Australia truns illegal fishing vessel into a wreck for divers

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Posted by on October 08, 2004 at 01:05:32:

Local diver helps sink South Tomi
Di Broad
Friday, 8 October 2004

THE scuttling of the notorious fishing boat, the South Tomi, off the coast of Geraldton was helped to its watery grave in Champion Bay by Jurien Bay diver Ian Stiles.

Mr Stiles said he became involved in the project two years ago when Geraldton dive operator Trevor Beaver asked him for a letter of support to obtain a dive wreck for Geraldton.

"I am also a licensed shotfirer and Trevor asked me for some advice on the location of a magazine to store explosives to sink the vessel," Mr Stiles said.

The South Tomi was first sighted fishing illegally in Australian waters for Patagonian toothfish in March, 2001.

Australian SAS captured it off the coast of South Africa after an epic chase lasting 14 days, just 328km short of Cape Town.

On board was more than 100 tonnes of Patagonian toothfish valued at $1.5 million on the black market.

The boat and catch were confiscated by the Australian Government.

Geraldton City Council, supported by the local community asked the Australian Government for the South Tomi to be donated as a dive wreck and with a Federal grant of $250,000 from the Department of Transport and Regional Services the South Tomi was later towed to Geraldton.

After many months work by volunteers removing potential hazards and pollution causing substances the vessel was ready for sinking.

The Canadian ship-sinking expert, Roy Gabriel was called in.

He stated that rubbing strakes on the outside of the vessel had to be removed where the explosives were to be placed.

Mr Stiles, an ex commercial diver was asked if he could remove them underwater.

"I called Brad Falconer from Eneabba, a commercial diver and his mate Jimmy Eu, another saturation diver to make up the volunteer dive team," Mr Stiles said.

He said the divers cut off the strakes with underwater thermic lances and then ground off the residue with a hydraulic grinder.

"The charges were then laid by the Canadian expert, understandably not allowing me to see how they were placed," Mr Stiles said.

The sinking day came and after charges went off Mr Stiles was asked to check out one of the tugs propeller nozzles as something was felt going through it in the decommissioning basin.

"This inspection dive was done and no damage was found," Mr Stiles said.

The dive boat then sailed for the wreck site and Mr Stiles dived to establish a 50mm diameter mooring line on the South Tomi.

With his dive buddy, they were given the task of collecting the electric and non elÓ detonator residue tube and cable from the middle deck level.

He was also asked to check out the ten pyrotechnic display charges on the upper deck.

A scuba diver from Bunbury and his buddy, employed by the Canadian expert, were to check the main charges.

Mr Stiles descended through the stern and cut off the electric firing line and collected what remained of the electric detonators.

He and his dive buddy Lance then began to swim forward collecting non el residue and putting them in his cray bag.

When they reached amidships the diver from Bunbury swam up to Mr Stiles and motioned for him to follow him to the lower deck.

One of the charges on the starboard side had failed to detonate properly and had been hit by a metre square plate blown in from the port side.

"I calculated later that the water pressure of .445 pounds per foot of sea water depth (6 feet), times the surface area of the plate 39 inches by 39 inches totalled over 4000 pounds pressure," Mr Stiles said.

"This was enough to propel the metre square plate inwards from one side of the ship to the other.

"So much for the 2-kilometre exclusion zone requested from the Canberra bureaucrats," he said.

Mr Stiles said he checked that the partially detonated charges had no detonators, were safe and then swam them to the surface.

The Bunbury diver and his buddy surfaced a short time later and said that two more charges had failed.

The port side plate had blown across the inside of the ship and cut the detonating cord.

"A telephone call to the Canadian expert confirmed that the charges could not be detonated because it may cause structural damage to the vessel and the lineal shaped charges needed an air gap to work," Mr Stiles said.

"They would not cut underwater so it was decided to remove the charges," he said.

Mr Stiles said the surface interval was used to work out a plan.

"The main worry was that once the charge frames, that were made of wood, were unbolted it would be too buoyant to handle in the confines of the engine room and bring gently to the surface," Mr Stiles said.

The Bunbury diver and Mr Stiles then swam down the ship's funnel into the engine room with a length of cray rope.

Mr Stiles said he removed the trailing detonating cord and the charges were unbolted and bought to the surface.

"It was dark by the time the dive team got back to Geraldton and some nice cold beers," Mr Stiles said.

"The Canadian expert began blaming the Australian manufactured explosive for the misfires much to my annoyance,' Mr Stiles said.

The following day Mr Stiles dived on the wreck once more to check that the pyrotechnic charges had all detonated, he surfaced, gave the thumbs up and the first of many fun divers descended onto the South Tomi.

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