Bristling with ammo and packing a gun, this WW1 munitions ship deserves more than to be a second-string dive, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
The first time I dived the wreck of the World War One munitions ship Basil was as a fallback site when the sea was too rough to get to the Moldavia (Wreck Tour 120). Understandably, the adverse surface conditions made it a less than perfect dive, but nevertheless enjoyable.
The day I sketched the Basil for Wreck Tour was another “not the Moldavia” day, though I did have a specific request in for the Basil as that day’s fallback site. Going back through my logbook, so are all the other dives I could find on this wreck, making the Basil the wreck I have dived most off the Sussex coast.
So for all those divers hoping to get to the Moldavia this coming season, this month’s Wreck Tour is the Basil. It’s a wreck I have always enjoyed diving, but never planned to go to. With luck, I might finally get to finish my sketch of the Moldavia this year.
The most likely location for a shot is either on or dragged across the more intact central part of the wreck. To get orientation, the sides of the hull curve down slightly (1) just forward of the debris from the wheelhouse.
The bow points to the west, so take a compass-bearing on the lay of the shotline before the dive and turn appropriately where it hits the wreck to help with your orientation.
The first hold forwards (2) is covered with the cargo of howitzer caps, just visible if you shine a good light through gaps in the decayed wooden decking.
Pairs of bollards on either side of the deck and a winch on the centreline mark where the hull has broken completely down. Here it is possible to look back into the hold just crossed, for a closer view of the howitzer caps.
The hull on either side of the forward hold has collapsed to the seabed, leaving an enormous mound of shells (4). These were originally packed in wooden crates of four, though many of the crates in this pile of debris have disintegrated to leave individual shells.
As with any such potentially dangerous cargo, my standard advice is to look and leave it where it rests.
The bow (5) has split from the wreck at the chain-locker and collapsed to port, leaving some chain sections piled just forward of the mound of shells. With the deck at this point being strengthened to support the anchor-winch, this is not an unusual place for the bow to split from the rest of a wreck.
If you are diving on high-water slack, the seabed here will be at 40m, and perhaps as shallow as 35m at a good low-water slack.
Returning to the main body of the wreck can be confusing. I have heard of divers endlessly circling the big pile of shells in the forward hold and never finding their way back.
I would recommend heading for the keel of the bow section and then to the starboard side of the wreck, where a short section of hull remains intact and upright (6). This will give a line to follow back along the starboard side.
The next point of interest is at the start of the wheelhouse debris, where the sides of the hull curve up to a slightly higher deck level. As with most vessels of this age, the wheelhouse would have been made of wood, so little remains.
Towards the centreline of the ship is a large square box-structure (7), tilted slightly forward where the deck below has caved in. This had me guessing for a while, and I am still not sure, although, being just forward and above the boilers, it could have been a water-tank.
The deck above the stoke-hold is largely intact and covered with debris (8), with no obvious way inside. By contrast the top of the triple-expansion steam engine (9) is fully accessible.
Further down, the lower part of the engine is obscured by accumulated debris, including a few scraps of coal.
Just aft of the engine, resting on top of the debris from the first hold aft, are a pair of anchors (10) lying neatly head to tail. These are much too small for a 3,220-ton ship like the Basil, so they must have come either from the ship’s boats or been part of the cargo.
Just to starboard is a tangled pile of cordite, a propellant for the shells. I know I have used this description before, but if you are unfamiliar with cordite it looks like strands of wholemeal spaghetti.
The sides of the hull have mostly collapsed in a similar way to the forward hold, the cargo of shells spilling out onto the seabed (11).
The starboard side to the aft of the hold is more intact, with a wall of crates of shells still stacked against the side of the hold (12). Staying within the hold and moving aft brings you to more piles of caps and bagged charges, hidden below the decked-over aftmost hold (13).
Above deck, a broken winch on the centreline of the ship marks the beginning of the decked-over section (14).
At the stern, hull-plates have fallen away to leave ribs spidering out above the rudder (15). The seabed below is the deepest point on the wreck, a slight scour giving a depth at high-water slack of 42m. The propeller has been salvaged, but the rudder remains, turned slightly to port (16).
Also at the stern, the platform for the 4.7in deck-gun is the shallowest point of the wreck at 32m. The gun (17) is the final attractive feature of the Basil. Although the platform is slightly skewed, the gun is intact and pointing towards the surface.
British Expeditionary Force Transport No 0608, the peacetime name of which was Basil, could get a steady 10 knots out of her 334hp triple-expansion engine, three boilers and single prop. Captain Edward Whitehouse used that top speed to dodge the German U-boats as he made regular runs across the Channel, writes Kendall McDonald.
Built in Belfast in 1895, the 3,225-ton, 103m-long ship was originally named Mourne, but when sold in 1898 to the Booth Steamship Co of Liverpool was renamed Basil, the second ship in its fleet to bear that name.
When she was requisitioned late in World War One to carry troops, horses and feed, and munitions across the Channel to France, the Royal Navy mounted a 4.7in gun on her stern. There is no record that the gun was ever used in anger; the Basil’s best defence seemed to be to keep as close as possible to her top speed.
That is what she was doing, without lights or escort, on 11 November, 1917, on her way from Southampton to Boulogne with a cargo of artillery shells. At midnight at full speed she plunged into a fog-bank near the Owers off the Sussex coast. The French steamer Margaux came into the fog bank from the French side. They collided, bows on, somewhere in the middle of the fog.
The Basil foundered almost at once before she could get her boats away, and 13 of her crew of 28 went down with her. The Margaux later reached Southampton, despite heavy damage to her bows.
GETTING THERE: For Littlehampton marina, take the first road towards the sea off the A259 between Littlehampton and Bognor Regis. Coming from the Littlehampton direction, the marina can be seen from the bridge across the Arun and the turning is about 500m further on.
DIVING AND AIR: The hardboat Voyager operates from Littlehampton marina, skipper Paul Childs. Air and nitrox are available from the dive-shop in the marina complex.
ACCOMMODATION: Camping is available at both Littlehampton marina and the Ship & Anchor marina, further up the River Arun, 01243 551262. For details of pub accommodation and B&B, contact Littlehampton Tourist Information.
LAUNCHING: The slips at the marina and further down the river are wet at all states of the tide, though entering and exiting the river Arun is unsafe close to low water.
TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs 1 hour and 20 minutes before high-water Littlehampton and 1 hour before low-water Littlehampton.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 34.59N, 00 38.24W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies with the bows to the west, so a north-to-south search pattern is most likely to cross the wreck.
QUALIFICATIONS: The Basil is an advanced dive, especially when dived at high-water slack.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1652: Selsey Bill To Beachy Head. Ordnance Survey Map 197, Chichester And The South Downs, Bognor Regis And Arundel. Dive Sussex, by Kendall McDonald. World War One Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw.
PROS: A reasonably intact wreck with an amazing cargo of ammunition.
CONS: Deep and often dark, especially on high-water slack.
Thanks to Paul Childs, Alex Poole, Steve Chaplin, Victoria Jay and Tony Jay.
Appeared in Diver, February 2002