Tuesday, 25 November 2003 00:00

Sydney Project Dive Team - SS Cumberland Expedition

By Samir Alhafith

SS Cumberland was a steel twin screw steamship of 8993 gross tons and 144.4 metres in length (474 feet).  Built by Hamilton & Co. at Glasgow, Scotland, in 1915, the vessel was registered in London with Official No. 139102. With four masts and owned by the Federal Steam Navigation Company Ltd., SS Cumberland was powered by four steam turbines.

The steamer had picked up cargo in Townsville, visited Sydney and was heading down the east coast for a voyage to the United Kingdom carrying a cargo of frozen meat, wool and ore.

Part 1

A terrific explosion occurred below the waterline as the steamer passed a few miles off Gabo Island on 15 July 1917. With water flooding into the forward section, SS Cumberland was run aground on Gabo Island for urgent repairs. The origin of the explosion was believed to have been caused by a torpedo attack or a bomb placed aboard. It is now generally considered that SS Cumberland struck a mine laid by the German raider Wolfe that had been active in the area.

After five weeks of strenuous repair work by divers and a dedicated salvage team, the tugs James Patterson and Champion were in attendance when the steamer was towed back to Eden for further repairs. However a storm caused the temporary patches to break and the tugs had to run for safety.  Two larger steamers, Merimbula and Bermagui, stood by to offer help. Merimbula urgently evacuated SS Cumberland's crew when the steamer began to sink bow first described by onlookers as an "awe-inspiring sight". The SS Cumberland is Australia's first casualty of war at sea.

CSIRO imaged a large wreck that matched SS Cumberland's size and approximate position in 2000, and contacted Tim Smith from the NSW Heritage office with this discovery. From all the records available to him pointed that this may indeed be the final resting place for the SS Cumberland.

Tim had known a member of the Sydney Project, Mark Spencer, through a previous expedition to the Australian Submarine AE2 in Turkey, and proposed Sydney project divers carry out a reconnaissance expedition to identify if this was indeed the final resting place of the SS Cumberland.

Phones ran hot that night as we exchanged ideas and excitement for having the opportunity to see this ship since it went down, a meeting was followed a week later. The only people to see the wreck was the salvage team recovering the cargo in 1951, the same salvage company to recover the gold of the Wreck RMS Niagara and then the same bell technology was used to recover the gold of the RMS Egypt.

We discussed our objectives for this expedition and what needed to be done to achieve them in the time frame we were facing. A mention of media showing interest in this expedition postponed the expedition to early November, but since we could not delay this any further it was not possible to arrange any media coverage in time for the expedition.

The home base for the expedition was the small coastal town Eden located near the NSW - Victoria border, eight hours driving from Sydney. The closest dive shop is located north of Eden in Merimbula, approximately 45 minutes on the highway. The shop has no gas mixing facilities available, so all the gas, compressor and the rest of the equipment needed to be brought with us. Another important piece of equipment which needed to be organized was a stable diving platform with ample space for eight divers with all their equipment. The vessels chosen was a 12 metre Cougar Catamaran from Spirit of Eden. Dave also brought along a 5 metre RIB chase boat.

On the 25th of October 2003, David Apperley organised to travel to Eden and venture out with Greg Hodge and Mark Ryan from Melbourne to the site of the wreck and verify the GPS marks. Greg then compiled the information into a graphical representation of how the wreck lays on the bottom, and it was showing that the wreck may be lying on its side. The best indication for us that this is the SS Cumberland was to see if this wreck has 2 props, which would confirm this 100%.

A second meeting was followed to announce the team selected for this expedition, as we had limited space on boats and time was of essence. The team was split into two diving groups with buddy's shooting video and others shooting stills. All deco back up equipment was re-checked, and extra shot lines were built.

The boat was loaded on Friday 7th November 2003, and after a final briefing meeting we all retired for some much needed rest. The next morning at 6.00 a.m we loaded the rest of the gear and departed the Warf. Once we arrived at the site, we sounded for the most obvious part of the wreck, and prepared shot line to be deployed including our Depth Accelerant in form of a one metre long railway track with fins welded to help the track fall vertically. With sea condition being calm and absolutely no current was a real bonus for this part of the coast, where such conditions may occur just once a year.

Part 2

The team consisted of five divers on mixed closed circuit rebreathers (3 Inspirations, 1 MK15, and 1MK15.5), the other three divers on open circuit. All backup gas was staged on shot lines, we decided to increase amount of back up gas, as most run times were in excess of three hours. Maximum depth found on site 97 metres. Back up deco gas staged was EAN 40 and 100% O2.

Once the deco station was deployed and support crew (David Apperley and Peter Szyszka) gave the all OK, bottom divers prepared to enter the water. Bottom divers were in 2 teams of three, first team consisted of Simon Mitchell (MK15.5) , Paul Garske (Inspiration) and Samir Alhafith (Inspiration). The second team consisted of Jason Mc Hattan (MK15), Mark Spencer (Open circuit) and Kevin Okeby (Open circuit).

With 4 to 5 minutes to reach the bottom, the water was a refreshing 11C degrees on the bottom and visibility in the 10 to 15 meter range with very little ambient light. The Depth Accelerant was found to be sitting vertically with the fins pointing upwards, a most amusing sight showing how well it worked. The wreck is broken up significantly from the salvage operations and covered in healthy marine growth with blankets of fish. We agreed that Simon would run a line from the shot, and Paul will be looking for any parts of interest which will enable me to concentrate on shooting video.

Since there was no clear shape to tell us what direction is the bow or the stern, we guessed a direction and ended swimming into the bridge area. The area was every wreck divers dream, portholes, gauges, crockery and all types of brass fittings everywhere. Simon tied off the line to an open porthole, and we began to swim back to the shot line. Simon and Paul started their accent after 25 minute bottom time, while I had an extra 5 minutes to look around; I stayed close to the shot line and filmed anything that I thought would give a clue what this wreck was. I was very delighted to find bones, which tells us this is the frozen meat cargo that the SS Cumberland was carrying when she sank. Later Mark, Jason and Kevin found a copper ingot, which further indicated that this is was the SS Cumberland. A long two and a half hours followed on deco with whale songs filling the boredom, and huge Jelly fish swimming around kept everyone on their toes. I was the last person to exit the water since I had the longest deco, then it was Dave's and Peter's turn to dive. Dave using an Inspiration rebreather and Peter diving open circuit. Dave was shooting video as they followed the line Simon had laid, and continued on a little further. They also confirmed seeing a copper ingot.

Once all the day's diving was complete, we packed the deco station and released extra slack on the shot line incase the current picked up during the night. We steamed back to town and prepared the gear for next days diving, before hitting the local pub for some great meals and to watch the Rugby World Cup games. It was funny that the waitress led us to a table at the restaurant that had the picture of the SS Cumberland on the wall above it. It showed the ship sinking and of course we studied it well for features that might help us identify the wreck.

Next day departure was late due to extra filling we had to do for open circuit divers, and decided that we cut the bottom times to 20 minutes. Simon had a theory on which direction the bow might be in, and we decided to test this theory. Once again Simon laid new line and we followed swimming non stop, until we reached the winches and then the bow which had collapsed to it's port side with three brass letters fallen into one pile: the U, M and E! We shook hands, filmed it on video and with big smiles upon our faces proceeded back to the shot line, and up to do our deco. Unfortunately Mark had a strobe implode and only one picture was developed from this dive.

Time was running out so Dave decided not to dive and we proceeded to remove the deco station as well as the shot line, all of us having achieved our goals for this expedition. Not only did we dive this wreck with extended bottom times, but also to positively idea the wreck as that of the SS Cumberland. There were no problems of any kinds with equipment and the entire operation went smoothly with only four weeks to prepare after receiving the information on this wreck.

Local police gave us a visit they were excited by our achievement, and said they will be informing all the trawlers in the area to insure that no artifacts removed from this wreck by divers in the future.

The NSW Government's Heritage office was informed of the results, and Heritage Minister announced the news with a press release.

I would like to thank everyone involved for such a successful expedition, in particularly David Apperley, Paul Garske and Kevin Okeby for the extra efforts in organisation. Also huge thanks to Brett and Peter from Spirit of Eden Charters for their absolutely fantastic hospitality and seamanship. Last, but not least, Mark Spencer, Tim Smith and the rest of the team for making this happen.

The Sydney Project will continue to search and bring new wrecks to public attention, with Australian maritime history yet to be discovered. The search continues!

Samir Alhafith
Sydney Project Dive team

Credits to:

Historical information: Tim Smith, Heritage Office
Photos: Mark Spencer
Still from Video: Samir Alhafith, David Apperley, Kevin Okeby