There’s plenty to explore on this British steamer off Pembrokeshire, and it’s accessible in most weathers, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
SOMEWHAT UNUSUALLY FOR A WELL-BROKEN WRECK, the highest point of the Thomas Vaughan and hence the most visible point on an echo-sounder trace is the cargo. Although, having said that, we won’t be starting this month’s tour on the Thomas Vaughan’s cargo, because skipper Steve Lewis deliberately laid his shot a few metres forward of the biggest trace of cargo he could find on the sounder.
“You need to see the two spare propellers,” said Steve. ‘I’ll get the shot as close to them as I can.” So this month’s tour begins at 20m by a pair of spare propellers stacked one on top of the other (1) towards the Thomas Vaughan’s bow. This in itself is unusual, in that there are two spares and that they are close to the bow and not the stern.
The hull is broken down almost to the seabed to leave an outline of the perimeter of the ship. Moving forwards along the starboard side of the hull, just a few metres forwards from the stacked propellers is a big pile of anchor-chain (2).
An Admiralty-pattern anchor (3) lies just off the side of the bow and a second anchor (4) rests across the point of the bow. Out further from the bow, a pair of small boat davits lie flat in the sand (5).
Coming back slightly from the bow, on the port side of the wreckage, the anchor-winch is upside-down beneath its mounting-plate (6), resting across the edge of the outline of the wreck.
Then, a couple of metres further out, a single bollard lies. Further back on the port side, about level with the pair of propellers, is a smaller anchor (7), of the same Admiralty pattern as the two larger anchors already noted at the bow.
Crossing the wreck to return to the starboard side, then continuing aft from the spare propellers, the big mound of pig-iron ingots that showed on the echo-sounder is the highest point on the wreck (8).
Pig iron is raw iron, direct from the basic smelting process. The name comes from the pouring of the molten iron into a chain of sand moulds lying off a common runner. The line of ingots were likened to piglets sucking off the belly of a sow. Pig iron is not used directly in manufactured goods, but is smelted again with various processes to produce cast iron, wrought iron and steel.
This mound of ingots continues aft, with the crest of the mound running diagonally across the wreck back to the port side again. The mound soon breaks for the stoke-hold and engine-room.
There is no sign of the boiler here, or of the engine, except for two engine-mounts that have been shifted out of line with the wreck (9).
Aft of the engine-mounts, the propeller-shaft (10) disappears below another mound of pig-iron ingots (11), cargo from the Thomas Vaughan’s aft hold. The propeller shaft soon reappears (12), continuing to the stern. The shaft finally breaks right at the last section, which is twisted out of line with the wreck and still attached to the propeller (13).
The curved casting of the propeller-recess lies to port, while below the propeller and a little off to starboard lies the rudder (14), so the stern most likely collapsed to port. Having noted that, however, forward from the rudder rests a large cargo-winch (15) which, taken with the line of the propeller-shaft, indicates that at least the aft half of the wreck originally rested upright before collapsing.
Following the cargo and propeller-shaft back to the engine-room, traces of the engine can be found off to port. First a section of the boiler-mounts is just off the wreck, then a little further out and to the aft is the crown of a piston from the two-cylinder compound engine (16).
Various bits of wreckage continue further out to port, following a sandy patch in the seabed (17). Finally, the boiler has come to rest about 50m out (18), at the end of a long sandy patch among a surrounding seabed of jagged ledges (19). I suspect that the boiler was rolled this way by a combination of southerly waves and the strong current that heads north towards Jack Sound.
With the general depth being only 20m, a 45-minute dive with a few minutes of decompression stops lasts much longer than the 20-minute slack water on a spring tide.
By the time a dive ends, the current could easily be running, so a delayed SMB is absolutely essential.
One final note: if you find a brass plaque on the wreck please take the time to read it, but leave it in place. Local divers are planning to lay a plaque in memory of John Davies from the Aberdare Sub Aqua Club, who recently died of cancer. John located the wreck, and it was one of his favourite dives.
UNHAPPY NEW YEAR
Everyone knew everything about the Holme Line steamer Thomas Vaughan except what had happened to her. Sometime in January 1882, she just disappeared. The last time she was noted was off the Pembrokeshire coast and then she was seen no more, writes Kendall McDonald.
Thomas Vaughan was a small iron steamer of only 645 tons, built by Backhouse & Dixon of Middlesbrough in 1871. She was 58m long with a beam of 8m and drew 4m. She was driven by a single screw from a two-cylinder compound engine of 80hp with one boiler. Her machinery was made by well-known engineering firm Black, Hawthorn & Co of Gateshead. She was classed A1.
Despite this, Captain Jack Braithwaite and all the crew had simply vanished. No wreckage or bodies were washed ashore during the following weeks. Thomas Vaughan had disappeared without trace.
The lack of wreckage was particularly puzzling, because a series of onshore gales and storms had swept the area during the time that the ship went missing, but nothing washed up on the beaches could possibly be connected with the steamer.
However, the mystery was finally solved months later by fishermen working in Jack Sound, where the tides run between Skomer Island and the Marloes peninsula at 5 or 6 knots and even faster on springs. Wind on this tide-race brings vast swells with cross-currents running over them to churn up mountains of solid sea and spray.
Jack Sound had, and still has, an evil reputation for wrecking ships. The fishermen from nearby Marloes found their gear hooked into a wreck where they knew there had been no wreck before.
It turned out to be the Thomas Vaughan which, it was now clear, had foundered in Jack Sound at the very start of the New Year of 1882.
GETTING THERE: Follow the M4, A40 and A477 to Pembroke Dock, then across the bridge to Neyland and follow the signs for the marina.
TIDES: Slack water is essential and begins 1.5 hours after high water Milford Haven.
HOW TO FIND IT: I’m afraid Steve Lewis is keeping the exact position to himself for a while. The approximate location is to the south of Jack Sound. The wreck lies among rocky ledges with its bow to the north-east.
DIVING & AIR: Pembrokeshire Dive Charters, 01437 781569.
LAUNCHING : Slips are available at Neyland and Dale.
ACCOMMODATION: Pembrokeshire Dive Charters can arrange accommodation at the Lawrenny Castle Hotel in Neyland.
QUALIFICATIONS: Shallow enough for most divers, but requires experienced leadership.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2878, Approaches to Milford Haven. Ordnance Survey Map 157, St David’s and Haverfordwest Area. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 5, West Coast and Wales, by Richard & Bridget Larn.
PROS: A little-known or dived wreck with plenty to see.
CONS: An area of difficult currents and tides.
Thanks to Steve Lewis, Lucy Stone, Paul Nusinov.
Appeared in Diver April 2005