Heavy metal weekend off Mull

April 2011

Dropping into the clear blue water was almost a relief from waiting on the foredeck of the MV Elizabeth G in full kit in the blazing sun.

Now looking down, it was possible to make out the outline of wreckage over 20 metres away across the seabed.

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Descending on down, we soon encountered the impressive remains of a large sternpost, complete with steering quadrant still standing impressively upright after 70 years under the sea. Nearby in the shallower waters we soon came across the remains of the vessels boilers and some of its cargo, including the remains of military vehicles, asbestos sheeting and solidified drums of cement.

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We were a party of North East BSAC divers, escaping the hysteria of the Royal Wedding to explore some of the lesser known wrecks to be found in the waters off the shores of Mull, Coll and Tiree, using the MV Elizabeth G and the knowledge of its skipper/owner, Rob Barlow, to aid us in this task. Most of these wrecks lay outside the sheltered waters of the Sound in Mull, out in more remote and exposed sites and which therefore require a good vessel to reach them, plus calm weather and seas to dive them.

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RMS Aurania

First wreck of the trip was the SS Aurania, a former magnificent luxury liner with a North East connection as she was built at the Swan Hunters yard in Wallsend. Launched in July 1916, this fast twin screwed vessel never had the opportunity to carry wealthy and glamorous passengers across the Atlantic in luxury style. Instead, born in war, she became a troop ship, shuttling thousands of American across troops to Britain, prior to them heading across the channel to the Western front in France.

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In early February 1918, the Aurania headed back out into the Atlantic to America to pick up more US troops, when she was ambushed and torpedoed off Ireland by the German submarine UB-67. Firing a salvo of three torpedoes, one of which found its mark, striking deep into the engine room where the ensuring inferno killed eight members of the crew. Without power, the Aurania drifted helplessly until grounding off the coast of Donegal. Quickly refloated She was taken in tow bound for the repair yards of the Clyde a journey she was not destined to complete as in deteriorating weather her tow lines were parted and the Aurania was blown onto the shores of Mull, grounding under the cliffs of Caliach Point. This time the sea showed no mercy and this mighty liner was quickly broken up by waves that crashed down onto her, quickly grinding her onto the seabed. In the years of peace that followed the Armistice, the Aurania was the subject of further extensive salvage efforts.

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Today, the remains of this once magnificent liner are scattered across the seabed. Perhaps her most imposing remaining feature is the huge boilers that once provided the source of energy that powered this huge vessel.

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Moving up into shallower water the visiting diver soon comes across the massive deck winches and other assorted wreckage. Diving her so early in the season also has the added advantages that new areas of wreckage can be uncovered by the violence of winter storms, which also drastically cut back the thick forest of kelp that often covers much of the wreckage. On this dive we even found a number of brass portholes including one with intact glass, a sure sign that this is a wreck site that does not suffer from heavy dive traffic. The portholes were left for others to hopefully enjoy.

Nevada II

Next morning the Elizabeth G again ventured out of the Sound of Mull and set forth across the Sound of Tiree towards the flat landscape of the barren island of Coll. First target wreck of the day, the SS Nevada II that rests close to the north east point of Rubha Mor.

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Originally launched in 1918 in Germany, this 3499 ton steamship was handed over to France as a reparation prize following the signing of the treaty of Versailles. She travelled the world as a tramp steamer before escaping to the UK following the fall of France in 1940. Renamed the Nevada II, (to avoid confusion with another British ship already named the Nevada),

In July 1942 the Nevada II set sail from London with a cargo, which included military vehicles, asbestos sheeting and construction materials, as well as stock for NAAFI shops.

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Her destination was West Africa via a convoy that was assembling off the port of Oban. Enroute to the convoy assembly area however, the Nevada II ran aground on the west coast of Coll in thick fog. Stranded close to the shore, the Nevada II quickly became the focus of unofficial salvage efforts by locals and RAF personal who faced with wartime rationing could not resist the temptation of taking advantage of this unexpected windfall. Even today it is rumoured that tins of cigarettes still lay buried in remote areas of Coll, forgotten booty from the cargo of the Nevada II. She was however subsequently the focus of later official salvage efforts which resulted in her being broken up where she lay. Numerous winter Atlantic storms have continued to subsequently break her up further and scatter her remains across the seabed. She still offers however a fascinating dive despite the dispersed nature of the wreckage.

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MV Tapti

For the second wreck of the day we headed down the East coast of Coll with the aim of diving MV Tapti.

This large 6,609 ton freighter was built and launched in Glasgow in 1945. On the 17th January 1953 the Tapti was on passage from Liverpool to the Tyne when she encountered strong gales and sleet showers, greatly limiting surface visibility. In theses treacherous conditions the Tapti ran aground on the Eileen Soa rocks close to Gunna Sound. Lifeboats from Barra and Mallaig were launched but were unable to approach the stricken vessel due to the proximity of rocks and the treacherous sea conditions. In the early morning half-light, the Mallaig coxain, a Mr Bruce Watt, gingerly and skilfully edged his lifeboat under the Tapti port bow area, the only area of the Tapti that provided shelter from the heavy sea. From here all 62 crewmembers managed to scramble down lines onto the lifeboat, before Bruce Watt gingerly edged his lifeboat back out into open water.

Today the same rocks that challenged Bruce Watt’s seamanship still continues to pose a hazard to the liveaboard skipper manoeuvring his vessel to drop divers onto the wreck site. Its relatively remote and exposed position ensures that the Tapti is not as well known as some of the more frequently wrecks in the Sound of Mull.

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Even after 50 years under the sea she still offers a fantastic dive. Her bow still rises impressively up from the seabed, heavily encrusted in plumose anemones, and with her anchor winch still in place. The combination of winter storms and salvage efforts has resulted in the wreck collapsing in on its self. It lies on its starboard side. Nevertheless as you swim back along the wreckage you can still recognise many of the features of this once proud vessels.

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Handrails now encrusted in marine growth still stand proud of the wreckage. The remains of the stern area lay in the shallow water closer to the shore amongst a kelp forest. Here we encountered seals who inquisitively followed us back to the bow area where we ascended and headed out into open water to await pick up by the Elizabeth G.

SS Rondo

On the final day, we departed Tobermoray and reluctantly headed back down the Sound Of Mull. With unfavourable tides for the Hispania or Thesis wreck sites we opted to dive on the wreck of the SS Rondo, which lies out towards the middle of the sound close to the rocky islets of Deag Sgeir and Eileanan Glas.

Built in the United States in the closing months of the 1st World War this small steamship underwent a number of name changes and owners, before setting out on her final journey from Glasgow in January 1935. On the 25th January the Rondo was forced to seek shelter from winter gales in a small bay off the sound of Mull close to Tobermoray. During the night however the Rondo anchor chain parted and the vessel was carried helplessly down the Sound carried by wind and tide. Her progress was stopped when she was swept up high onto the Dearg Sgeir rock. Here she remained stranded high and dry on the rocks until salvage attempts were abandoned in favour of simply breaking the vessel up where she lay.

Demolition work was well advanced when the remains of the hull suddenly slipped off the rock and tumbled down the submarine slope until the bow plunged into the seabed 50 metres down.

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Today, the Rondo still rests in a vertical position on the steep slope with the remains of the rudder post suspended just a few metres under the surface.

Descending down the wreck one is soon struck by the profusion of marine growth in the form of colourful plumose anemones that cling to the wreckage. On this occasion, the Rondo’s unique situation offered a measure of protection from the tide, although below 40 metres the current became more noticeable. In the stunning visibility on this trip however most of the party chose to remain on the shallower areas of the wreck, experiencing the thrill of diving a UK wreck in bright plankton free water, with the wreckage ablaze with the colour of the rich marine growth that covers it. It made a fitting end to the weekend diving the lesser-known wrecks that are to be found in the waters that surround Mull.

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Thanks to Nick Foster for organising this trip.

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Elizabeth G Charters
Failte Guest House
Main Street
Tobermory,
Isle of Mull
PA75 6NU
 
 www.elizabethgcharters.co.uk
Via Phone: +44(0)1688 302495
Mobile: +44(0)7831 225427
Fax: +44(0)1688 302147
 
Clyde coastguard
MMSI Number 002320022