While Neil Cooper has only been a NAS member for a couple of years, he’s certainly packed a lot in during that time. Here he writes about his recent experiences of back-to-back Protected Wreck Days.

Surprisingly, I am not a big fan of metal wrecks, even though I am constantly diving on different ones in varying stages of decay. Of all things, this comes down to a fear of being in the water near large ships and being caught in their propellers. I make a strange diver in this sense. 

Recently however, partly thanks to the excellent Understanding Metal Wrecks online course in May 2021 led by Jane Maddocks, I have gained more of an interest in them. This comes from a better understanding of the structure and layout. It was fortunate then, that at the start of the year, I booked onto two of the Protected Wreck Days run by the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS), as it allowed me to put into practice some of my new knowledge whilst wetting my fins with the relaxing of the Covid-19 restrictions.

Protected Wreck Day - part one

The 2nd of June came around very quickly thankfully, and the sun was up and ready to try and tan us all as we loaded up onto the dive boat Dive 125, skippered by Dave Ronnan.

First on the list was the submarine Holland V, the last of the five Holland class submarines ordered by the British Admiralty in 1900. Whilst the A-Class submarines were the first designed by Britain, the Holland class hold the honour of being the first commissioned submarines within the Royal Navy.


Left image: Holland III; one of the four sister submarines to the Holland V (Unknown, 1902). Right image: a new resident of Holland V (Cooper, 2021).

The Holland V was lost under tow in 1912 on her way to the scrap yard. It is not confirmed, but it is suspected that it sunk because a sailor left the torpedo hatch open. She now lies in approximately 30 metres of water in the middle of a sandy plain, providing home to the local sea life. Having dived the site once before, I know that my favourite moment is the first sight of her through the haze of the water. As you descend, you slowly recognise the Holland V’s shape before she seemingly leaps into focus.

Sites to visit are the fore (and only) torpedo tube, with its residents living in comfort. Normally the home of a moray eel, I was surprised to find a particularly feisty crab living there now. Of more engineering/ archaeological interest is the exhaust system on the top of the submarine, complete with a wooden box still encasing it. The final stop is the propulsion system, a single three bladed propeller and rudimentary rudder system, described in very technical detail by Mark Beattie-Edwards as the “mickey mouse ears of propeller styles”!


Left image: Holland I propulsion and rudder system. Right image: Holland V propulsion and rudder system (both by Cooper 2021).

The second dive of the day was on what is still known at the Normans’ Bay Wreck, despite its possible identity being known. The wreck is thought to be the Dutch warship Wapen van Utrecht, lost in 1690 during the Battle of Beachy Head during a combined naval action by the English and Dutch against the French.

Historical connections aside, the wreck is a nice relaxing shallow dive after the Holland V, until you reach the 12-metre-deep seabed and find that you must navigate using touch! Because of the tidal conditions and sandy bottom, it can be quite an interesting dive, and perhaps is as challenging as the Holland V in its own way. The Normans’ Bay Wreck consists of a collection of cannons which are scattered around the site, and a nice large anchor. Once you acclimatise to the low visibility, this site can be a treasure trove.


Left image: Normans' Bay wreck site plan (NAS). Right image: one of the many cannon (Cooper, 2021).

Looking around the site can lead you do find, aside from the marine life, cannons, more cannons, and yet more cannons! Looking closely can allow you to identify the dolphins, cascabels and to find crabs living in the barrels.

Protected Wreck Day - part two

After a day’s rest and a quick drive to Fort Cumberland, I met up with a new batch of divers for the second wreck day. The day represented a more traditional English day, cold, wet, and dreary… perfect diving weather in fact! Loading the Nautical Archaeology Sub-Aqua Club’s rib poised a little trouble, as the slipway was blocked off for a JCB on a mission to clean up the local beach by shifting sand around from one spot to another, but we managed by using another slipway and driving the rib around.

Image: Nautical Archaeology Sub-Aqua Club boat (Cooper, 2021).

The first of the day’s wrecks was that of the HMS Invincible, with a talk from Dan Pascoe, licensee of this protected wreck and the lead archaeologist on the excavation and survey of the wreck site. I had been looking forward to this dive for several years, after being washed out by the weather pre-covid. Parts of the site had been covered up to protect the wreck, but much was still visible.

Originally a French ship; the L’Invincible, she was built in 1747, and captured by the English in 1747. HMS Invincible is of particular significance, as her design led to the evolution of the English 74-gun frigate, a particularly successful class which influenced wooden ships up to and including HMS Warrior in 1860.

HMS Invincible herself is a 3rd rate ship of the line, described as the backbone of the Royal Navy. She was stranded off Portsmouth in 1758. Recovery and savage were initially attempted but damage to her pumps over three days of use, and the worsening weather caused her to capsize and become wrecked.

Image: timber remains on HMS Invincible (photo by Mike Pitts).

Dan Pascoe was good enough to lay down lines for us to follow around the wreck, as she now rests in four areas covering around 50m2. At 14metres, she is perhaps at the perfect depth, meaning that you can safely dive her with plenty of bottom time. Whilst many of the artefacts have now been lifted during the excavations carried out between 2017-19 by the Marine Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST), what was of interest to me was how well the structure of parts of the ship had survived. Even with what she had been through during her service, her wrecking, and the intervening years underwater, you would struggle to slip a playing card between the ship’s timbers. It was amazing to see the workmanship which built such a beautiful ship.

The final dive was on the wreck of the HMS/m A1 submarine. Whereas the Holland class was designed by an American, John Holland. The A1 class submarines were designed and built in Britain, being the first true British Royal Navy submarine.

HMS A1 has a somewhat dubious record, perhaps setting the standard for other early British submarines. She was sunk twice, first in 1904 with the loss of all hands, then in 1911 whilst unmanned, having been converted into an automatic target to become a testbed for the Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Committee. Following a talk from the A1’s licensee, Martin Davies providing us with its background, we set out to site.

Image: conning tower of A1 complete with resident eel (Cooper, 2021).

The A1 lies at around 14 metres depth and is another riveting dive. Perhaps twice the size of the Holland class, the A1 is a marked advance in technology. Features of interest are its single torpedo tube, and the addition of a conning tower. The A1 lies at an angle in the seabed, so that her stern is partially buried in the sand. Not much is recognisable because of this unfortunately.

The wreck is covered with sea growth, with many types of fish living on it, crabs, some lobsters and at least two moray eels, one of which is a particularly evil man-eater who seems to have developed a taste for my fingers…

After two days of diving, all I can add is that I look forwards to my next visits to all of these fascinating wrecks, perhaps next month in July!