Bermagui - Apr 2005

Diving the William Dawes & Bega

“Dave! We’ve got to go!” We’re 130m underwater on the US Liberty Ship, William Dawes. Dave’s tie off has just come off the wreck, the end of the line is disappearing into the distance and we’ve got less than 2 minutes to get back to the moving shot line across 100m of sand. And I’ve just seen a huge gun pointing upwards across the deck. I want just 5 more minutes, but we’ve got to go right now. Talk about temptation!

On Thursday Samir Alhafith, Dave Apperley and I left Sydney at 3pm in Dave’s car with the trailer loaded up for a weekend of diving. Our destination was Bermagui, 7 hours drive south of Sydney, and our mission was to confirm whether the William Dawes was lying upside down or on its side. The ship was declared a war grave by the US government after the Sydney Project’s first dive last year. It is 126m long and was sunk by a Japanese submarine on 22 July 1942 with the loss of five lives. Kevin Okeby kindly offered to act as support diver and journalist Sacha Dench was also accompanying us out on the boat for Friday’s dive. Other SP divers were due to arrive in Bermagui on Friday night to dive the Bega on Saturday and Sunday.

On Friday we arrived at the wharf at 7.30am to load Keith Appeleby’s boat “Binjarra”, a 15m fishing boat. At 8.30am we began the 1.5 hour steam out to the site of the William Dawes over a very flat ocean. After sounding the site for some time the wreck was found to be lying east / west with about 1/3 knot of southerly current running. Our shot line, consisting of a depth accelerant (railway track), chain, reef anchor, 160m of 12mm line and a buoy on the top, was dropped onto the wreck. We sounded around the shot line and found that it was probably south the wreck. In what later proved to be a mistake, we tried towing the shot back onto the wreck. I’m not sure that we actually achieved anything doing this as the shot had actually landed beside the wreck on the down-current (south) side. We should have pulled it up and started again making sure the shot was up current of the wreck, which is easy to say in hindsight. The 80m deep deco station was attached to the shot with Shark Pods and staged gas of 50% and 100% oxygen.

At 11.30am we were geared up and ready to go. Dave jumped in first, followed by myself then Samir. Dave and I were both using twin-rebreathers and new Silent Submersion scooters. Samir was using a standard Inspiration rebreather and a borrowed orange monster ride-on scooter. The twin-rebreathers are fully redundant but Samir’s bailout plan included 5 open circuit cylinders, with me carrying one, Samir carrying 2 and another 2 staged on the shotline. Another 2 staged cylinders were ready to go on the boat in case he missed the shotline on ascent.

Samir’s monster scooter, with camera mounted, was passed to him. The speed control knob immediately came off the scooter and after that it appeared to be excessively negatively buoyant. He considered it to be flooded so Samir decided to leave it behind. Samir then had a problem with his off-board diluent connector which took some time to sort out. Eventually all three of us we were ready to go, 40 minutes after entering the water.

After our usual rebreather checks at 6m we began the long descent with Samir leading the way. The water was bright blue and I could see probably 40m down the line. As the shot line started vertically I let my scooter float behind me and descended normally. Dave however decided that spiralling down the shotline with his scooter was the way to go; a very impressive sight! At about 80m, where the deco station was attached, the line continued down at 45 degrees. It was time to start scootering. At 6 or 7 minutes we arrived at the bottom. “Where’s the wreck?” I thought to myself. Perhaps it’s at the end of the trench in the sand that the shot was making as it slid across the sand in 130m. Dave headed off following the trench while I attached my line to the shot. When my reel was empty Dave then joined on his line and we continued on. Samir followed behind. We were on the William Dawes at last, but not for long. I had a very quick look around while Dave was making a tie-off to the wreck. Last year Samir and Dave landed on the other side of the ship and thought it might be lying upside-down. I could see that the ship was actually lying on its starboard side (I think) – Excellent!!!

Dave’s tie-off didn’t last long with the weight of the still moving shot. Sadly it was time to go. If we had overstayed out planned bottom time of 20 minutes by only 5 minutes, it would have added an hour to our already long dive time of 4 hours and 21 minutes. We raced like demons back across the sand with behind our scooters, our torches and eyes not leaving the line for a moment. But we had to be very careful to avoid getting entangled in this loose, free floating line. As the shot eventually came into view I could see Samir’s video camera sitting on the sand with HID lights blazing. Where’s Samir? He must have started his ascent and kindly left his camera for us. Dave dropped down and grabbed the camera and then pointed his scooter straight up the shot line to catch up with me. A couple of minutes later we caught up with Samir. Our deco stops started at 105m and at 100m I started to feel much more comfortable. It’s still very deep, but with all the Sydney Project diving we’ve done of the last three years it’s familiar territory. At 90m, with a look of horror on his face, Samir screamed, “My camera’s gone!” I wasn’t planning on telling him about finding his camera for a while, but he looked so upset that I just had to point to it hanging under Dave who was just below us. The remainder of the deco was uneventful but very very long! At 30m we flushed our rebreathers from our bottom gas of 8/75 to 30/40. The extra density of this lower helium mix was really noticeable. From 9m we started our low PO2 breaks with Samir dropping his setpoint and flushing with diluent for 5 minutes every 20 minutes. Dave and I simply swapped to our second rebreathers which were set to lower PO2. Kevin made a couple of visits to check on us and bring down some drinking water. The last stop at 4.5m was a long one at 81 minutes. We all boarded the boat after 5 hours in the water feeling tired but well.

That night while we were relaxing around the camp fire, other Sydney Project members arrived, Peter Szyszka and the famous Mark Spencer. Unfortunately Zoe Coad and Andy Del weren’t able to make it due to illness. Peter and Mark we to be the only divers on Saturday as Samir, Dave and I were having a day off and acted as surface support.

On Saturday the ocean proved even flatter than the previous day. And the water was bright blue again. The Bega is an iron screw steamer that was wreck on 5 April 1908 which it capsized south of Bermagui. It is 58m in length and lies in 75m of water. In ideal conditions the guys had an excellent dive with the famous Mark Spencer concentrating on taking photos of many of the smaller items on the wreck. After 130 minutes in water we headed back to port.

After returning to Bermagui The Sydney Project presented both Keith Appeleby and the fisherman of Bermagui with framed photos of the Bega as thanks for their help in locating and diving these wrecks. Then it was back to Keith’s place for a barbeque dinner by the camp fire.

On Sunday the ocean was even flatter again! Five of us dived the Bega today but conditions were much dirtier than the previous two days. Dave took Samir’s monster scooter for a run and the famous Mark Spencer tried some long exposure tripod shots in less than ideal conditions. All divers spent 130-150 minutes in the water with bottom times of 20-30 minutes.

Our expedition debriefing was held at the pub, followed by dinner at the local Thai and then a couple of drinks back at Keith’s by the campfire.

Another excellent Sydney Project expedition finished with us all driving back to Sydney on Monday.

Thanks to Keith Appeleby and the fishermen of Bermagui for showing these wrecks to us, Expedition Leader Samir for organising the trip, Kevin for being support diver for the William Dawes, Dave, Peter, Sacha and of course the famous Mark Spencer for making it a great three days diving.


Images from the Trip


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