Andrew Robinson THE wreck of a record-breaking Victorian-era liner which sank off Scotland in 1915 has been found by a team led by a Yorkshire diver. The 5,800 ton, 433ft-long Dunottar Castle steam ship became famous in the 1890s for reducing the voyage time from Southampton to Cape Town from 42 days to 17 days and 20 hours.
The Union-Castle Line ship – later re-named HMS Caribbean – sailed from Southampton in 1891 on her maiden voyage with the British Rugby Team for a tour of South Africa.
In 1899 Dunottar Castle (sometimes spelt Dunnottar) carried General Butler and 1,500 troops to Cape Town for Boer War duties, as well as a young Winston Churchill, then a war correspondent for the Morning Post. Lord Kitchener made the same journey later that year.
The wreck has now been discovered by a team led by Steve Brown, a petrol tanker driver from Guiseley, near Leeds. It was located 35 miles off Cape Wrath and has lain undisturbed – apart from fishing nets – since it sank in heavy seas on September 27 1915. Those same heavy seas made it hard for divers to get near it over the years.
A break in the weather on May 26 allowed Orkney-based skipper Andy Cuthbertson to sail dive charter boat Jean Elaine from Orkney around the notoriously rough Cape Wrath to search for the wreck. It was found at 106m (348ft), a depth which requires divers to breathe a mix of oxygen, helium and nitrogen and to spend about three hours decompressing before surfacing.
The wreck was found close to the surveyed position supplied by the Government's Hydrographics Office. Visibility at that depth was less than four metres (13ft). The wreck is upright and is said to be relatively intact, although the decks have collapsed. A large trawl net has been snagged and abandoned close to the bridge.
Mr Brown, 36, said a dive at that depth was quite a feat in such potentially treacherous seas, although he has dived to a depth of 117m (384ft) off the Sound of Mull, Scotland.
Previous efforts to find the wreck had been prevented by the notoriously rough and unpredictable weather conditions and the wreck's extreme depth.
He and his team spent two days at the wreck site.
Mr Brown said: "It was absolutely fantastic to find it. Nobody has seen it since it sank; it was a real buzz to know that we were the first to see it."
The team was not able to find any objects worth salvaging. "We don't believe it was carrying anything special. It had been converted to a troop carrier after being a liner. We believe she is last of the British liners to be found in British waters."
Mr Brown has been diving for 13 years after his previous hobby, motorbiking, ended with a painful crash.
Dunottar Castle was requisitioned by the Admiralty at the outbreak of the First World War, converted to an auxiliary cruiser in 1915 and re-named HMS Caribbean.
The sinking of HMS Caribbean on its way to Scapa Flow claimed the lives of 15 crew although most were rescued by trawlers and HMS Birkenhead.
An inquiry later blamed the ship's carpenter for being insufficiently familiar with the ship and for failing to shut all the scuttles. He had joined the ship just 10 days earlier – like most of the crew.