This early 20th century French steamship has plenty to interest divers, but because of its position in the Lower Clyde you won’t find yourself crowded out, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
The Clyde and its approaches has been a major shipping area throughout history. From old wooden sailing ships through to some of the earliest Victorian paddle-steamers, steamships, warships and modern bulk-carrying monster cargo ships, it is hardly surprising that it is home to a wealth of wrecks.
In the Lower Clyde area, the Longwy is one of the better-known, yet it is still barely dived compared with wrecks in other parts of the country. If the lower Clyde were off the Sussex coast, wrecks like the Longwy would be swarming with divers.
The Longwy was a French steamship, torpedoed by a U-boat in November 1917. The ship went down on an even keel about 3 miles north of Corsewall Point. Since then, the wreck must have been salvaged because the deck and sides of the hull have collapsed, and most of it is only a metre or two above the seabed.
The boilers and engine (1) are the only parts of the Longwy that really stand out on an echo-sounder, rising to 22m from a 27m seabed. This is the easiest place to drop a shot, and it is where this month’s Wreck Tour begins.
The visibility here can be variable. In order to get your orientation, stay on top of one of the boilers until you find a circular flue. This is closest to the front of the boiler.
Dropping down the front of the boilers, there are two stoking holes to each one at the bottom. On the floor of the wreck are the usual bits of debris, typical of the general litter found around a boiler-room.
Looking forward, you should be able to see the upright girders of a broken bulkhead. Resting against the foot of this bulkhead and across the wreck is a small donkey boiler (2), used to provide steam for the ship’s auxiliary machinery and generators when the main boilers were not lit.
Up close, the girders of the bulkhead carry an impressive array of plumose anemones. On the starboard side, the girders extend forwards a short distance to the stubby remains of another bulkhead. The port side has collapsed completely. The area enclosed would most likely have been the ship’s coal bunkers (3).
From here forward, the wreck stands only a metre or two above the seabed. The rectangular surrounds of cargo-hatches can just be made out among the general debris that marks the collapsed forward holds (4).
The end of the holds and start of the bow area is marked by a huge anchor-winch sitting across the wreck, seated squarely on a thick steel mounting-plate (5). Hull-plates have collapsed and folded across the wreck, but the outline of the bows can still be picked out, almost level with the silty seabed (6). Just off the wreck, huge shoals of fish swarm in the gentle current.
Swimming towards the stern, the port side of the hull has obviously collapsed away from the wreck (7), while the starboard side has collapsed more onto the wreck, indicating that the whole structure of the wreck has collapsed to port. My guess is that if you want to venture out over the silt looking for debris from the superstructure, the port side is more likely to be profitable.
For the purpose of this tour, I would recommend getting back onto the main body of the wreck just aft of the boilers (8). Here, among the remains of the engine-room, you will find a huge four-cylinder steam engine (9), still upright and rising to a depth of 20m. Not as big as on the Somali (see March Wreck Tour), but nevertheless impressive.
Behind the engine, an exposed section of propshaft leads the way to the stern (10). In the area of the aft holds, the signs of the hull having collapsed to port are much more apparent. The starboard half of the wreck is covered by plates from the starboard side of the hull resting against the partially buried remains of the propshaft tunnel (11).
Intact hold surrounds and scraps of decking have all slid to the port side of the wreck, with the port side of the hull collapsed outwards, leaving ribs exposed.
Nearing the stern, the hull retains some of its original structure, strong cross-bracing reinforcing the aft end of the ship (12) and preventing its collapse.
The general line of the wreckage rises a few metres to meet the rudder-shaft towering above (13). Following this downwards, steel plates lie propped against the stern like a huge steel teepee.
Near the seabed at 27m, a large gap between these fallen plates is open enough to reveal the lower part of the rudder-shaft and the rudder standing in the silt.
An incredibly dense covering of bright orange plumose anemones is a good indication of the strength of the current outside the slack water times.
Outside this tent of steel plate, and following the rudder-shaft upwards, you’ll see a rectangular plate pierced and supported by the shaft – it’s all that remains of the original deck. The top of the shaft is at 16m, with the semi-circular remains of the steering mechanism still in place, indicating the original level of the main deck.
On the intact ship, a steel cable or chain would have run from the ship’s wheel in the wheelhouse down either side of the ship and round the back of this semi-circular cam. Turning the wheel would wind the cable to one side, rotating the cam and through that the shaft and the rudder.
Now at the shallowest point of the wreck, the steering mechanism makes a convenient place to tie down a reel and release a delayed SMB for ascent.
RUNNING THE GAUNTLET
The 2,315-ton French steamer Longwy was one of the victims of a German UC-class mine-laying submarine engaged in setting a widespread field of mines across the approaches to Glasgow and the Clyde.
The Longwy, bound for the Clyde from Bilbao with a cargo of iron ore, was three miles off Corsewall Point on the Scottish shore of the North Channel out of the Irish Sea when the torpedo hit her, on the morning of 4 November, 1917.
Though it was a torpedo that sank the ship, the course set by Captain Yves Legall might well have ended with a mine explosion anyway. At this late stage of the war, the German mine-laying subs were planting their cargoes close inshore, to catch Allied shipping hugging the coast in an effort to dodge U-boats operating in deeper waters.
The Longwy was built in 1903 in Nantes and, when launched, was 86m long with a beam of 12m and a draught of 6m. She was powered by a three-cylinder triple-expansion steam engine, made by Schneider & Co of Creusot.
GETTING THERE: Girvan is situated on the A77, 25 miles north of Stranraer and 55 miles south of Glasgow.
DIVING AND AIR: Rachel Clare is a fast offshore 105 based at Girvan, and skipper Tony Wass has an arrangement with the local diving club for air-fills. The nearest oxygen-clean air and nitrox is 40 miles away at Largs. Other contacts include: Clyde Diving Charters; Flying Eagle Charters; C&C Marine Services; Kip Watersports; and Argyll Yacht Services.
LAUNCHING: Slip or beach at Girvan, slip at Stranraer. Both slips are usable only for 2 hours either side of high water.
TIDES: Tides for the Longwy are unusual. For a few hours each tide it rips across the wreck before suddenly going slack for a good couple of hours, 1 hour before low water or high water Girvan. On neaps it is slack enough to dive from 2 hours before, until 2 hours after the tide at Girvan.
HOW TO FIND IT: The position of the Longwy is 55.03 15N, 5.10 36W (Degrees, minutes and seconds). The transits are vague and difficult to use, so arrive eraly and allow time to run a search pattern using GPS. The wreck lies north-south, so an east-west search pattern is most likely to cross the wreck.
QUALIFICATIONS: Sports/Advanced Open Water Divers and above. More experienced divers will probably want to plan for a longer bottom time with some decompression.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2199, North Channel (Northern Part). Ordnance Survey Map 76, Girvan, Ballantrae & Barrhill. Clyde Shipwrecks, Peter Moir & Ian Crawford.
PROS: An interesting steamship wreck made special by the sight of the magnificent rudder-post and stern.
CONS: Visibility can get low after a few days’ rain, but is typically better than further north in the Clyde.
Thanks to Tony Wass, Alex Poole, and Jonathan Peskett.
Appeared in Diver, May 2000