Plenty to explore on this British steamer off Pembrokeshire, and it’s accessible in most weathers, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
The Dakotian is one of those wrecks that I used to dive only in really bad weather – the sort of weather that made it so foul around Skomer Island that the only place sheltered enough to survive in an inflatable boat was Dale Harbour.
Then, for some reason, we went there on a nice day, and I actually got to dive the Dakotian in good conditions. It was a completely different wreck.
I still go there as a fall-back site when weather prevents diving further offshore, but I also make the occasional effort to dive it in good conditions, when the marine life on the wreck can be fully appreciated.
The first problem with this Wreck Tour was in choosing a direction from which to view the Dakotian. For some perverse reason, the stern is tilted about 20° to starboard, while most of the wreck is upright and the bow is lying on the port side. Where debris from the superstructure has been swept from the wreck, some is on the port side and some to starboard.
In the end, I settled for the port side, mainly because the front half of the wreck appears to have collapsed that way.
I like to begin and end a dive on the Dakotian at its shallowest and most intact part, the stern. Here the wreck is tilted slightly to starboard, but the deck has collapsed inside the stern to leave it almost level. The skeleton of the stern cabins is skewed to one side, but can easily be entered and swum through (1).
Other features at the stern include the remains of the steering gear and pairs of bollards to either side. There are also the remains of a structure mounted on a large gear that might, though I’m not sure, have been a gun-mount.
While at the stern, it is well worth dropping over the side to view the intact propshaft and rudder (2). The seabed here is at 20m and represents the deepest point of the dive. A few metres off the port side, a large section of swept debris rests propped up above the seabed (3).
Ascending the port side of the hull, seams are split and hull-plates overlapping where they have shifted. The hull here is rich in marine life – hydroids, tunicates, anemones, and sponges. If you look carefully, there is a good chance of spotting nudibranchs and sea hares.
A break in the side at about 10m provides a route back into the holds (4). Once inside, immediately in front of the raised stern cabin, a large winch has fallen on one end and rests almost vertically on the centre-line of the ship.
Forward in the holds, bales of tin plate poke out of the fine silt (5). A few sheets of tin lie scattered on the floor and still maintain a bright mirror surface after almost 60 years.
Moving further forwards but still inside the hold, another winch lies propped on one end (6). An intact bridge of deck and broken bulkheads leaves an easy 10m swim-through (7) to the remains of the engine-room. With a partition in the middle and ladders exiting through square ceiling hatches, I suspect that these compartments might originally have been coal-bunkers. The route through the port side is easier to follow.
Little remains of the engine-room (8), but various parts of the steam engine poke out of the debris in the centre and assorted ship-sized pipework can be picked out among twisted and tangled girders and machinery. It is still possible to find lumps of coal at the bottom of some of the more inaccessible holes.
The boilers would have been immediately in front of the engine, but are hidden from view beneath jumbled debris from the superstructure (9). The way further forward here is above the deck at a depth of about 12m. The superstructure has been swept down to deck level.
One of the unusual things about the Dakotian is that some recognisable sections such as the funnel can be found on the seabed to starboard of the wreck, but many of the other sections of debris are to the port side. Perhaps the upper part was swept one way, then the rest swept the other way on a second pass of the cable.
From this point onwards, the wreck is more broken up (10). I would guess that the forward part of the hull twisted to port before collapsing, as the debris to the port side is mostly winches, bollards, masts and other deck fittings, whereas the debris to the starboard side consists more of hull-plates and keel.
If the visibility is poor, it can be difficult to find your way across the broken section to the bows. I have known divers to stray onto the broken part, get lost in poor visibility, then go round and round in circles and never find their way back to the intact portion of the wreck.
I prefer to follow the port side of the debris, passing the broken remains of a winch (11) before coming to a solid-looking mast and a large cargo-winch (12). This marks proximity to the bows, and if you cannot actually see the bows from here, look carefully for a shadow at the limit of visibility.
The bows are intact and lying on the port side, so that the highest point of the wreck at this end is actually the starboard side of the hull.
Where the bows have broken from the wreck, it is easy to get inside the chain-locker (13), with exit possible through a large hatch in the deck (14).
A huge anchor-winch dominates the bow deck, with chain still draped through a hawse-pipe and onto the seabed. Fairly solid-looking wooden deck planking is still attached to the deck.
Following the intact starboard railing to the highest point of the bows (15), it is not unusual to find yourself among a shoal of pollack holding position in a gentle current.
If you are low on air or bottom time, this is a convenient point at which to pop a delayed SMB and ascend. On the other hand, with time and air remaining, you could try following the debris back along the swept remains off the starboard side of the hull, ending the dive back at the stern.
PUDDINGS, BIKES AND AMNESIA
Towards the close of 1940, German Heinkel 111H bombers from captured airfields in France began using new methods of destroying British shipping – parachuting magnetic and acoustic mines into busy harbours and their approaches, writes Kendall McDonald. Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, was one of their first targets.
In November, they caused heavy losses. First to fall victim to a parachuted magnetic mine was the 6426-ton British steamer Dakotian, 120m long and with a beam of 15m. She was bound from Swansea for St John, New Brunswick, Canada, with a general cargo, including 1,300 tons of tin plate and, oddly enough, Christmas puddings and bicycles.
She had called into Milford Haven for more cargo and was just leaving in the dark night of 21 November when she was warned by radio of German aircraft activity outside St Anns Head. With only a 4in Vickers gun of WW1 vintage with which to defend the ship, the captain decided to await daylight in Dale Roads.
All were saved, though there was an all-night search for one missing crewman who, it was said later, had swum ashore, got a lift to a relative’s house, had a bath and a hot meal, and forgotten to tell anyone he was safe!
GETTING THERE: Follow the M4 and A40 to Haverfordwest, then take the B4327 to Dale.
LAUNCHING: Launch from the slip at Dale, in front of the sailing school. Parking is 50m further back along the road. The way out to the wreck is through the yacht moorings, so please take care not to raise a large wake. A café is situated conveniently at the top of the slip and there is a pub within a few metres.
TIDES: Slack water is not needed for this dive, but visibility is significantly better on an incoming tide. Best visibility is in the three-hour period before high tide.
HOW TO FIND IT: Just 100m north of the Dakotian cardinal buoy, the wreck is easy to find without GPS or transits. The buoy is even named on the chart at 52 39.13N, 5 08.2W (degrees, minutes and decimals). Note that this is the chart position of the buoy, not the wreck! Using an echo-sounder, head just west of north until wreckage is found rising from the flat seabed at 18-20m, then follow the wreck eastwards until you locate the stern rising to just 6m (3m at low water springs!). By measuring out 7-8m of anchor line, it is easy to grapple on to open girders at the stern without snagging any deeper part of the wreck.
QUALIFICATIONS: Something for everyone, from a trainee diver escorted by an instructor to experienced wreckies.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2878, Approaches To Milford Haven. Ordnance Survey Map 157, St Davids And Haverfordwest Area. Shipwrecks Around Wales Volume 1 by Tom Bennett.
PROS: Easy to launch, easy to find, lots to explore, good for macro life, accessible in all but the worst weather.
CONS: Vis can be bad, especially towards the end of an outgoing tide.
Thanks to members of the University of Bristol Underwater Club.
Appeared in Diver, September 2000