After a summer of good weather but few opportunities to dive, we were looking forward to the August Bank Holiday and the chance to do some diving from the club rib, albeit with a little bit of apprehension. Usually by the end of August Bank Holiday we would all be ‘dived up’, with kit well used and the dive day routine second nature. This year the club RIB had only been out twice previously (once to work out how to dive within the government Covid guidelines and one actual trip to put the findings into practice) and most of us had only managed a few tentative shore dives. Whereas we would normally have 20 or more divers for the August Bank Holiday, this time around we only managed 7 and the remaining reserved camping spaces used by friends and family. Still, the weather forecast looked favourable – dry with mostly light, northerlies.
Friday morning, we were at the boat shed reasonably early which took Pete the Tree by surprise! In no particular rush, we set off to Portland and launched the rib at Castletown with the intention of doing a quick dive before pitching our tents. With unfavourable slack times and not wishing to over burden ourselves we headed out to the British Inventor, non-tidal and 21m to the seabed. Kitting up might have taken a bit longer than usual but slowly the routine re-established. Once underwater nervousness washed away as we returned to a familiar world. Whilst exploring the many openings and twisted hull plates we got chased by a very inquisitive conger. Visibility was a bright 3-4 metres and the temperature was a pleasant 17°C. We were surrounded by a huge shoal of bib and found a large turbot near the shot as well as some hefty edible crabs. Dive done and everyone noticeably more relaxed, we headed to Higher Moor Farm to pitch tents and to BBQ. It was good to see some familiar faces again and hear the plan for the rest of the weekend. With 7 divers, Karen organised that we would all get one dive a day with at least one day over the weekend when we would dive both the planned ‘waves’, with everyone getting a mix of diving buddies.
Up early on Saturday, we headed to the Marina to find the rib full of water on its mooring. After a quick spin around the harbour to empty it we headed over to Lulworth Banks to try out a scenic site that could be a good alternative to The British Inventor. We soon found the ridge and dropped in at around 19 metres. The intention had been to stay shallower where it looked rockier but the current had other ideas and swept us along at a fairly constant 22m. As we drifted over rocky patches separated by the silty seabed, we passed over many soft and hard corals. We were lucky to spend time with an undulate ray, a baby (conger) eel and a dogfish. Everyone agreed that weather permitting and travel time allowing it would be a worthwhile to dive some more in the future. The afternoon was a revisit to The British Inventor – slightly more current and less visibility than previously but the same abundance of life and encounters with the curious conger before drifting off the wreckage. Back at the campsite our group was split around various small BBQs all at slightly different stages of inebriation depending on who had the morning or afternoon dives scheduled.
On Sunday, after a much-needed lie in, we took advantage of the afternoon slack and headed out to dive the Alex Van Opstal, broken and lying on its starboard side in 30m of water. On the way, alerted by a large splash, we took a slight detour to watch a Spinner Dolphin perform some acrobatics which seemed entirely for our benefit. We landed on the mid-section to be greeted by a large crayfish near the shot and dropped behind the wreckage to shelter from the slight current. From here we swam anti-clockwise passed the truncated end where the bow has broken away and headed along the port side over the fallen masts towards the stern. In amongst the twisted wreckage, we came across a horror show – a large lobster tucking into a dead, pale white ray and nearby a conger guarding the headless skeleton of a large fish (possible a dolphin) from a feisty edible crab. We left them to it and explored some swim throughs covered in Plumose & Jewel anemones, Devonshire Cup Coral and Dead Man’s Fingers on our way to the stern. We couldn’t find any obvious features such as the propeller or rudder so we headed back to the mid-section and the highest point of the wreck to shallow up before ascending and drifting off the wreck.
The wind played fair all weekend which allowed us to go around the Bill on Monday and dive the James Fennel. Another dive boat had left their shot in the water which made what should have been a very easy dive in 18m on a small ‘textbook’ wreck (boiler, triple expansion engine and prop all neatly lined up in close proximity to one another) slightly more complicated than it should have been as we attempted to navigate between their shot and ours to send them up. We descended their shot line which they insisted was directly on the wreck but nowhere near our coordinates. On the sea bed the overlong shot line snaked along the bottom which made the bearings taken between buoys on the surface a bit redundant. We weren’t that close to the wreck but it was visible. To be fair, our shot wasn’t quite on the wreck either. We tried a few exploratory swims off the boiler to hunt for our shot. On the third attempt we also failed to return to the boiler in amongst the large boulders. A bit fed up we headed South to the nearby wreck of the Barmston which lies at right angles to the James Fennel. We soon found the prop shaft & spare prop which allowed us to explore the single boiler and stern section. From here it’s an easy swim back to the James Fennel – sure enough we found our shot in the dispersed bow section. Finally, we returned to the boiler and engine which was helpfully pinpointed by the torches of divers from a charter boat. In future, send the club shot up first, if you then can’t find the other club’s shot, tough!
The afternoon was spent packing down our tents and pulling the boat out at Castletown. It would appear that the hull was carrying quite a lot of water, an old crack opening up perhaps. Still, we managed a successful weekend of varied diving with plenty of time off the water to enjoy the campsite. It might not have been the club’s usual hectic August Bank Holiday trip but at least we made the best of the opportunity and salvaged some of the diving season in what has turned out to be a very strange year!
By Andrew Jackson