Rise of the Knight

Rise of the Knight

Arriving above the wreck site and finding that dark blue water always brings out the excitement of the chance of that elusive yet perfect dive. It’s the dive that you are always yearning for, where the water is so clear you can see the bottom, and the wreck, from just a few metres down, with no current allowing a diver to just glide down, flying in free fall as if he were a bird.

This was the second dive we were to begin, on what we believed was the resting place of the Iron Ore carrier Iron Knight, a watery grave for 36 men that gave their lives protecting Australia during WW2.

Originally the date 18th June 2006 was reserved to dive the Liberty Ship William Dawes in 135 metres, but wide media attention and communication with some of the relatives of the victims, changed this dive to the Iron Knight. We decided that it was imperative to confirm the exact identification of this wreck before announcing that it was indeed the Iron Knight.

Arriving on Friday night 16th June were six bottom divers and three support divers. The next morning we awoke to find that the swell and wind were still making conditions unfavorable to dive, but the forcast was looking good for a Sunday outing. The Bureau of Meteorology were promising us smoother seas and no wind on the day.

Given the weather on Saturday and the “possibility” of diving on Sunday, some of the Bottom divers elected to return to Sydney and left a reduced bottom crew with a higher bottom to safety diver ratio, much more favourable for the conditions on hand. From the original six bottom divers we were left with three for Sunday, and we were ready to go. The weather looked perfect and we were excited that this may be the perfect dive. Arriving onsite in just over an hour I couldn’t believe the colour of the water, it was perfectly dark blue something that you usually find in the tropics or way off shore. We were even happier to discover that there was zero current on the surface!

When a diver is about to dive in waters with such perfect conditions, it is normal to feel a rush of energy coming over you and everything just starts to fall into place. The shot line was perfectly deployed, the gear up process was smooth, and with just three divers it was all too easy on the boat with so much space for everyone to spread about.

As is the tradition with the Sydney Project, being the first in doing a lot of things, Dave Apperley was about to be the first diver to dive to 125 metres on a sidemount rebreather. This innovative rebreather design is unique in a lot of aspects, and one of them is that it’s possible to do deep dives on wrecks whilst at the same time allowing the user to still be able to penetrate confined spaces. This is a design that Dave originally thought of for pushing deep caves such as Slug Lake in Jenolan, and Junee Cave in Mount Field Tasmania.

Since Dave was going to dive this setup to such a depth for the first time, he wanted to descend first and took his time testing and checking the rebreather. Using his scooter would enable him to cover a fairly large area of the wreck. Paul Garske and I went in next and we could already see Dave down at a round 80 metres. I couldn’t believe how clear this water was.

Descending to 125 meters, on average, should take approximately six minutes, but on this day it took only 4 minutes. Landing on the bridge and remembering the layout of the fishing net from the first dive I was able to determine which way was the stern. I wanted to be on the stern to look for two of the three items that would tell us the identity of this wreck. Fist item was the single prop, and second was the 4 inch stern gun. The third object was the bell on the bow, and that wasn’t going to be in the direction of the Stern!

Swimming along the starboard side of the wreck towards the stern, I could see in the distance the outline of the gun and my heart started to pump a little faster. The stern section of the wreck is picture perfect and totally intact, with railings and a gun all standing proud. Dropping along the rudder to the single prop confirmed the two parts of the wreck we came to find. The stern was the exact shape historical records of the time depicted and there was no doubt we are on the right ship.

Coming back up to the gun I checked my time and still had a good 8 minutes, I was having the time of the my life and doing what must be one the best wreck dives in NSW waters. Swimming back along the walkway on the port side next to the massive cargo hold, I dropped into the hold and looked back towards the bridge. The sight is one that I will not forget for a long time, the ambient light was enough to see everything clearly, the bridge was standing high with the massive nets above it suspended by buoys, and fish in a tight ball hovering over the entire bridge, their silver body’s reflecting my video lights. At this stage with only 5 minutes of bottom time left I made my way inside the bridge and for a hairy moment I got under the net into a fairly tight spot without being able to turn around, to exit you need to reverse and hope not to get caught in the dangerous embrace of the now derelict fishing net. I was searching and hoping to find a big enough passage to enter inside the lower decks.

With too much debris blocking the way forward, I had to make the reverse out of this tight spot, and in the process silt kicked up around me, I was happy to see the clear water over and around me. Checking the time I could see only two minutes left before ascending to start the long 4 hours decompression. With water so clear I felt I had to capture the final seconds on the wreck on video, then started the long ascent up the shot line with Paul. At 85 metres I looked up and saw Dave at the 20 meter stop and one of our support divers on the surface. I nudged Paul and told him to look up, and then I pointed below to show him that we could still see the wreck. We were in a depth where you could see both the bottom and the surface and this all in 125 meters depth! This truly was one of those spectacular dives and quite possibily the perfect dive.

Completing decompression in the most comfortable conditions and with the aid of our hard working support crew made the time go by very quickly, though no marine animals were seen this time which would have been ideal given the water clarity was over 80 metres.

Back on the boat we spoke about what we observed on the wreck, Paul had a good look on his scooter at the bow section and reported that it’s collapsed to its starboard side as we suspected on our first dive. The torpedo hole is hard to see due to the collapse but it’s just forward of the bridge on starboard side.

Coming back satisfied that the wreck is indeed the Iron Knight; it was possible to finally tell relatives of the victims about it. What came next was amazing and finally we were able to meet people that gave us a real prospective of what these rusting hulks really represent. It finally put the human factor on them and trivial objects now meant a lot more. This is the grave of 36 brave men and we were about to hear their story. But the most spectacular encounter for us is to hear the story from the last living survivor of the sinking John Stone.

I was contacted by Craig Allen from ABC television in Canberra who asked if we would be interested in doing a story for their current affair program Stateline. It was easy to say yes because the story was important to tell, it’s something that most Australian don’t know about, and never were told of war activity’s south of Sydney during WW2.

I wanted to locate more relatives that would be interested to know that the final resting place of their loved ones has been found. With the help Margaret Masson in Newcastle we were able to find a large number of relatives. What was important for us was to give them the chance to pay their respects onsite, and everyone wanted to be there when we were to go back to the wreck on 29th July.

After three weeks of phone calls to organise every relative in Newcastle, finding the right people to conduct the memorial service, finding and receiving historical photos and other items and sharing all this plus videos with the ABC crew, it took a lot of work for a few people to make this happen, and on the morning of 29th July it did happen.

The weather that week was rough and I had fears that all the work of the previous few weeks would go to waste. With a lot of the relatives are elderly and it was difficult for some to travel long distance to Bermagui, so this was the only chance we may have to conduct the ceremony and give them the chance to be onsite.

On the day of the ceremony and the dive, weather did improve and we were able to venture out in sloppy seas. Arriving onsite we dropped the shot line and an emotional ceremony followed. Flowers were thrown into the ocean in memory of the fallen 36 sailors. It was all over very quickly and our attention was focused back on the dive. We found that the shot line ended up 350 metres from the wreck, we couldn’t work out how did this happen. The current we tested on the way was minimal but over the wreck site it was ripping. After 2 further attempts, we still landed way of the wreck and on final attempt we seemed to have hit the target, but the wake around the buoy was amazing to watch. We sent two diver down to see if the current would stop further down, but they aborted the dive at 50 metres where the current only became stronger. We were not going to be able to dive today.

Disappointed that we couldn’t dive, I was happy to see that the relatives were able to be there over the wreck and finally get the chance to pay their respects to their fathers and grandfathers.

The minister for Heritage and Planning in NSW declared the wreck a protected site as on 4th August.

I would like to thank everyone that put the hard work to make it possible for the relatives to visit the wreck site: Tim Smith, Craig Allen, Keith Appleby, Margaret Masson and thank you to information provided by Mike Lobely and Peter LeMarquand, and finally a big thank you to the crew of the Sydney Project.


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