Sunk off Norfolk in 1973 and the scene of an epic helicopter rescue, this is a shallow intact wreck with enough on it to engage everyone when conditions are right, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS.
THE FORM SHIPS TAKE IS INVARIABLY DRIVEN by the tasks they are designed to do, with a bit of tradition and custom thrown in. As such, this month’s wreck, the Amberley, is typical of the post-war- era East Coast colliers.
Colliers have always been a major part of coastal shipping around Britain, bringing coal from the pits to the cities, steelworks and power stations.
Their design has evolved to carry a bulk cargo over short coastal routes, often loading and unloading far up rivers, which is why they have a fairly shallow draft and large cargo-hatches.
Built in 1953 and wrecked when the cargo shifted in a storm in 1973, the Amberley was carrying a full load of coal from Goole on the River Ouse in Yorkshire to Shoreham in Sussex.
The wreck lies tipped over against the outside of the Blakeney Overfalls, a sandbank by the approaches to Blakeney, bow to the east with the keel and port side uppermost, and about half of the superstructure and deck buried in the sand. Our tour starts on the keel (1), where the depth to the top of the wreck can be as shallow as 6m at low tide.
Heading along the keel to the stern, the propeller has been salvaged to leave a bare shaft covered in anemones. The rudder is still in place, angled slightly to starboard and the seabed.
Heading down the curve of the stern towards the deck, a line of empty portholes (2) is barely visible beneath the growth of anemones.
With numerous river estuaries and strong currents running along the Norfolk coast, the marine life on the Amberley is understandably rich. So much so that small details of the wreck such as portholes are often obscured.
At the deck, the railing is intact with a break for mooring-lines to be fed through to a large pair of bollards on the port side. Below this, a small winch spans the deck (3). The deepest point on the wreck is the scour beneath the stern, which can be as deep as 23m.
The aft superstructure (4) is divided by longitudinal companionways with some easy swim-throughs, though divers need to be very careful of stirring up silt that is accumulating inside.
The Amberley’s engine-room and diesel engine are located forward of and beneath the aft superstructure (5). For properly experienced and equipped divers, there are good opportunities to penetrate deeper inside the stern.
Even before diesel engines located at the stern became the standard for cargo ships, a similar layout for steam-powered colliers was the norm. This left the aft holds clear of any shaft tunnel that would hinder unloading, and kept any sparks from the funnel away from the cargo. The remains of the Amberley’s funnel is buried beneath the sandbank.
Forward of the aft superstructure, the quarterdeck runs all the way forward to the amidships superstructure, penetrated by a pair of holds (6). Inside the holds, the coal cargo that shifted and doomed the ship is banked up to the keel, with some light penetrating where the hull-plates have rotted through.
Between the holds, the deck is raised to the same high level as the coamings, with a cargo-winch half-buried in the sandbank (7). The mast has obviously broken and is now presumably beneath the sand.
The amidships superstructure (8) steps up from the deck, housing more cabins and the wheelhouse. With the engine at the stern, this superstructure is quite narrow from front to back, while spanning the whole width of the ship.
The forward pair of holds (9) follows a similar pattern to the aft holds, though stepped down to the main deck, so not quite as deep. Between them, another winch (10) is similarly half-buried in the sand.
Cargo-winches and derricks were of only minor use on the collier fleet, because loading and unloading would be provided by specialised shore-based conveyors.
Approaching the bow, the deck steps up a level to a raised forecastle. To the port side, the stairs and railings (11) are intact. With the usual covering of anemones, they provide a particularly good photo-opportunity, looking up against the emerald-green sea. Beneath the steps is a reeled deck-hose.
The deck at the bow is just large enough for the anchor-winch (12), with small bollards to either side. As at the stern, scouring has kept the tip of the bow clear of the sandbank.
The starboard anchor can just be seen by looking through the scour below the bow. Above the bow, the port anchor is similarly in place (13).
Continuing aft along the hull, numerous gaps in the plating have been eroded (14), mostly higher on the side of the hull, because the plates would be thicker lower down. Then, just below the amidships superstructure, the hull-plates are buckled and split where the whole wreck has bent slightly.
A wreck this shallow is unlikely to involve decompression, so a few minutes’ safety can easily be spent while still looking at the keel. Even so, with the possibility of boat traffic coming out of Blakeney, it is wise to pop an SMB for the final ascent.
HEROISM OF THE RAF
As the wind rose to force 10, waves 10m tall bashed the 2,405-ton collier Amberley and she rolled and lurched until the 2,290 tons of coal in her holds started to shift, writes Kendall McDonald.
Captain John Black knew by early morning on 2 April, 1973, that he was in big trouble. His voyage from Goole on the Humber seemed more likely to finish on the seabed than safe in harbour at Shoreham in Sussex.
The wind was howling in from the North Sea, spreading death and destruction far inland. Whirlwind helicopter crews at Coltishall RAF Station in Norfolk were put on standby as a result of Captain Black’s distress calls to Cromer Coastguard.
As their helicopters shuddered in violent gusts, some crews of 22 Squadron Search & Rescue began to doubt if they could get airborne at all. If the wind increased any further, flying would be cancelled.
Further north at Leconfield in Yorkshire, the men of 202 Squadron were thinking the same, noting gusts of up to 65 knots.
Cromer Coastguard linked with the Northern Rescue Co-ordination Centre. Ambulances were on standby and police opened up disaster rescue procedures. Some 70 men were now directly concerned with the safety of the Amberley, the plight of which grew worse minute by minute.
Soon she was listing 20° to starboard, and started taking in water. And, just when the captain needed to keep her head on to the mammoth seas, his steering went.
As Captain Black told Cromer the bad news, the Whirlwind helicopters scrambled from Coltishall and the pilots felt the wind’s force.
The Amberley was drifting helplessly towards Dudgeon Shoal off the Norfolk coast. Battling towards her was the first Whirlwind of 22 Squadron. In the failing light the crew heard the captain’s message: “Situation now critical. Make all speed. Unable to launch lifeboats…”
They made what extra speed they could and were soon over the Amberley. The 80m collier was beam on to the huge waves, and so far over to starboard that it seemed a miracle that she was still afloat.
The citation for an Air Force Cross to Master Signaller Kenneth Meagher tells how he was lowered to the Amberley’s bridge, detached himself from the helicopter and organised the lift of two seaman.
He took another up with him and then insisted, despite the bruising he had taken aboard the ship, on being lowered twice more to bring up two seamen from the stern. Meagher rescued five men, which left 11 aboard, including the captain and radio operator, who refused to leave until everyone else was off.
Two more helicopters arrived, from Coltishall and Leconfield. Five crewmen were lifted off by Sgt James Amor of Coltishall, who was awarded the Air Force Medal for his bravery. He made the final lifts, of the radio operator and then, just as the sea closed over his ship, of Captain Black.
Two more Air Force Crosses were awarded to the men from Leconfield and there were also three Queen’s Commendations. The rescue of the whole crew of the Amberley is a classic in the history of the RAF helicopter squadrons.
The Amberley has one other claim to fame. It is the first wreck ever bought by the BSAC for its members, making it a top candidate for the Respect Our Wrecks campaign!
GETTING THERE: Head for Cambridge or King’s Lynn, then Fakenham, then follow the B1105 to Wells-next-the-Sea.
TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs three hours before and three hours after high water at Wells-next-the-Sea.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 53 02.940N 000 58.065E (degrees, minutes and decimals). The Amberley lies bow to the east, tilted over against the north side of the Blakeney Overfalls.
DIVING: Jon Aldiss at Safety Boat Services operates fully coded boats ranging from RIBs to hardboats and an ex-military landing-craft, 01328 878579.
AIR: Safety Boat Services can provide air for its own dive charters. Otherwise it’s a drive to Norwich Scuba, 01603 440900.
ACCOMMODATION: Manor Farm Guest House, 01328 711392.
QUALIFICATIONS: Suitable for those with entry-level qualifications, because most of the wreck can be dived without going deeper than 20m.
LAUNCHING: There is slip- or beach-launching close to high water at Cromer, Blakeney, Moreston and Wells. After diving, you will have to stay out for the rest of the tide.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 108, Approaches to the Wash. Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 132, North-west Norfolk, King’s Lynn and Fakenham. The Shipwrecks of North Norfolk by Ayer Tikus.
PROS: An intact wreck that is covered in anemones and shallow enough for everyone.
CONS: Harbours are tidal. Visibility can be unpredictable.
Thanks to James Holt, Stephen Holt, Jon Aldiss, John Martin and Dave King.
Appeared in DIVER January 2007