By Steve Walsh
In July, Clidive added a new diving area – new for the club, if not for all its members – to its list of sites. The Solent is the stretch of water between the Isle of Wight and the mainland. It’s easily accessible from London, and there are a number of convenient slipways for launching along the south coast from Lymington to Selsey.
Gillian Bell organised the trip and chose Hamble Marina as our base, with a convenient mobile home park and campsite next door for accommodation. Despite – and I quote – “horizontal rain and force 8 winds in Portland – and its coming this way”, a fairly wet Gillian managed to collect Yellow and make it to the marina in time for us to launch on the Friday evening.
Luckily, the marina boasted a pleasant restaurant/bar where the staff didn’t blink an eye at the sodden group who had travelled in style to Hamble station, only to be caught in the torrential rain on their 20-minute walk to the marina.
The aim of the weekend was to dive a submarine – the U1195; but the weather gods were in a bad mood, so Gillian decided on a 25m wreck called the France Aimée for the first dive. We left the pontoon to schedule, but the only real downside to Hamble quickly became apparent as we motored at 5 knots along the estuary for a good 40-45 minutes before finally hitting open water.
Nick and Elaine were the first pair go down and Ian B and I followed shortly after. When we got to the shot weight we found it was sitting prettily on HMS Seabed. However, my usual way of finding metal is to follow the compass needle, and it worked this time, with the wreck proving to be just 10m from the shot.
An excellent dive then ensued on a wreck that was quite broken up and flattened, but teeming with life. Massive congers, battle scarred and mean looking; lobsters the size of small cars (yes, I may be exaggerating); plentiful crabs; several wrasse, and shoals of bib, pollock and poor cod. One highlight for me was finding a modern anchor, although unfortunately I couldn’t lift it as it was attached to chain buried by the moving sea bed.
On returning to the boat, we were told that we had a pan-pan out for Nick and Elaine. It turned out that, on failing initially to find the wreck and being in a fairly strong current, they had deployed a DSMB, only to immediately drift onto the elusive site. Worried that the DSMB would get tangled if they tried to explore the wreck with it, they tied it to a prominent lump of metal and continued with their dive, returning to pick it up at the end.
They were blissfully unaware, however, that the combination of a strengthening current and a flooding tide had caused the DSMB suddenly to submerge while those on the boat were preoccupied with kitting up, leaving them thinking the pair had drifted away in the fairly choppy seas – hence the pan-pan. Luckily the whole thing resulted in nothing worse than divers chastened at the worry they had inadvertently caused, and the fact that the final pair had missed their dive.
Bembridge on the IoW provided a convenient lunch spot, with a visitors’ jetty, toilets and some tasty food griddled to order.
In worsening seas, Bembridge ledges just off the coast was our best option for the second dive, although for Chris it proved a short one as his drysuit zip wasn’t fully shut. The ledges were fairly shallow, flat and sandy, and rather sparse in wildlife; but red blennies , lots of juvenile fish and a very large and well-camouflaged spider crab provided some entertainment.
Andark had promised they could fill our cylinders immediately as long as we arrived by 5.30pm. However, when we turned up, we were told that there were too many other cylinders to fill, and ours wouldn’t be ready until 10.30 the next morning – too late for our scheduled ‘ropes off’. Nick resorted to bribery and the cylinders were duly filled, but a lot of goodwill was lost.
Our early start on Sunday morning was considerably helped by a glorious blue sky, and we headed in calmer seas back to the sheltered eastern side of the IoW for a dive on the Camberwell , a wreck sunk in WWI and rumoured to be full of life and, possibly, rupees. Our marks proved inaccurate, so we used the chart instead and, after some intensive searching, deposited the shot right between the boilers just as slack was starting.
With the seabed at 28m, this was a fairly dark wreck, ill-suited to diving in a three, which a drop-out had forced us into. After around 20 mins one of our three had vanished, unfortunately curtailing our dive. We were duly reunited on the surface.
In the time we did get to spend, however, we saw lobsters, edible crab, anemones and red crusted sponges. As boathandlers, Nick and Elaine were due in last, but were advised that the current was very strong and getting stronger. We tried to recover the shot, but it was clearly jammed, so they decided to try to get down the shotline to free it. It only took a few metres of hard hauling for them to realise how foolhardy it would be to go any further, even if they physically could, and we decided the only safe option was to return at slack water, weather permitting.
Following another lunch at Bembridge, however, it was clear that the weather was being true to forecast, and was deteriorating rapidly. Returning to the Camberwell would have required a battle against very lumpy seas, and we reluctantly agreed we had to abandon the shot, hoping that a post on a divers’ forum would result in another club enjoying a dive and then recovering it for us at some future date.
For our last dive we headed to No Man’s Land Fort – one of two Victorian forts in the Solent that, having originally been built to protect the Portsmouth dockyard from the threat of a French invasion, have now been turned into luxury hotels. Although the site was reminiscent of the Breakwater Fort in Plymouth, the vis was far better and there was a lot to see, including shoals of mullet, bib and pollock, and plenty of crabs and scallops among the hotel debris that littered the seabed. One pair found the end of rope that led to a relatively new anchor, which was duly recovered.
As we returned to the Hamble, mountainous clouds built dramatically in the sky and we were engulfed in torrential rain. The glorious sunshine of the morning seemed a distant memory, but luckily the storm passed by the time we were back in the marina.
Our Solent expedition proved eventful and a good learning experience in many ways. It was clear that there was plenty of good diving to be had, with a lot of life. The vis was better than expected, although it was dark at depth. The weather was against us, but there was shelter to be found. Although Hamble was a great base in many ways, its distance from open water made it less than ideal, and there are probably other slips that are better sited. All in all, though, an enjoyable weekend.