Long time NAS Member and Tutor Nick Reed had an epiphany during the 'Understanding Metal Wrecks' course, find out what he discovered here...

Epiphanies are mental moments where we get instant clarity and that’s certainly what twelve of us had at the recent 'Understanding Metal Wrecks' course. Thanks to tutor Jane Maddocks, we all came away with a much greater understanding of how to interpret metal wrecks. Personally, I now feel much more confident about piecing a wreck together and building a picture of how it lies on the seabed.

What made the course even better was that it was held on board of the SS Shieldhall. At over ninety metres long, with two large Scotch boilers and two triple expansion engines, the vessel makes an ideal living classroom. Shieldhall is unique as a time capsule providing a working example of steamship machinery both above and below deck, typical of the cargo and passenger ships that plied the oceans of the world from the 1870s until the mid-1960s. The machinery on board is very similar, on a smaller scale, to that carried on the ill-fated Titanic, which makes Shieldhall a unique link with the past

Course participants discovering the multitude of metal on board the SS Shieldhall

Launched in 1955, Shieldhall spent twenty years carrying an unusual mixture of passengers and sewage sludge on the River Clyde before being bought by Southern Water in 1977. As a result of an initiative by the Southampton City's Museum Services, a preservation society was formed and, when she was decommissioned, Shieldhall was purchased from Southern Water in 1988. Now run entirely by volunteers, the vessel has become a regular summer feature sailing around the Solent and surrounding waters ,

The course started, in true NAS fashion, with tea and biscuits before an introductory brief by senior volunteer Rob Robson. This brief set the tone for the day as it was concise, interesting and extremely informative.

Jane then took over and led us through a couple of presentations about the general structure of metal ships. Even with the high level of experience of the course participants, there was a palpable feeling of “it now makes sense” in the room. The epiphany had begun!

Course participants receiving an overview of the history of SS Shieldhall

With a list of features to find, and a series of questions to answer, we were sent off to explore the ship. This was not just a theoretical course, we had practical learning to do! The next half hour was spent looking at winches, steering quadrants and, what no course would be complete without, anchors! The volunteer crew couldn’t have been more helpful. The brief was - if a door or hatch was open - go and explore. The only place that was out of bounds was the engine room – that would come later.

As a passionate advocate of the protection of our maritime heritage, Jane provided us with a fascinating and comprehensive summary of the law surrounding wrecks before sending us out on our next task. This time it was to sketch a section of the deck. While the course was essentially “dry”, the showery and squally nature of the weather meant that the practical was carried out under realistic, UK diving conditions! The waterproof permatrace that Jane provided really came into its own.

After lunch we were treated to a guided tour of the engine room. It was fascinating to see functioning triple expansion engines, boilers in situ and all the associated machinery. We were also able to begin to piece together how the vessel was constructed. Shieldhall is unusual in that the hull is of riveted and welded construction and this feature is representative of the transitional phase in British shipbuilding when welding took over from riveted practice. The volunteers that showed us around really added value to the day as they knew their subject inside out and put things over in an interesting way.

Course participants examining the winch

After another practical session where we practised making a measured sketch of the area of the boat we had chosen originally, we came to the final session. Normally this is a discussion of what people have got out of the day but this one was slightly different as Jane gave us “homework”. We were given a list of local metal wrecks to dive, all of which have features that we had talked about during the day. With the long list, she relented slightly and gave us a time limit of ten years. I think it may be detention if we don’t complete it!

Over the last few years I’ve done a lot of NAS courses and this one must rank with the best of them. It was full of information, but everything was related to the practice of studying our underwater cultural heritage. As NAS’s strapline says; “Discovery is just the beginning”. If anyone fancies helping with my homework next year, I’ve got some wrecks to explore!

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