Sink big

by Kim Griggs / 12 November, 2005
Ever tried sending 3000 tonnes of steel to the bottom of the sea?

When the end comes for the old warship, it should be mercifully swift.

All going to plan, at 3.00pm on November 12, just off Wellington's south coast, the retired naval frigate HMNZS Wellington will take two minutes to slide beneath the sea and become the country's newest dive attraction.

"It's got to be so quick and so positive," says Roy Gabriel, the Canadian ship-

sinking expert whose job it is to prepare the frigate for sinking.

"When the button is pushed, the charges start going off and the ship immediately drops to the bottom. It can't have a chance to go to port or starboard or to take a list."

The trick to getting a ship to sink quickly - and, just as important, land upright - is to turn it into a sieve.

That explains why, for the past few weeks, Gabriel has been cutting holes throughout the ship's freeboard, careful always to balance a port hole with a starboard one. On the 12th, or the first calm day after that, the "sieve" will be completed when 14 holes, each a metre square, are blown in the hull below the waterline.

The holes also give the sunken vessel light, help water to circulate through it and make it less scary for divers. "When somebody swims in," says Gabriel, "if they panic and are not used to being inside a ship, you want to give them a way out."

And allowing water to stream into the hull quickly ensures that it ends up on the bottom right way up. Again, that's for safety, as a tipped-over ship can disorientate. And it's also important for an aesthetic reason - a ship on its side is no good for those all-important photos of the diver on the bridge or, more often, the toilet.

"One of the favourite things to leave in on all the ships has been the toilets," explains Gabriel. "Everybody wants to come and get their photo taken on the toilet. It is probably the most photographed part of the whole ship."

Gabriel, who has sent 19 ships to the bottom, admits to one near-miss in getting a ship down upright when an air bubble became trapped in an Adams-class destroyer that he was sinking in Australia. "It took such a list that it was at a critical point and it could have gone all the way over." Eventually, a huge plume of water spurted out and the ship righted itself.

A 36-year-old Leander-class F69, the Wellington, has already had a couple of lives - in its original British incarnation it was the HMS Bacchante, serving in the "Cod War" and also making a brief appearance in the Falklands war before being sold to the New Zealand Navy in 1982. Decommissioned six years ago, it continued to provide parts for other frigates. Earlier this year, the SinkF69 Trust bought the warship from the Navy for $1 and since May it has been moored in Wellington.

To help pay for the sinking, the trust has been selling off bits and pieces of the ship, letting sightseers wander over it most weekends and hosting corporate functions and comedy and music nights - even a wedding on the helicopter deck. At one function, guests were served the same 11 courses that were on the menu for the final dinner on the Titanic.

Trust chairman Marco Zeeman became a convert to artificial reefs after seeing deliberately sunk ships in Hawaii. "These things were just living jewels," he says. "There were turtles and fish and marine growth all over them. They were stunning."

He expects a similar transformation for the F69, with algae covering much of the ship within four months, seaweed reaching a metre within a year and sponges, coralines and sea anemones in residence within four years. "By that stage, she's well and truly a reef: the crayfish will have moved in and pelagic fish will be swimming around everywhere."

Marine biologist Alison MacDiarmid is more cautious. "In the short term," she says, "and I'm thinking here of the next 30 years, it's neither here nor there from a biological point of view. It won't be a huge impediment, but it's not going to be a huge benefit, either.

"It's entirely a social thing. People get a buzz out of doing this sort of thing."

Problems could arise later, says Mac-Diarmid, pointing out that sunken vessels typically rust apart at the seams, "so in 70 or 80 years there are going to be a lot of collapsed flat sheets of steel lying in quite shallow water, zinging about in the big southerly storms that will come along and break them up".

Zeeman thinks, however, that the ship will dig into the sand as the years go by and, judging by what has happened to other wrecks, eventually collapse on itself to become a solid reef. "The sea acts like a steamroller, not a bulldozer," says Zeeman. "It squashes."

In the meantime, he's confident that the sunken warship will be an asset to Wellington, attracting divers and snorkellers to its final resting-place on a sandy spot on the seabed 26m down and 450m off the nearest point.

"You can fly in to our international airport - you'll probably see the ship as you fly over - and you can be diving on her within half an hour," he says. "This is going to be the most accessible purposely sunk world-class dive facility we've ever seen."

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