Normandy 2008: The Show No Weakness Tour or “If It’s Blowin’ We’re Goin’…”

After the success of the 2007 Normandy trip organised by Rick Whitby I decided to charter Channel Diver for another weeks diving based in St Vaast on the Normandy coast. The plan was to spend most of the week looking at unknown marks then finish the week with two dives on the liner SS Leopoldville. Only the weather and cheap French booze could stand in our way, roll on the Show No Weakness Tour 2008…

Monday 1st September and we’re off across a choppy channel to Cherbourg, a half hour drive at the French side gets us to St Vaast and sees us loading up the good ship Channel Diver. Steve had brought the boat over straight after getting back in from diving on the Sunday, he’d had an awful crossing taking some 12 hours where it was so rough he could only make 6 knots most of the way. The plan for Tuesday was to leave early (6am) for our first dive, but the wind was still blowing so we decided to do the later tide and hope it had blown through. Once we were loaded we drove round the harbour to find our digs then headed out for something to eat. Weakness had already been shown by one non-Croydon diver who hadn’t even managed to make it to the ferry!

I woke up the next morning to the sound of wind whistling over the roof and rain lashing the windows, so I went out for a walk to have a look at the sea state. It actually didn’t look as bad as I thought it would be, with only occasional white horses and a moderate chop, so after a phone call to Steve we confirmed we were diving and set off for the USS Minnesota. Weakness was shown by more divers, one having to go home and another deciding it was too rough and that he’d be better off staying at the digs to get some work done. Tsk tsk, only 6 on the boat.

Today the wreck sits in about 25m of water and makes for an interesting dive. The large guns can be seen as can piles of munitions, but the ship is very smashed up and not at all ship shape. The wreck was alive with food, she was covered in large edible crabs, lobsters and the biggest scallops I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately we weren’t bringing anything up as the French are a bit funny about that sort of thing. Odd lot the French… Anyway, after a very nice dive we surfaced to a still-choppy sea but no rain. Steve gave us the option of a second dive, but we’d have had to wait about for 4 hours in the chop and wouldn’t have got back home until about 8pm so we decided to bin that and go back for some grub and booze.

10.30am Wednesday and we were loaded and set to go. The weather was looking iffy again, with a strong breeze that would limit how far out we could go. Steve suggested going to the Empire Broadsword which was a little further south than we’d been on Tuesday but sounded a decent target. En-route we also managed to ping two more wrecks Steve had been given numbers for, so that was the second dive sorted. The Empire Broadsword was built in Wilmington, USA in 1942, gross tonnage 7177 tons, and given to Britain as part of Lend Lease. Capable of 15 knots, this 417ft ship helped to land British troops but on 2nd July, two and a half miles off Omaha beach, she was struck almost simultaneously by two mines dropped by U-boats. The crew abandoned ship and she went down, her back broken. On jumping in the viz looked about the same 4-5m as we’d had on the USS Minnesota but the wreck was much more intact and seemed much larger. Shoals of pouting covered the wreck and there were lobsters and crabs all over the place again. Large sections of the wreck were intact so allowed some nice swim throughs, particularly the bows which was cavernous and was home to some very large bass. Swimming back down the wreck we came upon more decent bits to get in to and found among other things a rather nice porthole, two bogs and a pressure gauge (unfortunately not brass), there were also some nice bits of china and glass lying about.

After an hour at 28m we ascended to find the sea still a little choppy and the wind gaining momentum. Unfortunately we had 5 hours to kill, so after stuffing our faces and pinging more new marks Wayne, Bodd and Griffiths got their rods out – their fishing rods you understand, not their love rods. The lads done well, bagging about two dozen mackerel for the BBQ.

The second dive was a late one, 7pm in the water. We were jumping in on one of the marks Steve had pinged earlier in the day which he’d told us was only a small mark. We had no idea what it was, so even though we were all knackered from a long day at sea everyone was up for the dive. As it turned out we dropped on to a tiny wooden vessel that looked as though it was a small fishing boat. A little disappointing, but that’s the chance you take diving new marks. No weakness was shown – the first time in the week. Finally the crew were up for it.

4.45am. Yep, 4.45am on Thursday morning was when my alarm went off. We had to be away for 5.30am and were to be diving at about 7am on an unknown mark 16 miles straight out of St Vaast. We hoped we’d get better visibility a bit further out, but the wind was blowing and would make for a rough day. Chugging out to the site wasn’t too bad, as we had the wind behind us so after catching up on a little sleep the shot was in and we were ready to dive into a rather lumpy sea. Just as we started kitting up a moment of weakness occurred which led to one diver sitting the dive out – the sound of this weakness was like the roar of a lion in rutt…only with more vomit.

On getting to the bottom of the shot the visibility was no better that we’d already had, it was also a bit darker down there as it was a) deeper at 38m and b) the sun was barely up so not much light could get through the water. The shot had landed midships and I couldn’t really tell which way was which. I took a guess and headed left over some large winches. The wreck was a bit smashed in so there were plenty of holes to look in, after about 10 mins of slowly mooching along I came to the bows where there were more winches and a couple of portholes wedged into a plate. I had a good scout round here looking for the bell (every the optimist!!!), but to no avail, so turned and headed back towards the stern. The forward hold was full of coal, and there wasn’t any sigh of munitions so the wreck looked to be a cargo ship/collier. Past the first hold were the two large boilers and behind them standing bolt upright was the large triple-expansion engine. The wreck was covered in the usual shoal of pouting and was home to several very large conga and quite a few large lobsters – if we’d been at home there would had been several dinners available from this dive…Anyway, I continued aft over a second hold again filled with coal. Just behind this I came across another bog (Bog Count for the week now 3) and a broken sink amongst a lot of twisted wreckage that stood up a little higher than the hold. This was probably the bridge area, although there was no sign of any big stuff like the helm or telegraphs. Behind this I was expecting to carry on to find the prop and rudder, but the back of the ship just goes down into the sand. By this time I’d clocked up about 10mins of stops which I though was more than enough given the topside conditions, so up went the blob.

Topside and the sea state had worsened and the wind picked up. It was now a good 6 gusting 7 and was lumpy as hell, there was no chance of a second dive. Once we had everyone on board and had downed our tea we lashed down the gear and started our return journey. We were punching into the wind, so the trip back was very bumpy, certainly the worst I’d been out in that year, but after two hellish hours we were back into St Vaast for lunchtime. As the wind was picking up the decision was made to move the boat round to Cherbourg to ensure we could get a dive on Friday.

Friday and I rise at 5.30am to lashing rain and more howling wind. The previous night had been spent stuffing large quantities of meat from the BBQ and already some had stated they’d be showing weakness by blowing out the next day. The forecast on Thursday showed the wind direction had changing which meant that the diving from St Vaast would be blown out, so as I’ve already mentioned Steve decided that he’d take the boat round to Cherbourg which would be more protected and give us a better chance of diving. He’d had an absolutely terrible journey round – it had taken much longer than expected and the seas were huge. He said it was the worst he had, and after Thursday I can well believe it.

A staggering level of weakness meant that only four of us turned up on the pontoons to dive the mark of an unknown wreck, about 6 miles from Cherbourg lying in 40m. We chugged out and the sea was relatively flat (relative to what we’d had already anyway…) and as it was only a short trip out to the wreck we were there in no time. Jumping in the water was dead slack, but still very green. The lights went out at about 25m and viz on the bottom with torch was only about a metre. The shot was draped over the top of what I initially thought was a funnel. I followed this down to the wreck and turned right. The ship very intact lying on its starboard side and after swimming for a while I was soon at the bows. There were a few odds and sods lying about, portholes etc, but nothing special. After a good bell rummage I turned round at the bow and headed back towards the stern following the decking on my right. There were some large holes in the deck which would have allowed easy access to the interior of the ship, but as the viz was so bad I decided to stay on the outside. Swimming over winch gear, bollards and all the other boaty-gubbins us divers usually see I was keeping a lookout for an engine or boilers, but oddly I couldn’t see anything. On reaching the stern I went round the back to have a look at the rudder and prop – the rudder was there turned hard to starboard, but there was no sign of the prop, prop shaft or a hole where it should have been. With an eye for nautical detail that would make Captain Birdseye proud I deduced this was not a steamship, but a sailing ship, hence no prop, engine etc.

I’d assumed that the shot was over a funnel, but as I’d decided this was a sailing ship this must have been a mast. I turned and drifted back down the wreck and decided to head away from the wreck up the mast to check that this was definitely what it was. I followed the 1m wide metal column along past the shot until I got to the crows nest at the top. After this I headed back to the wreck and along to the bows where I launched the blob and started my ascent. I was last up and so as soon as I was back on board we started a slow chug back in whilst drinking tea, filling cylinders and eating sweets and biscuits. For a change, it was pissing down.

We decided to tie up and go for lunch before heading out for the second dive. As such disgraceful weakness had been shown in the morning I phoned the rest of the crew to see if they wanted to do the afternoon dive, by some miracle they actually decided to come along – a decision that at this point I would have bet my flat against. After having lunch and gawping at the waitresses "assets" we went to the harbour office to check the weather, Steve called me over and showed me that they were now giving “7’s gusting 10’s”. He wasn’t really happy to go so I called the weakness-crew who were on their way and let them know it was off.

Steve: “I’ve never been out in a 10 before”
Paul B “Let’s keen it that way shall we”

After seeing the forecast for the next day I was a bit despondent (understatement). The wind was easing off a bit but Steve told me there’d be no chance of getting out to the Leopoldville, although it might be a go’er for the Sunday. After making an alternative plan I toddled off back to the digs for sleep, beer, grub and to get packed.

Saturday 6.30am - the cars are packed and we’re about to head off to Cherbourg when I get the call I’d expected but had been dreading. Due to the still-howling wind we wouldn’t be going out in the morning but would try in the afternoon. Bollocks. After spending a whole morning wondering around aimlessly we headed out to Cherbourg to try and fit in the afternoon dive. The wind was still blowing and Steve and I decided it was too rotten to bother going out. Double bollocks. After a cup of tea and a little sit about on the boat a few of us headed off for a tour of a nuclear submarine – very interesting, but not as good as diving. At least no weakness was shown – mainly because we didn’t have the option.

The forecast for Sunday was 4-5 southerlies. On any other trip this would mean that I’d have been stomping about being pissed off because of the bad weather, on this trip a 4-5 southerly was a gift from God himself. We decided to have a look at another unknown mark close to the sailing ship we’d dived on Friday. On getting past the inner wall the boat started rolling about, not a good sign considering we were still well within the outer walls of the harbour so were supposed to be protected. Special mention to our Diving Officer here for showing Olympic-level weakness by dropping out of the dive before we’d even got out of the harbour!!

The trip out to site was horrible, I was on the verge of showing weakness and suggesting to Steve we went back to do something closer in when he announced we were on site. After a hellish kit up being chucked all over the place I jumped in and dropped out of the swell down on to the wreck. At 46m I was met with about 2-3m of viz and a load of lumps of metal. I chose a direction and headed off. The wreck was listing to about 45 degrees and very intact. I made it over a coal filled hold and eventually found the upright boiler followed by a two cylinder engine, this meant I was heading towards the stern and the ship was listing to its port side. I swam over plenty of holes that in good viz would have made excellent swim-throughs and eventually came to the stern where the rudder was turned hard to port and the four-bladed propeller was still in place. On turning and swimming back I thought I’d try to get to the bows, but this was a large ship and I’d already built up quite a bit of deco, so just past the engine I stuck the blob up and made my ascent. The journey back in was much better and I was glad we’d managed to finish the trip with a good dive.

So, that was it. Due to some truly shit weather we only managed 6 dives, but they were all interesting in their own way. We hadn’t managed to get to the unknown offshore marks or the Leopoldville that the trip was originally focussed on, but I think everyone still enjoyed it. Thanks to all who came along, roll on next year’s expedition to the Channel Islands!

Paul Brown

Some pics:


Dave a'kip for a change

4.45am ropes off...

St Vaast

Pub, St Vaast

The crew


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