A steamship that sank off Beachy Head in Sussex in 1949 offers divers something sizeable, easy to navigate and a little out of the ordinary, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
LAST SUMMER I RECEIVED AN INVITATION from Brighton BSAC to dive and put together a Wreck Tour of the steamship City of Waterford. Nice as that the invitation was, I had to turn it down because I had already dived it from Tim Bennetto’s Spartacat, and the Wreck Tour was “in the bag”. So thanks to Brighton BSAC for thinking of me, and here’s the wreck.
Our tour of this 1,334-ton steamship begins on the port side just aft of the bow (1), simply because that’s where Tim dropped the shot, and it’s as good a place to begin as any.
Heading forwards along the port side, the bow area itself is marked by intact railings (2), behind which a pair of small bollards stand on the deck. The bow is flush, with no raised forecastle. Below the railings, a row of small portholes look into the forepeak.
Rounding the bow, both anchors are tightly in place in their hawse-pipes (3). It’s worth taking time to study their size and shape, because later on our tour we will be comparing them to another anchor. At high water slack, the seabed here is in 36m, but there is little reason to go that deep at this point of the dive.
Back on the deck at 31m, both anchor-chains rise through the hawse-pipes, go over a small anchor-winch (4), then drop through holes in the deck to the chain-box below.
Access below decks is protected by a curved cuddy, the hatch facing aft.
Behind the cuddy are the base of a ventilator and a mast-foot (5), followed by, just as you would normally expect the forecastle to drop away to the main deck, the coaming of the forward hold (6). The City of Waterford had a flush deck all the way forward, with no forecastle at the bow.
Behind the hold, we come to another unusual feature. Rather than a central mast with derricks and winches between the holds, a pair of cranes is fitted, one on either side of the deck (7). I couldn’t make these out on the photograph in Tim’s boat-file, so they must have been fitted after the photograph was taken.
The crane’s jibs have collapsed, but the rotating bases with the winding gear remain intact and there is plenty of scope for spending some time figuring out how all the machinery works together.
Aft of the cranes, the second hold has collapsed almost all the way to the seabed (8), with just a few ribs standing upright. The holds are not that big and the back of the hold is soon marked by an upright bulkhead running across the wreck (9).
Behind this bulkhead is the stoke-hold containing the City of Waterford’s two boilers. Then, above the forward end of the boilers, there would have been the wheelhouse. This has long since disintegrated, though a section of deck with the ventilator-hatches remains running across the wreck (10).
Perhaps it’s a sign of the scale of destruction that has taken place, because such hatches usually run along the ship, not across it. Or perhaps it is another unusual aspect of the City of Waterford’s design.
The port boiler is completely buried by debris, while across the wreck the starboard boiler is broken open by a large Admiralty-pattern anchor that has smashed through it to reveal the boiler-tubes (11).
Tim reports that the steel superstructure used to be intact 10 or so years ago, and this is why I suggested paying so much attention to the ship’s anchors earlier. This anchor is definitely from an era before that of the wreck.
One possibility is that it was caught in a trawl somewhere and dumped there by a fishing-boat. If a trawler had pulled up an anchor in its nets, the safest place to dump it would have been on a known foul area such as a wreck.
Considering the devastation of the superstructure, another surprise to the port side of the boilers is a favourite wreck feature, the toilet, complete with the sides of its cubicle (12).
Next comes the engine, a smoothly enclosed triple-expansion unit (13), its top standing intact from the general debris along either side at a depth of about 32m.
Continuing aft from the engine, a level deck-plate holds the bases of two ventilators, one either side of the centre-line (14).
The single aft hold was served by a more traditional derrick system for handling cargo. A collapsed mast (15) is followed by an upside-down winch that has tipped a little to port (16).
The wreck remains broken almost to the seabed across the hold, with sand banked up against the port side. A large section of trawl-net is caught against the port side at the back of the hold (17).
At the stern, the wreckage suddenly regains its structure (18), the stern rising intact and upright from the seabed. Following the outside of the hull round, the propeller has been salvaged to leave just the shaft projecting and the rudder also missing (19). The seabed is at 36m, as at the bow, though you don’t need to go that deep to see the shaft.
Above the stern, the steering mechanism is intact (20). On either side, small hatches in the deck are open, then the deck is broken open to show the ribs below on the port side. All provide good holes to look through, though they are a little tight for casual penetration.
To the front of the stern deck, a large winch spans almost the width of the wreck (21). It’s a convenient point to tie in and launch a DSMB to end the dive.
BITTER END OF A SURVIVOR
It wasn’t until 1946, when she was sold by the Clyde Shipping Co, that the 25-year-old steamer Skerries II was renamed City of Waterford, writes Kendall McDonald.
Built in 1921 at the Caldon Ship & Engineering works in Dundee, the Skerries II was 82m long with a beam of 11m, driven by three-cylinder triple-expansion engines with two boilers giving her 196hp. She went to work on the Liverpool to Waterford route, carrying general cargo and 40 passengers to and from Ireland with no problems.
In World War Two, she steamed from Cork to Glasgow carrying livestock and other foods to ease Britain’s rationing problems. She was fitted out with a small gun and several machine-guns to beat off submarine attacks, but seems to have avoided any contact, despite the many U-boats in the Irish Sea.
Captain McNeill did not have the same luck with German aircraft, however. Skerries II was spotted just before dusk in December, 1942, by a Heinkel 111k. It immediately mounted a low-level attack with bombs and machine-gun fire.
The German bomber pilot seemed surprised by the amount of fire returned by the steamer and pulled sharply away. In the dark, Captain McNeill slipped into Rosslare Harbour, and later that night made his way to Cork. For this, he was awarded the MBE. He and his crew were credited with shooting down the bomber, though no wreckage was ever found.
In 1946 Skerries II was bought by Dublin ship-owner Palgrave, Murphy & Co, which had owned and lost several “City of“ ships, and was given her new name. She was kept on the Ireland run, but spread her range to many European ports under Captain Donald MacLean.
On 14 April, 1949, the City of Waterford was heading from Antwerp to Cork with 1,000 tons of general cargo when she ran into thick fog about 12 miles west of Beachy Head.
Unfortunately, in that same fog-bank but going the other way was a much bigger ship, the Marpessa, a 5,500-ton Greek steamer. After the collision, the City of Waterford took very little time to sink, but her crew were all picked up safely.
GETTING THERE: Brighton marina is east of the town centre, off the A259 to Newhaven and Eastbourne. Check with skippers for loading directions within the marina.
TIDES: Slack is essential and starts at low water Brighton or 30 minutes before high water Brighton, lasting 30 minutes on spring tides and 60 minutes on neap tides.
HOW TO FIND IT: The City of Waterford is located a few miles off Beachy Head. The GPS co-ordinates are 50 40.544N 00 06.676W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The bow lies to the west.
DIVING: Spartacat, skipper Tim Bennetto, 01273 586445.
AIR : Wittering Divers Brighton, 185 Portland Road, Hove, 01273 737718. Newhaven Scuba Centre, The Yacht Harbour, West Quay, Newhaven, 01273 612012.
LAUNCHING : RIBs can be launched in the harbour at Lossiemouth.
ACCOMMODATION: Anything from camping to the Grand Hotel. Tourist information.
QUALIFICATIONS: Even at high water, if a diver stays off the seabed and on the wreck it is possible to cover the whole of the City of Waterford without going beyond 35m.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1652, Selsey Bill to Beachy Head. Ordnance Survey Map 198, Brighton & Lewes, Worthing, Horsham & Haywards Heath. Dive Sussex, by Kendall McDonald. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 2, by Richard & Bridget Larn.
PROS: A nice size for the depth, easy to navigate and an interesting divergence from the usual cargo-handling gear.
CONS: On high water slack it depends on expert shot-laying to stay within the limit for BSAC Sports Divers or equivalent.
Thanks to Tim Bennetto and Helen George.
Appeared in Diver February 2005