Posted by on April 23, 2005 at 08:29:27:
HMS Rame Head is past retirement age. For the last four years, the 10,000-ton escort vessel has sat at anchor in Portsmouth harbour patiently enduring Royal Marine teams testing out their assault techniques. She’s due to be decommissioned, but Orkney dive boat operators aim to spare her the indignity of the breakers yard - they intend to give her a warrior’s burial in Scapa Flow which will boost visitor numbers to the area through watersports.
Around 4,000 sports divers visit Orkney every year, and diving instructors, including Amy Cromarty from Scapa Scuba, greet the idea of a theme park style wreck with enthusiasm.
"It’s a brilliant scheme," says Cromarty. "It’ll open up a new niche where wreck diving can be accessible to less experienced folk, while more qualified divers can penetrate right inside a vessel, knowing the inlets and outlets comply with specified safety standards. It’s the way forward, really."
Nobody’s arguing about that. But in the UK the idea of legally causing a wreck means coming up against official bodies like the Crown Estate Commission, and for the Orkney Dive Boat Operators Association, turning their plans into reality has been a long slog.
"The biggest hurdle has been the question of liability," says secretary Bob Anderson, "but finding the Rame Head has provided answers to a lot of official questions. She has a sister ship which has been sunk in Canada and they’ve established a set of standards over there, so there’s protocol we can follow since we’re dealing with the same class of vessel".
Liability can be limited, he says, by having a properly costed business plan outlining the financial implications of cleaning the vessel and removing all hydrocarbons, as well as complying with a long list of safety measures. Seven figure costings to ensure this all happens will be followed by five figure insurance premiums.
"Yes, it is a daunting prospect, but it’s coming together at last and we’re really looking forward to getting everything up and running," he adds.
The present-day plans to scuttle warships in Scapa Flow are far removed from the last time this happened. When Admiral Ludwig von Reuter consigned the German High Seas Fleet to the bottom of the sea at the end of the First World War in 1919, the idea was to stop the British from using captured ships for their own navy. In turn, the British made a fortune out of breaking up the sunken vessels and selling them for scrap. Nobody considered the environmental aspects of 74 rusting hulks full of fuel and averaging 20,000 tons littering the seabed in an enclosed anchorage. Talking about hydrocarbons was confined to people in science labs. And insurance for divers stripping the wrecks wasn’t even a consideration.
Fifty years of salvage left three battleships and four light cruisers out of the original 74 ships. They formed the backbone of Orkney’s lucrative tourism diving industry over the next 30 years. By the end of the century, they were still a huge attraction, but after 80 years on the seabed the deteriorating wrecks weren’t generating the excitement they once had.
"There’s a limit to how much you can milk history," says Orkney diving operator John Thornton.
New attractions had to be added to beat off competition from a rapidly expanding international diving market and local dive operators decided that combining conservation with diving theme parks was the way forward.
"We could see that creating a safe habitat for wildlife by sinking wrecks was a good way of boosting tourism in an environmentally conscious day and age," says Thornton.
Former director of harbours and local councillor Bob Sclater agreed it was a feasible option, and so did other councillors. "There are 50 square miles of water out there in Scapa Flow, and provided a wreck complied with all the procedures for cleaning and de-contaminating, it could work."
In 2000, Heriot Watt University undertook a feasibility study, and stories circulated about a Second World War destroyer lying in Newcastle, ready for the taking.
"We knew there were a lot of hurdles to overcome, but we hadn’t reckoned on the obstructions the Crown Estate Commission would put in our path," says Thornton. "They wrote letters about responsibility for removing the wreck if things collapsed; about liability for this, for that, and for the other."
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, a similar group have just successfully fought an equally lengthy battle to sink HMS Scylla in Whitsand Bay near Plymouth.
"It took us five years, but we did it," says organiser Nick Murns, who visited Orkney earlier this year to give first-hand advice. "We’ve been up and running less than a year, but already we’ve seen an increase in divers and we reckon it’ll add a further £1 million to the local economy annually."
Anderson agrees. "The German wrecks are a unique attraction, but the thing about a custom-made wreck is that you get to choose the positioning, the depth and the tidal conditions. You’ve got a controlled environment and you can reduce the diving load on the existing wrecks. In 20 or 30 years’ time there won’t be a diving industry up here if we don’t do that
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