and six hours after it. Visibility is usually best on the high-water slack.
LAUNCHING: Closest slip is at the boat park by the lifeboat station in Swanage.
QUALIFICATIONS: At 27m the depth is good for PADI AOW or BSAC Sports Diver. It’s a good depth for nitrox.
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. World War One Channel Wrecks, by Neil Maw.
PROS: Twin shafts and associated engines are the main point of interest.
CONS: Poor visibility on some tides.