This armed collier torpedoed in 16-22m off Lyme Regis during World War One makes for a great afternoon dive, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS.
ONE OF THE DISADVANTAGES OF WRECK-DIVING from the South Coast is that, following slack water on an offshore wreck, the choice of second dive can be limited to that popular site often logged as “scabby drift”.
Not so at Lyme Regis. Just out of the harbour, nice and shallow, and diveable at all states of the tide, is the World War One wreck of the 3073-ton steamship Baygitano.
The Baygitano is mostly level with the seabed, but pay attention and work systematically round it and you will find plenty to see. As usual with such wrecks, the best echo is from the boilers, so that is where our tour begins.
The Baygitano has two main boilers that run along the wreck (1), then a third slightly smaller donkey boiler that runs across the wreck behind them.
Aft of the boilers, the Baygitano‘s triple-expansion steam engine is partly broken up (2). The high-pressure cylinder has fallen to starboard. The medium- and low-pressure cylinders are both upright, but some of the supports are broken and it looks as if one or both of these cylinders could also soon fall over.
A section of crankshaft can be found just aft and to port of the engine (3). I suspect that this was pulled out to get at the bearings when the Baygitano was salvaged. Perhaps that was when the damage to the engine occurred. Its state seems precarious, though it has been stable for years.
Continuing aft, the visibility of wreckage varies as sand and gravel bank across this part of the wreck.
Useful waypoints are a couple of water-tanks (4). If the wreck is obscured, taking a line from the engine and trusting to fate for a few metres will take you past the water-tanks, then the wreck will appear again with a section of hold hatch-coaming (5). If you stray too far to port, a small area of reef runs just off the port side of the wreck (6).
Behind the hold-coaming is a section of deck with a pair of winches followed by the spare propeller (7). The wreck has mostly collapsed to starboard in this area, leaving a section of the propeller-shaft tunnel just to port (8).
Aft of the spare propeller is a longer winch-spindle that crosses the deck (9). Some divers have trouble finding the spare propeller; a simple guide is that it is within the “box” formed by the two sets of winches and the propeller-shaft tunnel.
The wreckage loses structure for a short while, then resumes with the aft-most hold hatch (10), which is surrounded on three sides by pairs of bollards and reels of mooring-cable.
From here, I suggest circling the stern anti-clockwise by heading to port and following the hull back between the port railing and the keel (11).
Any divers who have strayed from the wreck and stopped at the reef described earlier (6) should be able to find the wreck again somewhere about here by following the edge of the reef.
At the stern the propeller has been salvaged, leaving the rudder (12) lying flat on the seabed on a bent rudder-post, with the remains of a steering quadrant at the top (starboard) side.
Continuing our circuit of the stern, now on the starboard side of the wreck, we find the base and pillar from the gun-mount (13). The Baygitano originally carried a 14-pounder gun, which was presumably salvaged at some stage, because only the mount remains.
Forward from the gun-mount, our route stays on the starboard side of the wreckage (14), back past the bollards and hatch-coaming where the edge of the deck meets the hull-plates that have fallen outwards.
This side of the wreck is usually less likely to be covered by shifting sand, and so is easier to follow than our route aft. Level with the winches and spare propeller, the aft mast has fallen out to starboard (15).
Just clear of the wreck, the mast breaks again and the upper part lies forward, almost parallel to the wreck.
Staying to the starboard side, level with the engine is a section of intact deck with the hatch-coaming from the starboard coal-bunker (16). The coal-bunkers would have been in a “saddle” configuration, one to either side of the engine-room.
Forward of the boilers, the collapsed plates have piled up slightly (17). For now, our route continues forward along the starboard side of the wreck to an upright section (18). I suspect that this was once a section of deck, but with the hull collapsing to starboard it now points to the surface.
The Baygitano is always covered in a big shoal of pouting, though for some reason the shoal is usually densest off this part of the wreck.
Following the line of the deck-section forward again, our route is guided by a section of hatch-coamings and past a pair of bollards (19) to a single winch and mast that would have served the forward hold (20).
At what remains of the bow the orientation of the wreck changes, because the bow has fallen to starboard before collapsing further. Somehow, a small section of railing remains standing upright across the wreck (21).
The bow (22) stands 3m or so above the seabed, the highest point being the port side. The level of the original deck can be judged from an anchor hawse-pipe close to the tip of the bow (23), which also suggests that there may be a metre or two of wreck buried beneath the seabed.
A diver wearing light kit can get inside through the deck-beams and swim through. Any diver with heavier kit, perhaps using up the dregs from a deeper offshore dive, can still get inside the bow though a larger hole at the back (24), but will need to turn round to get back out again.
Heading back to the boilers along where the port side would roughly be, a spindle from a second cargo-winch is level with the forward hold (25). Then, further back, another hatch-coaming (26) marks the summit of the mound of wreckage we bypassed earlier.
If the shot is across the boilers, as most skippers seem to drop it, it shouldn’t be that hard to relocate for the ascent.
HANDBAGGED BY THE ADMIRALTY
Built in South Shields in 1905, it was as the Cayo Gitano that the 3073-ton schooner-rigged steamer, 99m long with a beam of 14m, first worked as a collier. Just before the start of World War One her new owner, the Bay Steamship Co of London, replaced the Cayo with Bay, in keeping with the rest of its fleet, writes Kendall McDonald.
There was plenty of work for colliers in the war years, particularly running Welsh coal to power French war factories. It was when returning from one such trip that Captain Arthur Murrison lost the Baygitano to a U-boat’s torpedo.
He had been ordered to bring the vessel back from Le Havre in ballast on 18 March, 1918 to reload. He was to join a Channel convoy and then follow the coastal-traffic mine-swept route to Cardiff. It was a voyage he had made almost weekly throughout the war.
From Lyme Bay he followed orders and took his ship close in to shore. This was meant to avoid German U-boats, because it was well known that they didn’t like shallow water. Sadly nobody had told Oberleutnant Johannes Ries. Commanding UC-77, he was waiting in the shallows a mile south of Lyme Regis.
Captain Murrison stopped zig-zagging once close in, mainly because of the heavy mist lying over most of the inshore waters. But the mist didn’t hide the collier from the periscope of UC-77 and Ries fired one torpedo from a bow tube at 11.45am. It blew a big hole in the port side of the Baygitano‘s No 4 hold, and Murrison gave the order to abandon ship.
All but two of the 37 men got away in the boats, along with the two Naval gunners who had manned the stern gun. The missing men were the Fourth Engineer, killed in the engine-room, and the First Mate, last seen returning to his cabin for a pair of boots.
Suddenly UC-77 appeared beside one of the boats. Ries questioned those aboard about their ship before heading off east. It was a good job that he had not picked on the captain’s boat, because Murrison still had his ship’s confidential papers with him in a bag.
In a later interview with the Naval authorities, Captain Murrison was severely reprimanded for not weighting the bag. He replied that he was sure the bag would have sunk anyway.
Did they not realise he had just lost two of his crew and his ship?
GETTING THERE: Leave the M5 at junction 25 (Taunton) and take the A358 past Chard to Axminster, then the A35 and B3165 to Lyme Regis and follow the signs to the Cobb.
TIDES: The Baygitano can usually be dived at any state of the tide, but full flood on a big spring might give too much current for divers who are not used to it.
HOW TO FIND IT: The Baygitano lies with bows to the shore at GPS position 50 41.78N, 2 56.08W (degrees, minutes and decimals).
DIVING & AIR: Blue Turtle, skipper Doug Lanfear, 01297 34892 or 07970 856822.
ACCOMMODATION: See Lyme Regis
QUALIFICATIONS:Suitable for just about anyone, though it may be just beyond the depth limit of newly qualified divers at high tide.
LAUNCHING:RIBs can be launched in the harbour at Lyme Regis.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head to Bill of Portland. Ordnance Survey Map 193, Taunton & Lyme Regis. Dive Dorset, by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe. Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and Lyme Bay by Nigel Clarke. Lyme Regis tourist information.
PROS: A great training wreck and a convenient second dive after slack on one of the deeper wrecks further offshore.
CONS: Lyme Regis can get very busy with tourists, making launching awkward.
Thanks to Doug Lanfear.
Appeared in DIVER November 2006