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Wreck Tours

Wreck Tour 88: The Arfon

The Arfon Wreck Tour
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He can’t resist them – this month JOHN LIDDIARD takes us on a tour of another armed trawler, which struck a mine and sank off the Dorset coast in 1917. Illustration by MAX ELLIS

OUR TOUR OF THE ARFON BEGINS AMIDSHIPS at a pair of boilers that take up the full width of the hull (1). The starboard boiler is crumpled at the front like a squashed beer can. Perhaps when the Arfon went under, the increasing water pressure simply crushed it.

Heading aft, the Arfon’s oversized triple-expansion engine (2) stands upright along the centre-line of the ship. The engine’s valve-gear (3) fills most of the space from the engine to the port side of the hull.

The engine controls.
The engine controls

Like the engine, the thrust-bearing (4) is similarly oversized. A trawler needs enough power to move the hull and the nets it is towing, and the thrust-bearing transfers the forward thrust from that power from the propeller-shaft to the hull.

From the thrust-bearing, the first section of the propeller-shaft is still enclosed in an arched tunnel. A winch (5) has fallen across the port side, with one end propped against the propeller-shaft tunnel, the other resting on the ribs of the hull.

After the first section of tunnel, the rest of the propeller-shaft is unprotected (6), resting exposed on its bearing blocks and intact all the way to the stern.

The propeller
The propeller

The stern itself has fallen to port. Out above it, the steering-gear is intact at the top of the rudder-post (7). Following the post down, the rudder (8) lies flat against the seabed at 35m. The propeller (9) is partly buried, its lower blades intact while the uppermost is broken.

Like most wrecks in the area, the Arfon is home to a massive shoal of pouting and quite a few pollack. When I dived it I had to shoo them out of the way to get enough clear water to be able to photograph the stern.

Staying towards the starboard side while heading forward again, level with the thrust-bearing a curved boat derrick (10) has fallen into the bunker space that occupies most of the hull to the starboard side of the engine.

A longitudinal bulkhead separates the bunker space from the engine and still holds a few scraps of coal in place. Just off the starboard side, a section of deck with the bunker-hatch (11) rests on the seabed.

The Arfons trawl winch.
Trawl-winch

Past the boilers, the steering binnacle (12), complete with the remains of the wheel, rests just to the starboard side on the main body of the wreck.

The deck forward from here has collapsed flat to the seabed, but remains reasonably intact, with the hold-coaming (13) followed by a set of winches that span the width of the deck (14). The mast that would have supported the associated derricks has fallen forward and to port.

An armed trawler should be just that – armed – and the most likely locations for a gun would be either on the forward deck or at the stern. Alas, you won’t see a gun on the Arfon, because it was lost on the Lulworth Banks during a failed attempt to salvage it several years ago.

The starboard boiler
Starboard boiler

The Arfon had only one forward hold, so our tour is now almost at the bow. The bow itself is intact enough to stand a couple of metres from the seabed, and has fallen to starboard. Just behind it, a spindle from the anchor-winch rests on the deck (15).

Moving round the bow, just off the starboard side, one of the anchors stands on edge from the seabed (16). Then, forward of the anchor, is the main body of the anchor-winch (17).

Above it on the bow deck, the base from the winch (18) looks as if it could be an integrated casting with the necks of the hawse-pipes.

The anchor
The anchor

The final part of the wreck is the stronger steel tip of the bow, rising from the deck to end a couple of metres above the seabed (19). Standing in the current, it is prime real estate for anemones.

The Arfon is an ideal wreck for the depth. Small enough to see in a no-stop dive, it is still complex enough to warrant a longer dive for those prepared to do a bit of decompression. Relocating the shot should be fairly easy, providing a lazy ascent for those without stops.

If decompression is involved, a delayed SMB is usually the best option, because slack water will soon end and the tide will pick up to the extent that hanging on a shotline is no longer the easiest way to decompress.

GALLOWS TRAIL

When the Arfon was built in 1908 in Goole for the Pattern Steam Trawling Co of Milford in South Wales, it was designed for trawling, not for war. A 227-ton steel ship, it was 36m long with a 6m beam and 3m draught. Like its sisters, it was worked hard fishing almost every day until World War One began, writes Kendall McDonald.

The Navy requisitioned it almost at once, fitted it with a gun and put it to work even harder. It was based at Portland with several other trawlers of its type, and its main task was to sweep German mines laid by the UC-class of mine-laying U-boats from the inshore shipping lanes off Dorset.  Arfon swept mines for nearly three years.

On 30 April, 1917, it was directed to a suspected field of mines about 1.5 miles south of St Alban’s Head. Lt Edward McKeown, commanding another Portland sweeper, Vera Grace, joined the Arfon to sweep the area, in which Arfon had earlier detonated a mine.

He said that the Arfon had three lookouts on its forecastle but stressed that although the sea was flat and the water clear, reflected light from the sun into which they were heading made it impossible to see much below the surface.

As they reached an area marked by a lot of dead fish, there was an explosion almost under the Arfon’s bow, and clouds of smoke covered the vessel.

The Arfon emerged bow-down and sinking fast. Deckhand Walter Gleeson later said he thought the mine exploded under the starboard “gallows”, a frame near the bow for storing spare spars and boat equipment.

He saw cook James Doy run out of the galley, grab a lifebelt and jump overboard. Another man also jumped, but he was closer to the stern and the propellor caught him, killing him at once. Gleeson jumped and was dragged down by the ship, which he estimated was at an angle of 70°, its propeller still spinning high in the air.

He was picked up by a boat from the Vera Grace, which already had leading seaman Mike Mcintyre and signalman George White aboard. They were the only survivors from the Arfon, which sank in less than a minute, taking its skipper and the other eight crewmen with it.

Searching divers failed to find the wreck until 1999, when it was discovered seven miles south of Worbarrow Tout.

TOUR GUIDE

GETTING THERE: For Weymouth, follow the A37 or A354 to Dorchester, then the A354 to Weymouth and on to Portland via Chesil Beach, turning left for the old Castletown dockyard as the road starts to climb the hill to Portland. Breakwater Diving is located at the Hotel Aqua, on the left as you get to Castletown.

TIDES: Slack water is 2.5 hours before and 3.5 hours after high-water Portland.

HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 29.844N, 002 10.445W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies partly across the tide, with the bow just to the west of north.

DIVING,AIR, & ACCOMMODATIONBreakwater Diving Centre, Portland 01305 860269, Dive Dorset, Visit Hotel Aqua.

LAUNCHING: Slips are available at Weymouth, Portland and Kimmeridge. Harbour and launch fees are payable.

QUALIFICATIONS: Suitable for sports divers making no-stop dives, and at an ideal depth for extending bottom time with a nitrox mix.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2610, Bill of Portland to Anvil Point. Ordnance Survey Map 194, Dorchester, Weymouth & Surrounding Area. Dive Dorset by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. WW1 Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Volume 1 by Richard & Bridget Larn. Weymouth Tourist Information, 01305 785747.

PROS: Another really nice armed trawler (though without the gun).

CONS: A small wreck, it won’t take many divers to make it feel crowded.

Thanks to Andy Lawrence and David Aplin.

Appeared in DIVER June 2006

Other Dorset Wreck Tours on Divernet: Aeolian Sky, Alex Van Opstal, Elena R, Landing Craft, Bombardon Unit & VIC Lighter, P555

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