It’s a long way to go, but this sunken steamship is well worth a visit, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Just watch out for the phosphorus and jellyfish! Illustration by MAX ELLIS
This month’s Wreck Tour has taken me farther north than I have ever dived in the British Isles. The 928-ton steamship Gwladmena went down off Lerwick in the Shetland Islands following a collision with the Flora in January 1918 and now rests on an even keel in 35-37m.
Were it located off the South Coast, I am sure it would be heavily dived. As it stands, the Gwladmena is a regular site for the local Shetland sub-aqua clubs and only the occasional visiting diver.
Local divers often leave a buoy attached to the Gwladmena. When I dived it, the line was attached to the rear of a large hatch in the bow deck (1). Originally the location of the chain-locker, the inside can be fun to swim through but holds no significant features, other than decaying hawsers and other scraps half-buried in silt.
The wreck has been wire-swept, removing all the forecastle structure including winches, bollards and railings. A solitary pulley-block lies encrusted against the steel deck. The anchor-winch has fallen upside-down just off the starboard bow, still attached to a heavy deck-plate that now rests above it (2).
Round the corner immediately off the port bow, an anchor is partially buried in the sand (3). There is little sign of other debris from the wreck – it is either buried in the sand, rotted to dust or has been dragged out of sight.
Swimming along the starboard side, it is apparent that the wreck has been cleared to below deck level, with some additional damage to the starboard side of the hull (4), perhaps a consequence of the Silver Harvest fouling its anchor on the wreck in 1998.
Although situated close to the main shipping channel to Lerwick, there is none of the profuse anemone or soft coral growth normally expected on such a wreck. This could have something to do with the location of Lerwick at an “amphidromic” point – a place where there is very little tidal movement.
Growth on the hull of the wreck consists largely of small shells with grazing sea urchins and starfish.
The forward hold is empty, save for general debris and some large lumps of coal resting in a corner (5). This might have been for the ship’s boilers but, with more coal found in other parts of the wreck, its presence suggests that at least some of the coal was cargo.
Passing a broken bulkhead, towards the port side the remains of a steam engine (6) lie toppled to one side. This confused me at first, because I would have expected a coal bunker. The engine should be behind the boilers, not in front of them! Had I got the wreck back to front?
Behind this anomaly, two boilers rest side by side, filling the centre of the hull, with no way past except over the top of them (7). Now in the area of the ship where I would have expected an engine-room to be, my concerns about the orientation of the wreck were immediately settled by the lower half of the steam engine still in place behind the boilers at the centreline of the ship (8).
The upper half of the engine must have been pulled across the boilers to the forward part of the ship when it was wire-swept, or perhaps during an attempt to salvage part of the engine.
A steam engine in this state is quite revealing, with a big crankshaft and connecting rods easily inspected and rods to various valves protruding from the side of the engine. There is also a large amount of mechanical debris in the area of the engine-room that could be worth a rummage, but I was pressed for time and wanted to see the stern.
Behind the engine, a square box houses the thrust-bearing connecting the engine to the propshaft (9), with the remains of another transverse bulkhead above it. The propshaft tunnel is intact, protruding from debris in the rear holds (10). An interesting feature is that the tunnel retains its wooden covering.
Towards the starboard side of the hull is another large pile of coal (11). Its location means that it is unlikely to have been fuel for the boilers, but is further evidence of coal among the cargo.
Back on the centreline of the ship, a winch lies upside-down (12) just before the cross-member that marks the site of another long-decayed bulkhead. As with the anchor-winch off the bows, the steel deck-plate that originally supported the winch now rests above it. A second and larger winch rests the right way up, just behind the bulkhead (13).
The wooden-clad propshaft tunnel is still visible, leading the way to the stern. At the rear of this hold rests a large pile of chain, right up against the intact rear bulkhead (14).
It is only at the stern that it is possible to appreciate just how far the hull of the Gwladmena has been cut down. The propshaft projects from the hull just above the seabed, and the sides of the hull rise only a couple of metres above it (15).
To the port side rests general structural debris from the wreck. On the seabed at the starboard side are the remains of the deck gun (16), with ammunition among the assorted debris just forward of it (17).
Be extremely careful what you touch in this area. Some of the ammunition included white phosphorus, which now looks like small white pebbles on the seabed. Even touching such “pebbles” with a diving glove will leave a smear of phosphorus that will burn on contact with air.
The Gwladmena is only a small ship, so it won’t take long to return to the buoy-line at the bow for your ascent. However, with the likelihood of lion’s mane jellyfish near the surface, drifting on a delayed SMB is a nicer option for decompression stops. There is little current, so you won’t drift far.
Unhappy New Year
One of the busy collection points for convoys from March 1917 to the early months of 1918 was Lerwick in the Shetlands, writes Kendall McDonald.
However, it seems unlikely – because no records survive – that the Gwladmena of Liverpool was in the deepwater anchorage to the south of the port on the foggy New Year night of 1918 to join a convoy. More probably it was so busy there that she could not get in to discharge the coal she had brought up from Methil in the Firth of Forth.
Heading into the anchorage in the dark before dawn on 2 January was another steamer intent on joining a convoy. This was the Danish ship Flora, and she steamed straight for the anchored Gwladmena.
The 928-ton collier had been built in 1878 in the Harbour Dockyard of West Hartlepool by Irvine & Co as the Mary Hough, named after the wife of her first owner, Samuel Hough, a Liverpool ship-owner. She was 60m long with a beam of 9m and had two compound engines with two boilers producing 136hp.
In 1912 the Hough Line was taken over and she became the Maggie Warrington. She entered World War One as the Gwladmena, owned by Stone & Co and armed with a gun on her stern.
There is little detail of the collision with the Flora that sank her. It was probably very violent, because the one anchor that was down was torn completely out of her and is nowhere to be seen around the wreck. But she didn’t sink very quickly, because there was enough time for Captain Frank Wood and his crew of 16 to get safely away before she foundered.
GETTING THERE: Ferries run from Aberdeen to Lerwick, or take a liveaboard from the Orkney Islands or elsewhere in northern Scotland.
DIVING AND AIR: All taken care of with liveaboard boats. I dived the Gwladmena from the mv Jean Elaine, a Scapa Flow-based boat. Selkie Charters in Shetland provides RIB diving, equipment hire and supplies air. Any dive on the Gwladmena needs the prior permission of Lerwick Port Authority, because it is within harbour limits. It has been known to ban boats that ignore this, so contact on Channel 12. Also tell the Coastguard, because it will warn incoming ships of your position.
LAUNCHING: Most villages have a harbour and slipway. If you take your own boat you will be spoilt for choice of launch sites.
TIDES: The Gwladmena can be dived at any state of the tide.
HOW TO FIND IT: The recorded position is 60 08.15N, 01 09.00W (degrees, minutes and seconds). Local divers maintain a buoy on the wreck, but it is always wise to use an echo-sounder to check that you are not about to dive a pot buoy! Realistically, most visiting divers would be wise to take advantage of liveaboard hardboats or locally chartered RIBs rather than shipping their own boats as far as the Shetlands.
QUALIFICATIONS: At more than 35m with a rectangular dive profile, this wreck is for experienced sport divers happy to do decompression dives. Nitrox can be advantageous both as a bottom mix and for decompression.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3291, Approaches To Lerwick. Ordnance Survey Map 4, Shetland, South Mainland. Shipwreck Index Of The British Isles Vol 4, Scotland, by Richard & Bridget Larn.
PROS: An upright and relatively undived wreck in clear water, which can be dived at any state of the tide. Plenty of other diving in the area to make a trip worthwhile.
CONS: Lerwick is a very long way to travel for most UK divers.
Thanks to Andy Cuthbertson, Toby Flint, Fiona Watson, members of Clifton BSAC.
Appeared in Diver, July 2000