When the man on watch allowed this cargo vessel to hit the rocks in the late 1990s, it was bad news for insurers but great news for divers and Scilly Islanders in need of ceramic toothbrush-holders and other goodies, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
THE FIRST OFFICER OF THE CONTAINER SHIP Cita provided many people with hours of entertainment when, on 26 March 1997, he slept through a course change and allowed the ship to run aground on the rocks at Newfoundland Point on St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly.
First, there was all the fun for the locals as they recovered the containers and the cargo. Then, after the Cita broke its back and dropped below the surface, it subsequently provided even more fun for us divers.
The Cita is now broken into several parts – the bow, the forward holds, the stern and the superstructure.
The forward and stern parts of the wreck are usually planned as two separate dives, though for the sake of our Wreck Tour I will describe it as a single long dive running from the stern to the bow.
The stern buoy is usually attached somewhere along the railing on the starboard and uppermost side of the stern (1). This is the shallowest point of this part of the wreck, at about 25m.
Rather than heading straight for the deck, the start of the dive is a convenient point to head down the hull and aft to the propeller (2), complete with variable pitch blades. It is becoming overgrown, but just rubbing the edges and polishing a small patch to a shiny bronze can be very satisfying.
Behind the propeller, the rudder (3) is still in place, almost flat with the seabed. Coming round the flat transom stern (4), a section of deck and a pair of bollards have fallen to the seabed at 35m.
On the centre-line of the stern deck is a steel, basket-shaped structure (5), perhaps a pulpit in which one of the crew would stand when throwing a line. I would be interested to find out for sure what this is.
Other deck-fittings are a pair of small bollards just forwards of the basket and a large capstan, also on the centre-line. A pair of larger bollards lie off to the starboard side.
Continuing forwards, a pair of holes in the deck have stairways leading downwards (6). These would have been covered by the superstructure that has fallen clear of the hull.
A section of bulkhead from the superstructure then crosses the wreck, broken by doorways and windows. Towards the port side, a pair of J-cylinders are clamped to the bulkhead (7).
Forward of the bulkhead is the gallery above the engine-room (8), with a hole and ladders down to the Cita‘s diesel engine. Since diving the Cita and making the sketch, I hear that this section has collapsed a little further, and that access to the engine is now not as easy.
Heading straight out from the wreck, the superstructure has fallen off and rolled downhill, coming to rest about 10m from the stern (9) and almost upside-down.
On the side of the superstructure are the empty boat-derricks (10). For a diver who is not in a rush to see all the wreck in one dive, there is plenty of potential for exploring inside the superstructure. Our tour is limited to peering into the wheelhouse from the bridge wing (11). At 40m, this is the deepest point of the dive.
Heading back to the hull, the hold forwards of the engine-room has collapsed (12). The route forward is interrupted by the rock that broke the Cita‘s back, with the best route forward being to follow scraps of wreckage from the keel round the north side of the rock (13).
This shallows as far as 15m before descending again to 20m or so, with the starboard side of the hull splayed out onto the reef (14). One of the reasons the Cita broke its back just 12 days after running aground is that the containers and hatch-covers were not fully secured to the deck. Having the hull at full strength depended on these covers providing the fourth side of a box-section.
A few hull sections later, the starboard side of the hull is more intact, though the port side has fallen out (15).
The wreck has broken again at a bulkhead here, with the bow twisted almost 90 degrees to port. A heavy hawser provides a guide between the two.
The bow deck was slightly raised from the deck along the sides of the hold with steps up (16), though rather than heading straight for the bow deck, the port side of the bow provides an overhanging wall with a forest of plumose anemones.
Turning left to continue forwards, there is a wedge-shaped recess in the side of the bow for an anchor (17), though the anchor itself has been salvaged.
The bow is wedged across a gully in the rocks, and close to the seabed is a swimthrough below the bow and past the bow thruster, coming out by the bow bulge at the front of the bow.
Now ascending to the bow deck (18), the depth is about 18m. Deck-fittings include a single large bollard on the centre-line, with two pairs of bollards to either side, each pair slightly aft, then a pair of electric anchor-winches, again one to either side.
At the aft of the bow deck, a high coaming from a separate small forward hold (19) is three-quarters complete, the missing side being the bulkhead where the bow broke from the rest of the holds.
Our tour ends ascending the forward mast (20). Even at this stage of the dive, the mast-foot is far from straightforward, because the mast is designed to hinge back aft.
The top of the mast (21) is not quite shallow enough to decompress on, but the forward buoy is attached here, providing a line to the surface.
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
All that was needed to bring back the old days of wrecking on the Scilly Isles were lights on the shore enticing the Cita in to her doom. But the lights weren’t there. Nor were any wreckers, writes Kendall McDonald.
The First Mate, the only man supposedly on watch on the bridge, was asleep. The automatic radar alarm was switched off, and the big container motor vessel Cita drove herself at full speed through the early morning fog onto the rocks of Newfoundland Point, St Marys.
It was exactly 3.30am on 26 March, 1997 when she struck, and the inrush of sea after the crunch gave her an immediate list of 30 degrees. The containers, stacked three high on her deck and below, snapped their fastenings and tumbled into the sea as the list increased to near capsize-point.
The St Marys lifeboat was out at 3.35am and took off seven crew. The captain was lifted off the wreck by helicopter as she listed to 70 degrees.
Cita was not a new ship, nor was it her first name. She had been built as the John Wulff in Germany in 1977. In 1983 she became Lagarfoss, and only in the year before her wrecking was she renamed Cita, a bulk-carrier container ship of 3,083 tons.
On 25 March she left Southampton bound for Belfast, laden with 145 containers of general cargo including French wine, bales of tobacco, children’s clothing for Marks & Spencer, car engines and batteries, cast-ironwork, china soap dishes, toothbrush-holders, mugs and beakers, and hundreds of different household items.
Word of the cargo spread swiftly around the islands, and within minutes Scillonians and visiting tourists were helping themselves to as much as they could carry away. It was like a scene from centuries past. Customs and other officials were reportedly “overwhelmed and could only hand out wreck and salvage report forms and hope people would complete and return them”.
The Cita survived intact for 12 days before breaking in two. Her bow section stayed shallow. Her stern, together with her engines, accommodation and the bridge, sank deep. Meanwhile those containers that fell free of the ship were broken open by being smashed against the rocks, and her cargo covered rocks and beaches for miles around.
Just how much she was carrying can be judged by the fact that every gale for the next five years brought new cargo-spills washed up along the beaches near the wreck-site. Sunken containers still provide divers with other wreck-sites over a wide area.
The fact that the First Mate was asleep at the time of the wrecking was part of an enquiry by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch into nine similar accidents – all of which occurred on board ships operating a watch system that involved the Master and Chief Officer taking turns to do six-hour watches – see the Wreck Tour of the Jambo (March 2005).
GETTING THERE: The Scillonian sails daily from Penzance, 01736 334220. Alternatively, fly from Land’s End with Skybus, 08457 105555, or by helicopter from Penzance, 01736 363871. For a group with diving kit, a freight container can be booked for the Scillonian.
TIDES: Slack water is essential, and occurs at low water and one hour after high water St Mary’s.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 45 54.746N, 6 16.507W (degrees, minutes and decimals), just off Newfoundland Point. There are usually buoys attached to the bow and stern sections of the wreck.
DIVING, AIR & ACCOMMODATION: St Martin’s Diving Services, 01720 422848, Visit Scilly Diving.
LAUNCHING: It’s a long way from the slip at Penzance, but the journey is feasible for a large RIB in good sea conditions, especially if the divers take the ferry.
QUALIFICATIONS: Anything from newly qualified divers at the bow to more advanced divers prepared for a little decompression at the stern.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 34, Isles of Scilly, St Mary’s Road. Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 101, Isles of Scilly. Dive the Isles of Scilly and North Cornwall, by Richard Larn and David McBride. Shipwrecks Around the Isles of Scilly, Gibsons of Scilly.
PROS: A good wreck with lots to see for a group of varying levels of experience.
CONS: The wreck continues to collapse a little every winter.
Thanks to Jo & Tim Alsop.
Appeared in Diver September 2005