After 33 years of freighting and Antarctic whaling and 85 years in Scapa Flow, this blockship is a relative marvel of preservation, as JOHN LIDDIARD reports. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
Although Scapa Flow is famous for the remains of the scuttled German Grand Fleet, of World War One, there are many other wrecks in the nearby waters.
To restrict access to Scapa Flow in both wars, old and damaged ships were scuttled in some of the entrances as deliberate obstructions to navigation. One of these blockships is the 2,332-ton Gobernador Bories, built in 1882 and scuttled in Burra Sound in 1915.
Slack water in the sound is short. To get a good dive on the wreck you have to arrive early and jump in as soon as the current is slack enough to stay on the wreck. With a maximum depth of 15 or 16m, a no-stop dive of more than an hour is possible, so by the time you surface the current will be ripping along in the opposite direction.
When I dived the Gobernador Bories, a buoy-line was attached just forward of the boilers (1), but this could change as lines break and are replaced.
In front of the boilers is a small donkey-boiler (2). On the starboard side of the wreck, collapsed deck-plates rest across the starboard boiler to make a tunnel inside the starboard side of the hull (3).
Various pieces of pipework and valves project into the tunnel from the end of the donkey-boiler and plenty of light enters the tunnel through breaks in the plates and triangular ends forward and aft.
With the wreck being regularly swept by strong currents, there is no silt inside and good visibility makes navigation easy. Lines are not needed for this sort of wreck penetration, but I would recommend a fully redundant air supply.
Turning aft along the side of the boiler, the tunnel breaks into the open among the exposed remains of the engine-room (4). The huge block of the steam engine (5) dominates the scene. The crankshaft and connecting rods are visible through the sides of the engine-block.
From the rear of the engine, the partially buried arch of the propshaft tunnel projects from the square housing of the thrust-bearing and marks the way to the stern (6). Largely intact, it is obscured in places by fallen sections of deck-plate and hull.
A few metres back, what remains of the engine-room bulkhead is still upright, with some large sections of pipe attached to the inside of it (7).
The starboard side of the hull is generally higher than the port side, with ribs projecting above the line of the hull-plates. Sticking up into a strong current, such ribs are a perfect home for soft corals and anemones. From the top, streamers of kelp waft in the current (8).
With typically good visibility you will be able to see the shadow of the largely intact stern from about halfway along the hold. The floor of the hold is a tangle of debris from the deck and sides. Among the debris here you will find the solid remains of the surround for one of the hold hatches (9) and, a little further back, a large winch (10).
The stern itself lists heavily to starboard and is surprisingly intact compared to the rest of the ship (11), demonstrating graphically how the ends of a ship are built to withstand much higher stresses than those parts in-between.
With decks gone, the inside of the stern is a grid of ribs and pillars, with shafts of sunlight streaming in from above. Right at the top, the steering mechanism is still attached to the rudder-shaft (12).
Even at slack water there will still be some current running, so a cautious move is to drop close to the seabed before coming round the stern to view the propeller and rudder, both intact and in place (13). Two blades of the propeller are buried in the shingle seabed, with the hub just clear.
Following the line of the keel brings you back past the intact stern to the broken port side of the hold (14), where you can retrace your route back to the boilers.
At the boilers, the tunnel formed between collapsed decking and the starboard side of the hull (3) can also be followed forwards for 10m or more, almost halfway to the bows (15), coming out beneath a pair of solid deck bollards.
I was mobbed by fish in this tunnel. Divers must have fed the wrasse on this wreck, because they are almost tame. They readily approach, seeking a free meal, and follow you throughout the dive.
Crossing the wreck to the port side, another swim-through (16) takes you right up to the inside of the bows. Like the stern, the bows are intact, but this time twisted to port.
There are no chains or anchors. Such useful fittings would have been cleared out before the ship was scuttled. Having said that, on the seabed to the port side of the bows lies a large iron pendant, perhaps the remains of an anchor with broken flukes (17).
To end the dive, there is little point returning to the buoy-line. The current will be building up and the line would soon drag under with divers ascending it. My recommendation is to ascend to 8m while staying in the shelter of the bows (18), make a slightly deeper than normal safety stop while hanging onto the kelp, then blob to the surface before you drift too far from the wreck.
PASSIVE ROLE IN TWO WARS
The Admiralty worried for years about the security of its anchorage for the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow, writes Kendall McDonald. Long before the start of World War One, it began to fear that submarines might slip into the Flow and that its battleships would be sitting ducks.
A German submarine would not in fact do that until U-47 torpedoed the battleship Royal Oak with the loss of more than 800 men in Scapa Flow in 1939. But in August 1914 the Admiralty’s concerns crystallised into the idea of sinking blockships to keep out U-boats.
Its plans were rushed forward after the periscope of U-18 was spotted that November. The U-boat left Scapa Flow without difficulty after her captain found that the Navy was so scared of U-boat attack that it had dispersed most of the fleet.
There was little choice about the type of ships to use as blockships. The Admiralty bought what it could, used war prizes and added war-damaged ships, anything that would float long enough to be towed into position. Twenty-two vessels – 50,000 tons of shipping – were sunk within a year to close the four minor entrances to the North Sea. The main entrances were closed by booms, nets, minefields controlled from the shore and guns of all kinds.
Five ships were used to block Burra Sound (two more were added in WW2). One of the earliest to hit the bottom in 1915 was the Gobernador Bories, a 2,332-ton whaling ship based at Puntas Arenas near Cape Horn. She had been used for some years for hunting whales in Antarctic waters near the Falkland Islands.
The Gobernador Bories was almost a hulk when she was bought by the Admiralty – the Falkland waters are not kind to any ship, particularly one as old as this. The iron single-screw steamer had been built at West Hartlepool in 1882 as the Wordsworth, and had a long career as a cargo steamer before being bought by the Chileans for whaling.
The fact that the wreck is still ship-like after all that the fierce currents in Burra Sound could do over the past 85 years is a tribute to the men of West Hartlepool who built it all that time ago!
GETTING THERE: Ferries to the Orkney Islands run from Scrabster, Invergorden and Aberdeen. The longer ferry routes cost more, but have the advantage of shorter road journeys. The Scrabster-to-Stromness ferry is regularly used by divers and has a system for carrying dive-gear for foot passengers, so you can easily leave your car on the mainland. Coaches from Inverness to Scrabster are scheduled to fit in with the ferry sailings. It is also possible to fly into Kirkwall.
DIVING AND AIR: Most diving in Scapa Flow is from large hardboats, many offering liveaboard “floating bunk-room” accommodation. These are generally based in Stromness, but can tie up overnight at other harbours. Air supplied by on-board compressors, weights and cylinders are usually included in the price, so travelling light and using the boat’s equipment is always an option. Try Jean Elaine or Sharon Rose of Scapa Flow Charters.
ACCOMMODATION: Sleep on board the boat, or stay ashore in a local hotel or B&B. There is a camp-site in Stromness, but I would not recommend camping in the Orkney climate. Check out the Orkney Islands Tourist Board.
LAUNCHING: If you want to ferry your own boat across, there are a number of small slips in Scapa Flow. You will need to arrange permission to dive in advance with the harbourmaster.
TIDES: The time of slack water in Burra Sound is a bit unpredictable, so skippers like to get there early and wait for the current to drop. Slack water is approximately 15 minutes before high water and 30 minutes after low water at Widewall Bay. Slack usually lasts for less than 30 minutes.
HOW TO FIND IT: Co-ordinates 58 55 25N, 3 18 33W (degrees, minutes and seconds). The Gobernador Bories used to be easy enough to find by searching into Scapa Flow from the bows of the Inverlane. However, it might be more difficult now that the Inverlane has collapsed further and no longer breaks the surface. With the tide running, the Gobernador Bories causes quite a stir on the surface and, with an echo-sounder and GPS, finding it should not prove too difficult. A small buoy should be attached and pop up as the current slackens.
QUALIFICATIONS: Experienced sport divers who are happy diving in currents. This wreck is sufficiently shallow for nitrox to offer little advantage.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 35, Scapa Flow And Approaches. Ordnance Survey Map 6, Orkney – Mainland, and Map 7, Orkney – Southern Isles. Dive Scapa Flow by Rod Macdonald.
PROS: Superb visibility, massive amounts of life and fairly shallow.
CONS: Scapa Flow is a long way to travel for most UK divers. You have to take time out from diving the capital ships.
Thanks to Matt Wood, Andy Cuthbertson and Ben Wade.
Appeared in Diver, December 2000