Easy to find, this steamship lying nose-down in Scotland’s Sound of Mull since the 1930s is a highlight for visiting divers. JOHN LIDDIARD takes us round it. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
The 2,363 ton steamship Rondo was sheltering from a storm on the night of 25 January, 1935, anchored near Tobermory. During the night the anchor chain broke and the Rondo started to drift with the strong tide down the Sound of Mull, eventually being driven sideways across the small island of Dearg Sgir so hard that it was stranded high and dry, balanced precariously across the island.
Over the following few months, extensive salvaging removed most of the hull and machinery, until eventually the balance of the wreck was disturbed and it slid bow-first over the rock and down the slope.
The Rondo is now one of the classic wrecks in the Sound of Mull. It is also a rather unusual wreck, because of its condition and location. The bow now rests dug into the seabed in 50m, with the stern rising to just 5m below the surface.
It’s easy to get the impression that the Rondo is almost vertical in the water, standing on its bow and resting against a cliff face. However, a more analytical view is that with a length of 80m and a maximum depth of 50m, the average slope is consequently 35°.
But don’t let my dispelling of a myth disappoint you; if you’re in the area, the Rondo is well worth diving.
A dive on the Rondo normally begins on the rudder post (1), the shallowest point of the wreck and where a buoy is conveniently attached. That’s where I started making my sketches of the wreck. Most of the hull has been cut down to a few metres above the keel, so the usual move from the rudder post is to get down inside the remains of the hull (2) and continue down inside the wreck and out of the current.
A short way down there are some broken sections of the propshaft tunnel (3), big enough to swim through. The shaft itself has been salvaged. Either side of this, the hull plates have been folded in towards the keel (4), giving the sides of the wreck a rounded appearance.
Up until a few years ago there was an intact archway of hull and decking spanning the wreck at this point. It gave a good impression of how large the Rondo originally was before it was salvaged. Unfortunately, this has now collapsed, leaving a skeleton of upright ribs projecting into the current (5).
Between these ribs, a small area of deck-plating holds a winch (6) above the tangled remains that fill the bottom of the hull. Also notable in this area of the wreck are the broken remains of an A-frame mast that lies along the inside of the hull.
Continuing downhill towards the bow, the sides of the wreck are featureless and sparse (7) until some ribs project from the port side at about 40m (8). The slope is now starting to level off, with the seabed in front of the bow being a coarse gravel and pebble plain at 50m (9).
The bow stands only about 1m above the seabed, but the wreck has dug in below the level of the seabed, enabling a maximum depth of 52m (10) to be found just inside the bow at the bottom of the keel.
Having followed the inside of the wreck all the way down to the bow, for the return journey I like to follow the outside and admire some of the vibrant marine life that grows from the hull and the rocks around the wreck. At about 36m the keel spans a dip in the slope to form an easy swimthrough to the other side of the wreck (11).
With the strong currents that flow along the Sound of Mull getting funnelled through this gap beneath the keel, here is where you can find the biggest and densest arrays of plumose anemones.
If the current is running and you want to do this swimthrough, it is best to start your return from the bow on the upcurrent side of the wreck, so that you flow with the current beneath the keel.
On the opposite side of the hull, you don’t have to stay there for long because at 24m there is another swim-through beneath the keel (12), though this might be a bit of a hard swim upcurrent if you aren’t diving on slack water.
As you approach the stern, the keel actually projects clear above the rocks (13). You might have time to swim beneath the hull yet again. If not, the rudder (14) provides a convenient point to begin any decompression stops accumulated, with final decompression completed hanging on to the buoy line.
An alternative is to ascend the slope to the island and complete your decompression 15m away on the rocks beneath the lighthouse.
Thanks to Andy Jameson, Alex Poole, Jon Peskett, Jez Kent, John Dawson, Rob Brown, Dave Robb.
OVER LAND AND SEA
‘Up and over’ was how the 2,363 ton Rondo met her end. There is nothing else like it in wreck records, because she scraped across an entire island to reach her final resting place, writes Kendall McDonald.
Built in Tampa in neutral America in 1917, officially for Cunard but in fact for the British Government, War Wonder 1 was intended to help replace losses inflicted by German U-boats on Allied shipping.
However, as the USA went to war it requisitioned all ships being built in the States for its own war effort. War Wonder was renamed Lithopolis and ready to sail two months before the war ended. She was renamed again in 1930 as Laurie, then sold in 1934 to become the Norwegian Rondo.
In early 1935, the Rondo left Glasgow in ballast, intending to round Scotland, pick up a cargo in Dunstan, Northumberland, and carry it to Oslo. On 25 January she sailed into the Sound of Mull and a hideous blizzard. She took shelter in Aros Bay, near Tobermory, but during the night her anchor-chain parted and she drifted down the sound, driven 10 miles by howling winds and strong tides.
It was then that the rocky islet of Dearg Sgeir with its little white lighthouse got in the Rondo’s way. The 264ft ship with her 42ft beam just missed the lighthouse, but the wind and waves drove her high on the rocks, where she stuck fast.
Distress flares whirled away in the wind, but at dawn the 22 crew found that although their ship was rock-pierced they were in no danger. They remained aboard for two weeks, as one salvage effort after another failed. Tugs and trawlers couldn’t pull her off and it was finally decided to break her up where she squatted. A salvage crew started to cut her up.
Rondo screeched as she was bashed by winter seas so big and heavy that they slowly inched the ship across the 100ft-wide island. First her bow dipped, then her decks sloped down and the salvors raced against the inevitable. Finally, she slipped down the face of the sheer underwater cliff, and there she remains, propped steeply against it.
TIDES: Slack water is one hour before high or low water Oban, but is not essential for experienced divers.
GETTING THERE: Heading into Glasgow from the south, take the M8 west and cross the Erskine bridge. Follow the A82 along the side of Loch Lomond and the A85 to Oban. To avoid Loch Lomond and summer traffic jams, a longer but sometimes faster route is to follow the A80 east from Glasgow, then the M80 and M9 past Stirling and the A84 through Callander before joining the A85. For Lochaline turn right across the Connel bridge just before Oban. Follow the A828 north past Tralee to take a short ferry across Loch Linhe at Corran, then head south again on the A861 and A884. Ferries crossing to Mull run from Oban to Craignure and Lochaline to Fishnish.
HOW TO FIND IT: The charted position for the Rondo is 56 32.30N, 5 54.75W (degrees, minutes and decimals). Don’t even bother with a GPS, just drive the boat up to Dearg Sgir and stop 15m or so offshore west of the lighthouse. The wreck is usually marked by a small plastic buoy tied to the stern. If not, it’s a simple matter to pick the wreck up on an echo-sounder, or just lean over the side of the boat with a mask on and spot the rudder-post below you!
DIVING AND AIR: Alchemy Diving at Tralee, 01631 720337. Lochaline Dive Centre, 01967 421627. A number of dayboats operate from Oban and the surrounding area. See the small ads at the back of Diver for contact details.
LAUNCHING: The closest slip is at Lochaline. Further afield, there are a number of slips in Oban, and a slip at Tralee where it is also possible to launch across the beach, or from Mull at Tobermory.
ACCOMMODATION: Boat-skippers and dive centres can provide details of local accommodation. For information on campsites, caravans, B&B and hotels, contact Oban Tourist Information on 01631 563122, or visit Oban Website.
QUALIFICATIONS: The Rondo is best suited to sport divers and above.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2390, Sound of Mull. Ordnance Survey Map 47, Tobermory & North Mull. Ordnance Survey Map 49, Oban & East Mull. Argyll Shipwrecks, by Peter Moir & Ian Crawford. Dive Scotland Vol 2 – Dive North-west Scotland, by Gordon Ridley. Shipwrecks of the West of Scotland by Bob Baird. Dive Scotland’s Greatest Wrecks by Rod Macdonald.
PROS: An unusual wreck with depths to suit everyone. Sheltered from all but the worst weather. Visibility is normally excellent.
CONS: A long boat ride from Oban.