Divers strike it lucky

BRITAIN'S long forgotten shipwrecks fascinate a group of divers from across East Anglia. The Abyss Explorers spend their weekends getting to the bottom of mysteries, about what the ships were, and why they sank.

By Tracey Sparling

BRITAIN'S long forgotten shipwrecks fascinate a group of divers from across East Anglia.

The Abyss Explorers spend their weekends getting to the bottom of mysteries, about what the ships were, and why they sank. TRACEY SPARLING tells how the dive detectives struck lucky.

DEEP under water off the Cornish coast, divers Andy Tyas and Dean Lefevre were dangerously near the end of their oxygen supply.

They were in the murky depths 63m below sea level, with just 12 minutes' worth of air strapped to their backs, when Andy's eyes alighted on what they had been searching for.

It was nothing more than a shape, half buried under a big coil of wire, and steel girders, near the bridge of the old shipwreck.

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“I saw a rounded edge, rather than the shape of a bell which I had been looking out for. When I saw it was actually the ship's bell, I was dancing under the water! I shouted to Dean through our radio, and pointed at it.”

The divers try to identify unknown wrecks which have lain in mystery sometimes for hundreds of years, by looking for a name plate or lettering on the stern. Finding the ship's distinctive bell was a prize from their wildest dreams.

It was only with a superhuman effort, fuelled mainly by adrenaline, Dean managed to heave the coil of metalwork away, while Andy hauled on the 40kg bell.

They were breathing through a £5,000 computerised life support system, which enabled them to stay at such depths, rather than scuba gear.

Andy, 44, from Tower Mill Road, Ipswich said: “This was a hazardous situation for both of us to be in. Safety was paramount. It took us eight minutes to free the bell, so we were nearly to the end of the air supply. We attached a lift bag, filled it with air and sent the bell to the surface.”

After 92 minutes of decompression the two men were able to surface, and Andy said “There were handshakes all round, and a celebratory cup of tea.”

The find happened in August, 22 miles off Newquay, with help from local skipper Chris Lowe who knows the location of wrecks.

When they scraped away at the bronze bell, the team found the name 'Christiania,' and initially thought that could be the ship's name, but then they spotted the letters LOM - which turned out to be the name of a Norwegian steam ship which sunk in 1941.

An excited call to Chantal Ransome back home in Suffolk, started the research.

Chantal, 33, from Maple Close, Rendlesham trawled the Internet for hours, and contacted Lloyd's Shipping Register.

She said: “It's really interesting to do, finding out little snippets at a time, and putting it all together.”

Andy said: “The information is out there - the information highway is quite brisk thanks to the Internet, but something this old takes a little bit of finding because the archives have been put away.”

Andy said: “The Lom was from 1941 so that's quite a long time ago. It was sunk by an unknown object - it must have been a substantial object as the ship is 1,241 tonnes.”

One suggestion was that it collided with a German U-boat, as one was found sunk nearby, sporting a bow-shaped dent.

Andy said: “More research needs to happen, to discover which direction they were both travelling in, and the timings. Who knows what drama happened at that spot in 1941?”

Chantal is eagerly awaiting a picture of the ship, and possibly plans of its layout, from the Norwegian Shipping Archive.

She is also trying to track down any survivors of the wreck, through the lifeboat archives at St Ives.

There are 20-30,000 ship wrecks around the British Isles, and lots are unidentified.

Dean, 40 from Park Road, East Bergholt said: “We are working our way through them, from German U-boats to British destroyers, to hospital ships and cargo ships. There are about 300 off the East Anglian coast, including wooden galleons, but the conditions for diving here are difficult.”

Andy added: “The majority of wrecks which we see are 50-60 years old, and they have been sunk by torpedoes and in battle.

“They can lie buried by fine silt and be uncovered as the years go by. Some wrecks are charted on Ordnance Survey maps, and some are found when the Hydrographic Office surveys the sea bed. If we were to discover a new wreck ourselves, which hadn't been charted yet, that would be a dream come true.”

The Abyss Explorers have declared the Lom's bell to the national Receiver Of Wrecks.

Today they are now waiting to hear if the ship's last owner wants to reclaim the bell, but hope to be allowed to keep it.

They would be entitled to charge salvage rights of several thousand pounds to cover the cost of the recovering the bell, but they hope to be allowed to keep their prize instead.

“It will be a shame if we have to give it back,” said Andy, who has been diving for nine years. “That would be like a Chelsea footballer, who has won the FA Cup, having to hand it back.

“The money is not important to us. You can't put a value on such a bell.”

They proudly hung the bell from their tent while camping in Cornwall. Andy now hopes to have a new clanger made so it can take pride of place at his home - where it would certainly make a unique doorbell.

Andy Tyas

Greg Morgan

Dean Lefevre

Mick Crossman

Paul Bell

Mark Lester

Leigh Grubb

The Abyss Explorers are a branch of The Abyss Divers who teach scuba diving in Ipswich pools.

Their next dive will be at the Orkney Isles in Scotland.

1904: D/S Lom is a steam ship built for Pedersen & co in Christiania, Norway.

1908: Keeping the same owner she was re-named Roskva

1909: Roskva had new owners Erling Lund

1914: Roskva was out under the management of AH Arvesen

1924: Name changed to Torholm by new owners Chr.Christensen of oslo.

1928: Name changed to Kai by the Reval Shipping Co Ltd, Tallin. Put under the Estonian flag.

1940: Taken over by Ministry of Shipping, and managed by JA Gardiner, Gloucester.

1941: Kai sank on February 1, reportedly after hitting submerged wreckage. She had been on voyage between Swansea and Southampton, carrying a cargo of coal.

Ten survivors were landed at Portreave, having been rescued by the St Ives lifeboat, and either more survivors were rescued by a ship called the Isleman at St Ives. One body was recovered.

2006: The Abyss Explorers found the ship's bell, 22miles off the Cornish coast, between Trevose Head and Newquay.

Source: Lloyd's register of merchant ships, and Cornwall Maritime Museum.

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Do you have any more information about the ship D/SLom?

The divers would love to hear it. Call Tracey Sparling on 01473 324798 or email tracey.sparling@eveningstar.co.uk.

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