Home Planet Blue The pros and cons of Wreck Detection

The pros and cons of Wreck Detection

Since 1978, by design or chance, Peter Collings has been involved in the discovery, location and identification of many wrecks in Egyptian waters, aided by a team of experts and likeminded divers - The Red Sea Wreck Academy. It has not all been plain sailing! Here Peter reveals some of the highs and lows of wreck detection…

THE THRILL

The sheer excitement of seeing something no one else has seen before… The potential of revealing a unique story… The questions, enigmas and mysteries the wreck holds, exploring her “bones”  and finding evidence of her everyday life… and of course unique photo opportunities. These are the true treasures of a wreck. Finding an unidentified wreck is a great thrill in its own right, but finding an unexpected wreck while looking for another can be the icing on the cake - or a poisoned chalice.

Truth can be stranger than fiction. History does repeat itself. Evidence can be misleading. Two and two can sometimes make five! Some of the facts we have uncovered have attracted scorn, criticism, even slander and attempted blackmail… all this simply makes unveiling the truth even more satisfying.

THE TEAM

I received a poisoned letter once, accusing me of claiming to have single-handedly discovered all the wrecks in the Red Sea and inventing others!
I never work alone. I am surrounded by a team of over 50 colleagues - not all divers, but all who have witnessed and aided the discoveries

Many of the team were there when we found seven wrecks in two days; and there when we found and identified the Aboundy, Bahr, Scalaria and Zietieh (to pick a few out of the hat). Without the help of researchers, technical divers, side scan experts, historians and a faithful and patient skipper and crew there would be no story to tell. Over the years many clubs and individuals have shared my passion. Many non-divers have also played a vital role - coming up with facts and documentation as a result of the patience of the dive team in unearthing the clues in the first place. Caroline Durkin springs to mind. She produced an original purchase document for the Helme Park (Zealot) within an hour of giving her my only clue - an SMS from a liveaboard on location. This was a wreck identified before her discoverer had disembarked from his trip.

Then there is our side scan expert Dr Fiona Stewart. Despite being an avid diver she is happy to sit at her computer screen for hours producing great images of the seabed and finding us many targets. I.T. experts, Army Communications experts, the Captain of one of her majesties Aircraft carriers, even a Russian lawyer and a Polish seaman have all played their part.
Even our paying guests get involved on safari. Many of them have been towed behind a rib checking out a search area - or simply dropped in open water to “see what’s down there”.

IT’S NOT ALWAYS THAT EASY

The very first expedition up into the Gulf of Suez (Ras Dib, RAS Shukier) netted seven wrecks in two days (Attiki, Muhansia, Elliot, Gemini DB, Laura Security, Birchwood and Zietieh). The second expedition, despite poor weather, netted three in one day (Aboudy, Bahr and Scalaria). So the members of those teams (East Lancashire and Brighton) could be forgiven for thinking wreck hunting, and identification is a piece of cake! (Note: look out for a feature on these newly-discovered wrecks in a forthcoming issue of H2O Magazine).

THE RESEARCH MINE FIELD

So where do you begin? Ideally with a name! But then, even that sometimes can be confusing. The Zingara in the Straits of Tiran changed hands and sank so quickly that her new name never appeared on her hull. To this day some still call her the Kormoran. The Ayia Varava is not the Agia Varara; these are two different ships, two different wrecks and the latter lies in Saudi Arabia not Egypt!

The ships’ bell will reveal the ships name at birth, and stays with the vessel for life, even if later her official name is clouded over with a “new name” and new history. The bell from the tile wreck at Abu Nuhas was recovered when we first dived her in 1978. The skipper kept the bell along with some of the cargo. We knew her name at sinking - it was painted on the hull, but back then took little interest in her history. I had to wait until 2003 before I caught sight of the bell again - revealing her name at birth as the name on her hull had produced very little about the wreck - save to prove it wasn’t the Chrisoula K! The bell helped us piece together a career involving four name changes – but also posed many new questions.

In one instance, the ships plate was found - or at least we thought it was her plate, installed with the engines at birth; but it turned out to be a second plate placed when she was outfitted as a tanker- a misleading clue until the actual ships plate turned up. The plate will usually state the place, date and yard number as well as the builder - but not the name.

If yard lists are available then the name comes quickly. In some cases identification means looking through the Lloyds register, so you start at “A” and work your way through page after page until the right date and specification show up. This can be a long job if the ships name turns out to be Turbo or worse Zietieh!

Our expert Colin, Archivist at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle has saved me weeks of dreary work with Volume Two of the Lloyds register. The M.V. Bahr gave up without a fight. Her name is embossed on the hull - no challenge there!

Without a name, we need to look to the wreck again, as there are at least seven different places where the information can be found on older ships. The fiddlers’ plate reveals all, while the azimuth ring will give details of her manufacturer, but again not her name at the time of sinking. A Suez exemption plate has much information about the ship. Boilers were often built elsewhere and will often have their own plate, which can lead to an identification, but beware! We found four vessels off the northeast coast of England and this evidence led to vessels which were officially scrapped. So were the boilers re-used or were the ships sold on? There are plenty of red herrings like this to keep the questions coming.     

Identification made easy: “BAKR, SUEZ” speaks for itself; The engine plate of the S.S. Scalaria final confirmation of  the identity of a WW2 tanker sunk by aerial torpedoes in the Gulf of Suez.

Crockery can be very informative.
The Ulysses has the name of her shipping line stamped on a plate. The Fridge Wreck looked as if she would never show her name. This wreck was splattered into the reef, many years of encrusting life obscuring much of her detail, until one day, I ventured into what was left of the fo’c’sle and got stuck. I turned over onto my back to wriggle out and I saw a life belt wedged above me it read A-L-A-S-K-A!

The S.S. Carina, or glass wreck, seemed an impossible task to identify, but slowly the clues came forward - melted glass suggesting a fire, buttons, bottles of Calamine Lotion and glassware. Had she caught fire and grounded? Indeed it turned out to be very close to the truth. Her name remained unconfirmed until a group of Belgium divers worked with me.
They recognised the glass, and with help from the National Glass Museu, they gave us a date.  A boiler plate gave us a starting point and Yard lists, not in the public domain, provided us with the origins of the vessel.

One name of course, well-known for many years was totally fictitious, yet it appeared in many articles and books. It started as a practical joke - a skipper inventing a name while looking at his wife, a writer taking for granted what was said and the Sara H was born!

Thanks to my scepticism and a local marine expert, the wreck was identified from her unusual engine and boiler configuration by our local museum curator. It seems only ten such engines were made

An invaluable Yard list produced ten suspects. Nine of them never went to the Red Sea and one did - The S.S. Kingston had finally been found!

Charts too, can be rather misleading. Siyul has a wreck clearly marked on the charts for it. One story tells of a local operator diving the wreck in the eighties and recovering some tins of paint. Many skippers have claimed to know where the wreck lies. Ten years on, I’m still looking for it, still jumping in “down there.” So am I missing something?

PROXIMITY OF ANOTHER WRECK

Sometimes the proximity of one wreck can disguise the location of another. In the eighties there was a wreck marked on the reef at Shag Rock, and when we got there it was a trawler sitting high and dry. As we were about to leave, disappointed a pod of dolphins enticed us into the water - and there was a wreck! A few miles away, a tug sits high and dry on
the reef.

In its shadow is a small iron framed wooden hulled steam ship circa 1850. We have nicknamed it the nail wreck due to the hand made bronze nails we have found (dated 1850 thanks to Durham University). Lying in the shallows next to the Ulysses is the keel, ribs and bottom plates of a much older sailing vessel. This might explain a report from the Hydrographers department about a “cable laying sailing ship”, its position almost identical to the Ulysses.

So why does this occur? So often history repeats itself and poor conditions of the weather and the sea, plus similar circumstances like bad navigation or a hidden reef, can all lead to an “accident black spot”. Abu Nuhas has witnessed at least seven groundings in the last 30 years.

OFFICIAL REPORTS

THE SS Steel Seafarer. Official reports say she sank in deep water, but with 300 miles of unexplored coastline nearby who knows what we might find? Who Dives Wins! She would be the most exciting find since the Thistlegorm. Hands off Divemasters!

Imagine you are a radio operator. It’s WW2. You are being attacked by enemy aircraft as your boat sinks… and you are trying to get off a final position. The screw is still turning as she goes down. No calculators, no GPS, no computers. Just dead reckoning. “Last Known position” – this is merely a starting point.

The Steel Seafarer was an American ship, bombed off Shedwan, and packed with military equipment, but no munitions. She did not, like the Thistlegorm, sink immediately.

Her “final position” puts her in deep water but with such a valuable cargo surely her Captain would try to run her aground. There is a big island nearby - out of bounds at the moment - but if she did make it to shallower water we would indeed have a second Thistlegorm!

It is true that optimism is an essential part of our work… Officially, the Rosalie Moller was “raised and salvaged” after the second world war, so how come we’ve been diving her for over 10 years? She was one of 20 vessels contracted by the government for reclamation to a salving company. Could this explain the missing propeller blade?

So we have a few ghostly images of wrecks that “officially” don’t exist. Does this mean that we have been subjected to the raptures of the deep for the last ten years?

RUMOURS AND FISHERMAN’S TALES

Back in the 1970’s, we were quizzing local fishermen in the north east of England about shipwrecks. A group of islands - the Farnes - listed over 1500 wrecks, many old and wooden, but there had to be others. One fisherman said “there’s a wreck off the back of the “Nissen” nobody knows about”. No reef, rock, islet or island could be found with that name. Years later, the name came up again. I queried it and the local fisherman pointed to the chart…. “Knifestone.” Local dialects can easily throw you off the scent!

I often heard Egyptians use the phrase “six and six”. At first I couldn’t understand what they were saying -“six of one, half a dozen of the other?”
So applying that “lost in translation” logic, I looked at all the rumours surrounding a “Hospital Ship”, rumoured to lie in Egyptian waters. Large vessels like this are very well documented and there is nothing to back up the rumour, except a report from a fellow diver who had been taken to the wreck many years ago.

Apparently it is some 30 minutes from the Thistlegorm in 35 metres on her side. Could “Hospital” be “hospitality”, meaning to “accommodate”? Should we be looking for a passenger ship or perhaps a ferry - perhaps it’s the Al Qamar - Saudi Moon - a Salem Express style vessel known to have sunk in 1994. Conflicting reports put her south west of Shag Rock and south of Siyul Island.
After 14 years of working with the Egyptian Skippers, I have come to believe that behind every rumour there is a fact - no matter how remote! It’s interpreting these rumours and getting stuck in that brings results.

Plus an amount of optimism for sure, and an open mind. If I had listened to some of the “experts”, the Spy ship at Zabagad would never have been identified as a “Moma Class Intelligence Gatherer.” Many people have had a lot of fun and excitement proving these “experts” wrong … and dive briefings would have us believe we were diving on a fishing boat!
 

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