By Lee Czerniak.
One of the most amazing wreck dives in Vanuatu right in Port Vila.
The Star of Russia was built in 1874 and started her very diverse career in February 1875. A large vessel almost 83 metres in length, she was designed as a three-masted square rigger, with an iron hull that proved to be her strength over her sailing career. She was built for speed and broke many records, for example, on a good day she managed an average speed of 16.5 knots, which is incredible for a vessel of such a size. When fully rigged she was all that exemplified the grand old square riggers of the late-1800s.
She was originally built for the Indian jute trade and was one of a number of square riggers built at the time. Her history shows that she travelled the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, most of the Pacific, even transporting Frank Butler, who boarded the vessel in Sydney as a seaman, left her in San Francisco only to re-join her around a year later and sail for Australia, appearing to have jumped ship in Sydney. He ended up being convicted of killing a man in the Blue Mountains and later confessed to several other killings. It’s believed he is probably Australia’s first serial murderer. This was all part of a rather interesting career.
She had several owners, but the Alaskan Packers Association re-rigged her down to a barque. They also added unique portholes; on their covers is the APA swallowtail house flag with the ‘A’ in the centre. She was renamed a number of times, but today is remembered as the Star of Russia. The ship was purchased by Burns Philp Company around 1926, and it is assumed that she was used as a trading vessel between the islands of the Pacific under different names. Eventually, the Star of Russia ended up in Port Vila as a floating warehouse. She was a hulk stripped of all her finery and around 1942 she came under the control of the US Navy. She had been one of the smartest ships that ever sailed the seas. At some time not recorded but believed to be around 1953 the Star of Russia sank. She had been battered by many storms while at her mooring and finally gave herself up to the seas. Just northwest of the main wharf of Port Vila Harbour you will find the grand old lady.
The Star of Russia enjoyed a long career with a number of good passages that rivalled the steamships of the day. She faced a number of hurricanes and proved her seaworthiness time and time again. Divers will see that seaworthiness when they swim through the body of the ship where she now rests. Now sitting upright in 35 metres of water in a sheltered area of Port Vila she can be dived in pretty much any weather.
As you descend, you are surrounded by large schools of bat fish. Reaching the collapsed deck at around 26–28m you will discover that the wooden decking has been eaten away but all the steel joists are still intact, and the hull is almost totally intact. Along the way, the diver can go through all three levels of the ship. With no decking left this allows for easy access to the hull and a chance to explore, giving the diver a good opportunity to check out the crow nests on one of the huge masts. A massive bollard or capstan and a large winch sit near the bow. The bow spit is broken off, but it’s still worth a look. There are still the remnants of the stays attached to the deck to stabilise the masts. You can explore the lower decks before exiting through a cargo door in the hull. At the stern, you will see the rudder and the steering gear. The port anchor runs out from the bow along a silty bottom.
The photographer in you will enjoy the challenges that underwater photography presents, but what an opportunity to set up some great images using the superstructure as part of your setting or framing! The historian in you will dream of being off the wind screaming along over the waves, as well as appreciating the design, the build, the workmanship to make this vessel one of the fastest of its time. Perhaps reflect that this amazing vessel was built by the same boat builders, Harland and Wolff, who 40 years later built the infamous Titanic.
Now the wreck diver will discover that this is an amazing wreck dive and one that should not be brushed off as a substitute dive.
The Star of Russia is a very big wreck so you will need to allow for more than one dive to get the best experience and really appreciate this grand old lady.
Acknowledgements to Nautilus Watersports for providing images and Michael McFadyen for his invaluable knowledge and generosity.