Diving the Cumberland with the Sydney Project
Text by Simon Mitchell
Diving the Cumberland
Technical diving is a marvellous tool. It allows us to do, see, discover and photograph things that could not be done, seen, discovered, or photographed with normal diving methods. While for some the diving appears to be the end in itself, for me and like minded colleagues, technical diving is a means to an end.
The Sydney Project is a group of Sydney-based technical divers who dive together regularly to maintain skills and currency, but whose focus is always on projects in which the diving technology can be put to truly meaningful use. The main focus is on location and identification of new wrecks, and the more historic and important the wreck, the better they like it. The credit must go to Samir Alhafith for driving things when I and about eight others became founding members soon after my arrival in Sydney in 2002. This article provides an example of technical diving methods being put to good use when the Sydney Project solved the mystery of the Cumberland in November 2003.
The Cumberland was a steamer of approximately 140m length and 9000 tons. In 1917 she was only two years old and carrying a cargo of meat, copper, lead and zinc from Australia to England. She didnât get far. In what was an extraordinary event given Australiaâs distance from the essentially European conflict of World War I, the Cumberland hit a mine laid by the Wolf, a German raider disguised as a merchant ship operating in Australian waters. Cumberland didnât sink straight away. Indeed, it was some time later when she was under tow toward port and safety that she finally foundered with her valuable cargo off Green Cape, southern New South Wales. At that moment Cumberlandâs historical notoriety was ensured. She became the first maritime casualty of war in Australian waters.
Most of Cumberlandâs cargo was salvaged soon after using the same ship, equipment and methods that only months later would be used in a more famous salvage; retrieval of the gold off the Niagara wreck in New Zealand. An observer was lowered to the wreck in a diving bell, and he would guide the operation of a grab used to pluck cargo out of holes made in the wreck by use of underwater explosives. After completion of the salvage, people gradually lost track of the Cumberland over a number of decades. By the present day even her position was lost to official record.
In 2001 the CSIRO was conducting a side scan sonar survey in the area, and found a contact suggestive of a large wreck. This was subsequently brought to the attention of Tim Smith, a maritime archaeologist with the New South Wales Heritage Office. Tim strongly suspected that this contact was the Cumberland, but there was no verified position for the latter that could be correlated against the contact. Given the Cumberlandâs historical significance, it was considered important that the identity of this wreck be confirmed.
Problem was, this contact lay in 100m depth. Readers of the popular diving literature could be excused for becoming accustomed to reading about deep technical dives, and a 100m dive might even almost seem âroutineâ by todayâs standards. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. No Navy in this part of the world would dive to such depths, and most commercial diving companies have abandoned routine deep bounce diving because it is impractical and dangerous. Furthermore, and at the risk of stating the obvious, one of the problems with wrecks is that they are where they are. In other words, you donât get a choice about where you dive them. A wreck in that sort of depth is almost invariably in open ocean, exposed to weather from all directions and typically subject to strong coastal currents. Some of these deep wrecks are extremely challenging to dive, and this potential Cumberland site was a classic example.
Members of the Sydney Project had been hitting depths near 100m relatively regularly for about six months at the time the possible Cumberland contact was brought to our attention. We felt the dive was within the groupâs capabilities, and a team consisting of myself, David Apperley, Mark Spencer, Samir Alhafith, Jason McHatton, Paul Garske, Peter Szyska, and Kevin Okeby was put together for this first attempt. Five of these divers would be using closed circuit rebreathers for the dives, and three would be using open circuit scuba. The attempt would be made on 8 November 2003 from a chartered boat out of a small coastal town called Eden. In a somewhat ironic twist, we were lucky to find a boat crewed by a couple of guys who didnât seem to know much about diving, and who therefore didnât think we were a bunch of lunatics who should be avoided at all costs. As it turned out, these guys were excellent boat handlers and provided us with faultless support.
When the time came, it was a bit hard to fire up over the whole thing during the five hour drive south from Sydney to Eden. The site lay more or less on the south east corner of the Australian continent where Bass Straight meets the Tasman. This equals high winds and blistering currents for a significant proportion of the time; more or less the Australian equivalent of planning a dive in the middle of Cook Strait, New Zealand. No one was more surprised than me when we were greeted with a total absence of wind on the morning of the 8th. At this point âfiring upâ for the dive was absolutely no problem at all.
Join us next issue (February/March issue 86) when we take you on the dive. (Concluding this two part article).
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