Islay Expedition

April 2007

Descending down the shot line it was not long before signs of wreckage loomed out of the green gloom.

Torch beams cut through the water, bringing colour and definition to the mass of man made debris. Outstretched before one lay the collapsed and shattered remains of a large steam ship.

As ones eyes grew more accustomed to the jumble of wreckage suddenly one could start to make out the shapes of military vehicle chassis, complete with wheels and tyres still attached to corroding axels. Across this wreckage loomed the framework of a large steam train lying on its side, still very recognisable by its large cast engine wheels. Everywhere lay the debris of the ships cargo, large batteries, tyres and other assorted goods, scattered across the sea bottom by sixty years of storms and Atlantic swell. It was the first diving day of Tyneside 114 club expedition to Islay, and we had descended down through the green waters onto the wreck of the SS Floristan.

It was the opportunity to dive such wrecks as the Floristan, combined with Islay’s relative remoteness that first planted the seeds of an idea for a club expedition to the island of Islay off the West coast of Scotland. The island itself lies just south of the island of Jura, separated by a fast flowing tidal channel. It is situated west of the Mull of Kintyre on the Scottish main land. Islays exposed location close to the main shipping routes to Liverpool and Glasgow has inevitably resulted in numerous marine casualties wrecked around her coastline.

Prior to the expedition taking place I knew little about Islay other than it was noted as a centre for the distillation of distinctive ‘peaty whiskies’, with a total of seven distilleries scattered across the island.

The Islay coastline however is also noted for its beautiful beaches and rugged cliffs. It is a natural stopping off point for many species of birds that migrate south from artic climes. The island also enjoys a rich Celtic cultural history. In short Islay has a lot to offer ashore in addition to its diving, an important consideration as some of the expedition team were non divers.


Planning the dive expedition to Islay
Currently there is virtually no diving infrastructure for the visiting diver on Islay, so the only way to dive the waters around the islands shores is by way of an organised and relatively self sufficient expedition complete with boats and compressors. Club expeditions however don’t just mysteriously happen. It requires considerable individual and team effort for a successful expedition to take place. All too often it comes down to the zeal and drive of one individual to take the lead on planning such a project. In the case of this expedition, the organiser and driving force was Andy Hunt, who just also happens to be the BSAC National Expeditions Officer.
Planning an expedition such as the Islay one is a complicated process. It needs to be broken down into manageable stages. This includes the logistics of travel to and from the destination. Planning for the Islay expedition began in earnest several months before the intended departure date.

Back in the 1980’s Islay ironically had enjoyed considerable popularity as a destination for visiting UK divers with two dive centres based on the island. The Port Charlotte hotel still bears testimony to this golden diving age with an impressive display of portholes and other brass wreck memento’s donated by visiting dive guests. Today, however, no dive centres remain open.

In such a relatively remote location, it is also important that careful consideration is also given to ‘backing up’ vital equipment such as compressors. In our own case, this included bringing two portable compressors. This attention to detail proved its effectiveness when the brand new club compressor broke down early in the expedition. We were able to continue diving however because this possibility had been foreseen, and another portable petrol compressor had been hired specifically for the duration of the expedition.

The internet also proved itself as a useful tool in some of the planning aspects of the expedition; in particular the location of a suitable expedition base. Research by this means highlighted Craggan farm, situated just outside the village of Bridgend as a possible ‘base’ for the trip. This farm house offers several bedrooms, as well as a large utility room, providing an ideal storage area for damp dive kit. The grounds of the farm also provided plenty of outside storage space for the two RIBs, whilst its central location meant easy and quick access to all of the potential launch sites across the island.

Another part of the expedition that required careful planning and coordination was the actual logistics of travel to and from Islay. Travel by ferry from Kennacraig on the mainland to Port Ellen is not cheap, especially when bringing vehicles and with two RIB’s in tow.

In addition the correct paperwork for the carriage of potentially hazardous cargo had to be completed for dive cylinders, O2 kits, plus cylinders of oxygen for two inspiration rebreathers. To aid this process all the cylinders were carried in one vehicle. Transport was planned well in advance to minimise the number of vehicles whilst ensuring that everyone and all the required kit was safely conveyed to the island.

In order to plan the diving side of the expedition, charts, OS maps and tide tables were purchased well in advance along with a number of dive guide books which covered the waters around Islay. These books both proved to be excellent guides and fairly accurate with their marks, although some of the information they contained was a little dated, but still proved invaluable to the dive planning process.

All expeditions need a purpose. In our case, the purpose was quite simple, ‘to go and do some good diving’. That said in reality the diving had to meet the expectations and ability of the varied participants. These ranged from a recently trained ocean diver to first class diver. The majority of wrecks around Islay shores however are situated in water shallower than 20 metres making it ideal for the purposes of this particular expedition.

Dive the plan
Without exception, there was an enthusiasm amongst all the expedition participants to make the most of diving some of the 250 plus wrecks that are scattered around the Islay coastline. With a total of 6 diving days, combined with very variable weather conditions we managed to dive the following sites.

SS Floristan
The SS Floristan was wrecked on the West coast of Islay whilst on passage from Manchester to Freetown and the Persian Gulf. She ran aground in unknown circumstances on the morning of the 19th January 1942. The weather subsequently deteriorated and along with it any chance of salvaging her cargo. The increasing swell pushed the abandoned vessel further inshore until she started to break up at the narrow entrance to Kilchiran bay, where she now lies scattered and broken up across the seabed in 10 metres of water. Some features of this once proud ship remain very recognisable such as the boiler and deck winches. Her most fascinating feature however is the remains of her cargo, which includes steam trains, rolling stock and an assortment of military vehicles, as well as general cargo. She remains a fascinating dive despite the ravages of time and her relative shallow depth. Her location, whilst not subject to strong tidal flow, is in a site vulnerable to the big swell that rolls in from the open Atlantic Ocean.

To reach this site we launched the RIBs from the concrete slipway at Portnahaven.

Paddle Steamer Islay III
This 187 ton paddle steamer was wrecked on the 15th July 1902 whilst on the final stage of her regular passage between Glasgow and Port Ellen. The vessel ran aground after encountering thick fog outside the harbour. Her passengers and cargo were safely evacuated but the vessel could not be saved and quickly became a total loss. Today the wreck of the Islay III lies on the South side of Sheep Island. Wreckage lies down the steep reef wall of this large rock, although much of it covered by a heavy layer of kelp. At the base of this reef can be found the remains of the boiler and other assorted wreckage in 12-15 metres of water. Much of this wreckage is scattered across a golden sandy bottom that reflects the sunlight back onto the wreckage making for a pleasant scenic dive. The nearest slipway for reaching this site is Port Ellen.

Steam Puffer John Strachan
This wreck of a small steam powered puffer lies amongst the treacherous rocks and reefs situated off the Ardbeg distillery. Details of the circumstances surrounding the cause of her sinking are something of a mystery although it is believed that she was lost on the 8th December 1917 whilst on passage to Loch Elive.

This small wreck now lies in 8 metres of water in a relatively sheltered site, possibly accounting for why the hull of this small vessel is still intact despite the number of years she has been submerged under the sea. She lies slightly listing on her port side. Her hull is covered in a rich coating of marine growth, particularly around her stern area. She still retains her old iron propeller in place. Swimming over her aft end it is easy to pull back the kelp and descend down into her small accommodation section. The vessels cargo hold is empty, as is the small locker room in her bow section. The wreck however still makes for an interesting dive, especially given her obvious age and relatively intact state. Launch site used to reach this wreck was the slipway at Port Ellen.

SS Otranto
The loss of the Otranto is perhaps one of the more tragic episodes in Islays shipwreck history. Launched at the Warkman Clark & Co yard in Belfast in March 1909, the Otranto enjoyed only the briefest career as a passenger liner on the Australia run, before the outbreak of the First World War and her requisitioning by the British Government. She was equipped with several 6 inch deck guns and took on a new role as an armed merchant cruiser. Later her role changed again to that of a troop carrier and on the 24th September 1918 she set sail on her final voyage from New York bound for Glasgow and Liverpool with 665 American troops bound for France, plus her crew of 362 men and boys.

The voyage was almost at an end when during worsening weather the Otranto and another vessel in the same convoy, the SS Kashmir, were involved in a collision off Islay. The Kashmir survived and limped on, apparently oblivious to the mortal damage that had been inflicted upon the Otranto.

HMS Mounsey, a small naval destroyer commanded by Lt. FW Craven RN, answered the desperate SOS calls from the Otranto. Despite the mountainous seas, Lt Craven made repeated attempts to bring the small naval vessel alongside the Otranto. On four occasions he was successful, and each time waves of desperate men jumped from the stricken liner down onto the heaving decks of the small destroyer below. Many men were crushed as they fell between the hulls of the two lurching ships; others were carried away by the sea or were killed by the fall onto the steel deck of the destroyer. Others however landed safely and clung desperately to the small ship. Eventually with the decks so heavily loaded with survivors that the Mounsey was in some danger of capsizing herself, Lt Craven gave the order to head for Belfast. She carried 596 survivors from the Otranto.

Over 400 men however still remained aboard the stricken Otranto. Some 500 metres from the Islay shore the Otranto had grounded and was starting to break up. Captain Davidson gave the fateful order to abandon ship. Men desperately swam through the stormy water for the shore. Only 16 were to survive this ordeal.

For days afterwards battered corpses were washed ashore upon the beaches and rocky shore line around Islay; most mutilated beyond recognition by the cruel combination of rocks and surge. The bodies were dutifully collected and buried in a special burial ground above Machir Bay, overlooking the wreck site. In total some 431 men died, making this tragedy the worst convoy accident of the First World War.

HMS Mounsey arrived safely back in Belfast with her precious cargo of survivors. Lt Craven was subsequently decorated for the gallantry he had displayed in commanding his ship in the rescue effort. When the war ended some two months later, Francis Craven DSO DSC DSM resigned from the Royal Navy and joined the Royal Irish Constabulary where he rapidly rose to the rank of Divisional Inspector. DI Craven’s life as a police officer however was to prove to be a short one as he was killed on the 2nd February 1921 in an IRA roadside ambush.

The wreck of the Otranto lies today where she foundered and broke up, some 500 metres off the shore of the west coast of Islay. It is a wreck which is very exposed to the big swell that often rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean, making it a site only really suitable for the calmest of conditions. In our case, the swell was present, making for an uncomfortable dive both above and below the surface.

Despite the large area of wreckage, it is still a difficult wreck to locate in a large bay, as apart from her boilers, most of the remaining wreckage has been flattened to the seabed. Small rocky outcrops in the bay also give misleading indications of wreckage. In our own case, poor surface visibility made it impossible to use any visual transits. The GPS marks we had, put the shot line at the bow end of the wreckage. The remains of anchor chain, steel plates, plus one of her large deck guns were encountered. The real interest in this wreck however perhaps lies in her history and the tragic tale of her sinking.

The launch slipway for this wreck site was situated at the village of Portnahaven.

MFV Wyre Majestic
The Wyre Majestic, a 338 ton trawler ran aground on the rocks at Rubha a Mhill, situated close to the Bunnahabhain distillery in Islay Sound on the evening of the 18th October 1974, whilst en-route back to her home port of Fleetwood after off loading her catch at Oban. Her sister ship, the Wyre Defence who was accompanying her back to Fleetwood at the time of this incident, attempted to pull her off the rocks but without success. Subsequent attempts to refloat her by a salvage tug also failed and she has remained in place since then. For many years she remained intact, and became something of an iconic wreck image featuring on various dive guide book covers. In 1981 she started to break up, until today only her stern area is visible.

This particular wreck is not really a diveable wreck in the classic sense of the word, as the remains of this vessel are situated in only a few metres of water. Nevertheless because of her iconic status as an Islay wreck, we were determined to explore around her. As it happened the weather deteriorated with strong SE winds, and the area around the wreck of the Wyre Majestic offered one of the few diveable sites. We therefore tied up to the stern of the wreck and dived around the wreck. It is now possible to explore inside the wreck, but in truth this is more a snorkel experience than a proper dive. After a brief exploration around the shattered hull, we swam further out from the wreck and were rewarded by a rich find of numerous scallops in the sandy gullies in the surrounding area. Launch site for this wreck was the slipway beside the entrance to the Bunnahabhain distillery.

Scenic Diving

Stone pier off Dunlossit House, Sound of Islay
We learnt about this particular dive site from Gus Newman, a local who used to run a dive centre on Islay. Due to strong winds the Sound of Islay was one of the only sites that offered any shelter on the day that we dived this site.

Dunlossit House is a large distinguished looking mansion situated on a slope overlooking the Sound of Islay just south of Port Askaig. It is a private residence belonging to Bruno Schroder the international financier. Most of the Sound of Islay is relatively shallow at around 10 metres deep. This dive site however drops down to over 60 metres.
Dropping down into the water close to the stone pier you can drift down the slope finding bottles and broken pottery, rubbish from Dunlossit house which has been thrown into the water from the stone pier over many years. The kelp disappears and the slope drops down to reveal an underwater seascape of surfaces and rocks covered in colourful anemones and bright yellow sponges. This site provided an excellent dive.

The Port Askaig ferry to Jura operates some 500 metres to the north of this site and with the strong tidal currents that sweep this area some care needs to be taken to avoid surfacing in the path of the ferry.

Aside from the above dive, we also completed a number of other drift dives in the Sound of Islay of variable standard. In truth, the weather in the form of a strong SE breeze forced limited us to explore sites within the Sound of Islay that in calmer conditions one would never have bothered with or recommend. That said, we had come a long way and the advantages of an island is that you can usually find some sheltered site from which ever direction the wind blows, and thus it proved with Islay. Indeed we did not lose a days diving despite the difficult weather conditions we encountered for part of the week we were resident on the island.

What did participants gain from the expedition experience?
I’ll make no bones about it club expeditions such as this one involve a lot of hard work by all the participants concerned. There is no turning up at the quayside with everything already prepared and planned by the local charter boat skipper. The expedition day involves an early start with last minute planning and preparation, as well as more mundane tasks such as sandwich making, filling flasks with coffee etc. Weather forecasts need to be checked and confirmed and the day’s dive plan needs to be reviewed and risk assessed in the light of any last minute weather changes. Flexibility is essential to a successful expedition.

Club expeditions however can also provide a tremendous learning opportunity for their participants. On our trip we had one individual who had recently qualified as an Ocean Diver. On this trip he learnt how to fill cylinders, launch and pilot RIB’s, as well as gain a first rate introduction to the process of dive planning all within the space of six days. He probably gained more dive related experience in that one week than some divers get in a couple of seasons.

What other advantages does a club expedition have over a straightforward dive charter trip?
Well, currently the only way to actually experience Islay diving is by way of a club organised expedition, as presently there are no dive centres operating on the island. We certainly enjoyed the freedom of selecting and diving our own dive sites within the confines of the weather, individuals experience and dive qualifications, and the prevailing sea conditions. The downside is that on occasions, without the benefit of expert local knowledge, we were not always particularly successful in quickly locating some of the wreck sites.

It is also important that all participants involved in such an expedition are aware of what they are signing up to when they commit to a club expedition. Each day inevitably involved an early start. RIB’s had to be fuelled up and towed to the chosen launch site. Some of the Islay slips are steep and really required a 4×4 to launch and recover the two boats. Often dive kit had to be manhandled across beaches and out through the water before being loaded onto the waiting RIB.

On the return to the slip, after a full day out in the fresh sea air, this process was reversed with the RIB’s having to be recovered from the sea. Back at Craggan farm dive cylinders had to be refilled, and maintenance completed on the two boats. The evening meal also had to be prepared and eaten, followed by more mundane tasks such as the washing up. Whilst all this work was going on, plans for the following day had to be constantly reviewed in the light of the inshore shipping forecast. Listening to radio 4 became something of a daily evening ritual. Likewise having a laptop that was not dependant upon broadband also proved its worth in relation to checking out weather forecast websites.

All of this activity was planned and shared out by an agreed rota list detailing each day’s tasks. In practice this system worked well on this particular trip, no doubt helped by the fact that everyone taking part in the expedition was committed to fulfilling their part in the process. There is however no room for expedition members who don’t pull their weight. Such individuals can quickly become a source of friction within the group.

When things did go wrong, then a sense of humour combined with a ‘can do attitude’ proved invaluable in overcoming some of the problems that inevitably arose on such an expedition. In our case this included a steering cable failure, and a gear box problem with one of the RIB engines. All of these problems however were successfully overcome with the result that no diving dive time was actually lost. We also had a vehicle which was immobilised as a result of a serious hydraulic clutch failure. Suffice to say we found that breaking down on an island appeared to provide a well known ‘Royal’ breakdown service with a challenge that at times they appeared to struggle to meet. In the end, however, we all made it safely back home to the North East of England.

 

In summary I would also make the following salient points for anyone planning a similar exercise:
Plan as much of the expedition in advance as possible. Whilst you may have a dive plan for the week, the vagaries of the UK weather will inevitably force you to review the plan on a daily basis unless you are exceptionally lucky. Where possible also try and have a back up plan especially in relation to vital pieces of equipment. Expect things to break down and have a contingency plan wherever possible. If you are dependent upon one vital piece of equipment, Murphy’s Law will dictate that it will inevitably break down.

1. Network with the local community. The people in Islay turned out to be incredibly friendly. Indeed one of the advantages of an island like Islay is that everyone knows each other. Tap into this vital local knowledge as it may prove an expedition saviour when things go wrong. In our case, we were able to sort out most problems thanks to various locals who were able to put us in touch with individuals on the Island with the skills and resources on the island to sort engine/boat problems out.

2. Finally when you visit such a special place like Islay, make the most of some of the topside attractions. Islay is famed for its production of whiskey. I would strongly recommend a distillery tour. In our case we found the time to visit the Bowmore distillery. Even the non whiskey drinkers enjoyed the tour experience. Islay also offers some wonderful beaches and wildlife experiences. It is the combination of such experiences, along with the diving and camaraderie of other expedition members that can make that expedition experience just that little bit more special.

Slipways used for launching expedition RIBs

Port Charlotte slipway
A concrete slip situated next to the pier which gives good access down onto a sandy beach. The only problem with this slip is that it is situated quite a considerable distance from all of the main dive sites.

Portnahaven slipway
Access though this picturesque fishing village with its narrow streets proved a little tricky when towing and manoeuvring the RIBs. The concrete slipway curves gently down towards the beach providing something of a test for those not so used to reversing boat trailers.

The harbour is very sheltered due in part to a number of large rocks just outside the harbour entrance. Be warned however, the tide rips through these channels making for some potentially harrowing scenarios in a small boat, especially if you get a bad combination on tide, wind and swell in the wrong directions. Believe me, in such conditions it calls for steady nerves and a lot of confidence in the reliability of the boat helmsman and equipment. We also found a tow rope useful for pulling the boats and trailers over the beach area at low tide when even the 4×4 struggled in the soft sand.

Bunnahabbain slipway
A very steep concrete slipway situated next to the distillery entrance. I would only really recommend using a decent 4 x 4 vehicle if contemplating launching from this site, owing to the steepness of the slope of the slip. Situated in one of the remoter areas of Islay we were able to observe a wild otter, whilst we were recovering the boats from the water.

Port Ellen slipway
Another concrete slipway which gives easy access into the water. There is also a floating marina next to the slip where boats may be berthed for a fixed period of time. This particular slipway is quite a recent addition to the island and gives good access to the South coast of Islay where a number of excellent dive sites can be found.

Recommended Guide Books to diving in Islay

Dive Islay, Steve Blackburn, Bucknall Publications 1986 ISBN 0 9511397 0 3

Argyll Shipwrecks, Peter Moir and Ian Crawford 1994, ISBN 0 9513366 1 4

Dive West Scotland, Gordon Ridley, Underwater World Publications Ltd, 1984, ISBN 0 946020 02 7

Recommended reading on the history and whiskies of Islay

Peat Smoke and Spirit, a portrait of Islay and its whiskies. Andrew Jefford, Headline Book Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0 7472 2735 7

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