This steamship almost got through the Great War unscathed – then it met U94 off north Cornwall. JOHN LIDDIARD guides us through its broken remains in a tour illustrated by MAX ELLIS
WITH TYPICAL CORNISH north coast visibility and a wreck that, although well broken, lies pretty much in a straight line, our wreck this month is easy to navigate, though perhaps a little tricky to find, as it lies alongside a rocky reef.
Nevertheless, with GPS and a good eye on the echo-sounder, the distinctive shape of a boiler can be picked out, rising to 29m from a 32m seabed.
This is where Hutch and Andrew of the Harlyn Dive School drop the shot.
Some accounts give the Saphir as having two boilers, but this is actually a single main boiler (1) and a smaller donkey boiler (2). The donkey boiler was originally in a saddle configuration across the front of the main boiler, but now rests just forward of it, while the orientation of the main boiler indicates that it has rolled to starboard.
A little further to starboard, a large section of hull-plate (3) lies flat to the seabed. Drawing a line aft from the inner edge of this plate, a section of crankshaft (4) has fallen well clear of the rest of the engine.
More sections of crankshaft and bearings (5) are closer in to where they would be expected, and together with other parts of the machinery actually hold up the port side of the hull enough to explore underneath. Also spread all round this area are a tangle of fine condenser tubes (6).
It now becomes apparent that the wreck has fallen and then collapsed to starboard, perhaps as a result of initially landing on the ridge of reef that runs almost parallel to the keel.
Our route aft follows the starboard and deck side of the wreck, past a small boat derrick (7) and an upturned cargo winch (8), located roughly between the two aft holds. Also once located on the deck between the holds, but now even further out from the wreck, is a single bollard (9).
This would once have been one of a pair, so perhaps the other is somewhere further out from the main body of the wreck, or buried or covered in debris.
Back in by the main body, the coaming for the aft hold (10) has a slightly castellated edge.
Continuing aft, the flattened hull comes to a cleanly cut end where the stern has broken off. Again heading out from the main body of the wreck, a surprisingly out-of-place piece of wreckage is a section of propeller-shaft and keel (11).
The stern itself has been reduced by almost 100 years of deep winter storms to just the lower part (12) with the propeller-shaft running through it. The iron propeller (13) remains in place.
The rudder (14) has become detached from its mount and lies a couple of metres up and out. The top of the rudder-post is bent back.
Somewhat surprisingly after all this destruction, the simple tiller-arm for the steering remains attached.
Returning forward, following the keel side of the wreck (15), the hull is held up slightly by the enclosed propeller-shaft and, further forward, parts of the engine.
Forward of the boiler and the donkey boiler, on the deck and starboard side of the wreck, a pair of small boat-derricks (16) lie slightly separated. The hold hatch-coaming here (17) again has a castellated edge.
The hull (18) is now almost completely flat to the seabed. Between the forward holds is a single winch, with the spindles (19) separated from the base (20). The bow remains flat to the seabed and the debris is well dispersed.
Off the deck side are a small anchor-derrick (21), the anchor-winch (22) and, below that, a hawse-pipe and a pile of anchor-chain (23), spilled where the chain-locker has decayed.
At the lower part of the bow, some structure remains where the base of the stem rounds into the start of the keel (24).
Diving on a low-water slack, the tide will by now be picking up towards the reef. Ascent and decompression is best made on a delayed SMB.
ALMOST MADE IT
SAPHIR, cargo vessel. BUILT 1901, SUNK 1918
Built in 1901 by Laxevaags Maskin & Jernskibsbyggeri of Bergen, the 1406-ton Norwegian steamship Saphir was powered by a 146hp triple-expansion engine with steam from a single boiler.
Owned by Erich Lindøe of Haugesund, the Saphir was carrying a cargo of coal from Barry Dock to Bayonne when she became the second and last victim of Oberleutnant Martin Schwab and U94.
The submarine torpedoed the Saphir as she rounded Trevose Head on 25 May, 1918. The Saphir was only six months short of surviving World War One.
A week earlier, Oberleutnant Schwab had torpedoed the much larger 10,644-ton steamship Hurunui 48 miles south-west of Lizard Point.
U94 survived the war without sinking any more ships, and was surrendered on 20 November, 1918.
GETTING THERE: Follow the M5 to Exeter, then the A30 to Launceston, then the A395 to Camelford and the A39 to Wadebridge, then the B3314 to Rock. The Harlyn Dive School is located just under two miles up the hill in Pityme, by the Rock Marine boatyard.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 33.839N, 005 03.925W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The bow points to the south-east.
TIDES: Slack water is one hour after high or low water Newquay, but not on spring tides.
ACCOMMODATION: There are plenty of options from camping to self-catering cottages, B&B and hotels. Bear in mind that during the main season many places are reluctant to accept bookings for less than a week.
LAUNCHING: Slipway to firm beach at Rock.
QUALIFICATIONS: BSAC Sports Diver or PADI Deep speciality, ideally with a decompression qualification from one of the technical agencies.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1149, Pendeen to Trevose Head. Admiralty Chart 1168, Approaches to Padstow. Admiralty Chart 1156, Trevose Head to Hartland Point. Ordnance Survey Map 200, Newquay, Bodmin & Surrounding Area. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Volume 1, by Richard & Bridget Larn. Dive The Isles of Scilly and North Cornwall, by Richard Larn & David McBride.
PROS: Easy to navigate in typically good visibility.
CONS: Just on the deep side for a PADI AOW missing a Deep speciality.
DEPTH: 35m – 45m
Appeaared in DIVER August 2013