|The Vera and Rosalie - Norfolk's twin wreck shore dive challenge|
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STOP PRESS: The slack tides for diving seem to be varying year by year...
The East Anglian coast can be a very tough place to get a dive. We are weather affected and no matter what the wind direction there's always somewhere that you can't go - and often nowhere that you can! There are however some gems and those can be very rewarding, even if you are just a buddy pair all suited up with no boat to go.
By an odd coincidence the 5 mile stretch of coast between Cley-next-the-sea and Weybourne, in North Norfolk, hosts two wrecks from the Great War within swimming distance of the shore. In a region with almost no rocky coast they are some of the few dives that are practical without a boat. By another strange coincidence the area does in fact have some of the only rocky coast for miles, but that's another story. Both wrecks are dived quite regularly and you won't find treasure or piles of brass but there's plenty of wildlife and enough wreckage to be of interest. These are some of our favourite wrecks, they are very shallow and ideal for photography. At the moment we are getting used to a mixture of new cameras and the long dives these sites allow give plenty of time to play and get used to complicated new gadgets :-) As well as the usual crabs, anemones and dead mens fingers you'll often see pipefish and might be lucky enough to see a Tompot Blenny which are of great interest as they have only recently been reported (last year) and lots of intriguing tiny stuff - including a porcelain crab, which we've never seen in the UK before.
We visit these wrecks often with trainees and participants in the Marine Conservation Society's Seasearch project and regard them as some of the most attractive and accessible artificial reefs we've seen. They are a very important part of making the East Anglian diving community (and the visitors from further flung parts of the UK) more aware of the diversity, beauty and vulnerability of their own native wildlife. There are lots of pictures of our dives in our UK photo galleries.
Pretty much straight up from Norwich! After a few trips you'll know the drill but basically you are heading for small towns quite close to Sheringham and Cromer on the Eastern side and Wells-next-the-sea on the West. The ideal route from the South will bring you up through Holt and from there you can simply follow the signs to Weybourne or Cley. Be aware if you do think of bringing a boat up here that the coast road is very narrow and twisty, particularly in Cley itself. By a non remarkable coincidence the beaches are both at the end of small lanes called Beach Road. Satnavs are not wise to the numerous lanes of this name and ours insists that we go to the Salthouse end of a road which no longer joins to the one at Cley. The bookshop-cum-cafe at Cley beach has been demolished but the brick shelter can still be seen from the coast road - although our Satnav insists on saying stuff like 'abandon hope all yee who enter here' and 'make a legal U turn where possible' on the approach down the beach road. In Weybourne the road you want is marked by a corner shop, useful for sandwiches, on the coast side and a pub - The Ship Inn - useful for 'refreshment' on the other.
Here are streetmap links to the Cley and Weybourne coasts with the car parks indicated. You can zoom out from there to judge how best to approach the area.
Weybourne charges 60p an hour for it's large pay and display car park , which is often part flooded which greatly reduces the area available. At Cley the parking area has been vastly reduced despite the removal of the strange cafe, bookshop and toilet complex which used to collect £1.50 for a day's parking. It now costs £1 per hour for the first 2 hours or £3 for the day, although there season ticket options. In both cases you want to get your car in the best position to cut down on walking.
On site practicalities and preparations:
After paying to park, the best position for your car is in the South East corner of whatever carpark is left as it's easier to use the dirt track behind the beach than to set off across the shingle straight away. This makes for an easier walk - especially on the way back. You only need to go 200m up the beach but for divers used to tail lifts and liveaboards, 200m can seem like a marathon. If there are a few of you, get there in good time and move your kit in stages.
One of the things which makes both these wrecks simple to dive is that they stick out of the water at low tide. Whilst it is possible to take marks and navigate to them once submerged, I would strongly suggest that you do yourself a favour and arrive at low water and tie a bouy on. This might sound like yet more unwelcome exercise but it will save a lot of time and swearing compared to a failed search in full kit. We've done them both ways and the former beats the latter hands down. Your 'bouy' doesn't have to be a pukka device, it's just a floating marker. A large plastic container (5 litres or more) and 5m+ of rope would be ideal. A caribiner can make fixing and removing your buoy faster and easier, please take your toys home at the end of the day.
If you have to find the submerged wreck then it is due North of a small 'tarn' of concrete lumps I have gathered at the head of the beach. The largest piece of this old broken sea defence is triangular and makes an excellent reference when stood up. This is ~50m on from a small mound at the start of a 'mud cliff' bank - from which the wreck is due North North East. This is itself around 50m on from and old bomb shelter from which the wreck is North East but can't be seen from the water but would make a good transit if you cared to put a flag or friend on it. The two large pieces of concrete (one with hazardous rusty spikes on) which used to appear lower down the beach have gone, so don't wait for them to act as a reference as the tide goes out.
The wreck is only 120m out, but runs somewhat parallel to the shore which makes it relatively easy to miss at at high water - as its quite hard to judge your distance out. So long as you don't overdo the swim out you should be able to drop to one side of the wreck and drift into it, fingers crossed. The current runs East after low slack and West after high slack so you will be carried up to the car park after a high water dive :-) In our experience diving on high water slack has been far preferable to diving on low as even the gentlest sea will stir up the sandy seabed this close to shore. From the top of the beach you can often see the band of beige, disturbed water; if this is approaching the wreck then it's not going to be very clear! The difference between high and low water can easily be between 5m and 0.5m of vis. If in doubt take a swim out and have a look, but it's usually pretty obvious. Early in summer we did have an excellent low water dive but that's the exception not the rule.
Click on the image for a larger versionWeybourne:
GPS Plot of a whole dive of the Vera - follow it anti-clockwise
When you park here you want to be in the North West corner (flooding permitting), beside one of the sets of steps up onto the beach; these are handy to kit up on and cleaner than the dusty car park. The Rosalie is about 450m to the West of the cark park. At low tide stay to the lower parts of the beach if you can as these are denser and easier to walk along. At high tide the top of the 'cliff' is easier. It's a longer walk and a longer swim than the Vera - 180m - so be prepared! Save your smaller cylinders for the Rosalie - they will be easier to carry up the beach :-) These are very shallow dives so one 10 litre cylinder per dive should do for almost anyone.
Even more than the Vera I would suggest bouying this wreck beforehand as the many transits and rules of thumb for finding the wreck seem much easier on land than once you are bobbing about at sea level. As a guide to an unbouyed wreck head 'straight out' from the tarmac area by the tank track or pointed 'cliff' edge nearby and swim out until the Weybourne windmill is inline with the start of the 'cliff' you may have walked up at the back of the beach. It is broadly speaking due North from the beach after the you have got to the end of the feeble looking sandstone cliffs. The wreck is also popular with spear fishermen and their catch bouys are a good guide to its location. Once in the general location the size of the wreck will aid success; it stretches for over 100m out from its bow 120m from the shore and has spread to more than 50m wide.
For both of the wrecks the heart of the site is the engine; both have large lumps of mechanics left. It is parts of these which break the surface at low tide (also some time either side) and provide somewhere convienient to tie bouys on. On a more neap tide the Rosalie can be covered again by low water slack, which can be a bit of a nuisance if you had relied on being able to see the wreck! (It happens to the best of us...) The Vera is in 5-6m of water in its own scour which is slightly lower than the surrounding seabed. The Rosalie is somewhat deeper reaching 9m at its far end but only 4-5m at the bow closer to shore.
For both wrecks centre of slack is nominally 2 hours after high or low water at Cromer (offshore slack is reckoned to be 3 hours after). Remember to add another hour to correct GMT tide tides for British Summer(!) Time. Over a period of a time we have noticed that the slacks on these wrecks lasts a surprisingly long time. Our old club used to try to run rapid 30 minute shifts but in fact an hours dive is the norm and if you can avoid the temptation to float high above the seabed or dawdle on top of the boiler then these dives are only air, hunger or toilet limited. An hour and a half is easy on neap tides. We usually refer to the next 7 day tide times and graphs on the BBC weather website and use the 5 day forecast for Cromer. For wave height and condition the excellent Swellfinder surfer's site has amazing detail on sea state - which isn't always as mild or fierce as the simple forecasts predict.
We've added a more detailed discussion of slack calculation on our new chalk reef page. The slacks are broadly the same along the stretch of coast but obviously it's more critical to a wreck dive on a static site :-)
In our experience the water won't clear quickly after rough seas but the sea can smooth out within a day of conditions where we'd not recommend trying to enter the sea. Your mileage may vary but I normally consider that breaking surf more than 1m high is a non-starter for mixed ability groups of divers. Larger, heavier or stronger divers may well find that they can get through the rough stuff and enjoy a good dive beyond it - remember of course that returning to shore is even more important than leaving it.
Talking of toilets... many divers prefer to wear semi-dries for these dives not only because they are warm(ish), shallow and it's less hassle but also because there are no toilets at Weybourne or Cley beach. Make of that information what you will... why would that affect what suit you wore? For those with more self respect the Norfolk Wildlife Trust centre at Cley has several very civlised toilets and their restaurant makes a great place to grab lunch. Membership of the trust gets you into the Cley car park too.
An ideal weekend is preceded by still air or gentle (less than force 3 really) off shore winds, any suggestion of Northerlies in the week leading up can, at the very least, spoil the vis or leave vigourous rollers making the shallows very hard to negotiate with elegance. Entry conditions are just half the equation as you'll actually be more grateful of an easy time at the end of the dive when you need to get out. The beaches are steep gravel and although you can 'surf' in supported by your suit and jacket, hitting a 45 degree wall of gravel isn't everyone's idea of the perfect way to end a dive.
The best schedule (if the weather gives you the choice) is to get up early and to bouy the Vera on low tide, which then gives enough time to get to Weybourne and dive the Rosalie on the following slack. If you are making a weekend of it and plan to return, bouy it now! It can be quite tight to bouy the Vera and still have sight of the Rosalie above water for the low slack. Let the water conditions be your guide but most tides will allow you to go in 45-60minutes before centre of slack and then stay until you have a reason to leave. Diving the Rosalie on low will mean that the tide will carry you East, back to the cark park, after the dive and a high tide dive on the Vera will carry you West, similarly returning you to your flask of tea, chocolate hobnobs and dry clothes.
So what will you see? Where to start?
Under the water the similarities continue. Both of these steam ships were sunk during the First World War, The Rosalie by a torpedo in 1914 and The Vera by a collision in 1915. Whilst the larger Rosalie was put into shore bow first and stayed there, the stern of Vera has been pulled around to the West and she lies more parallel to the coast. As far as I am aware there was no loss of life. This isn't the Red Sea (its not Cornwall either) but there's no shortage of life and in some respects the North Sea can beat its more exotic rivals; this is a great place for nudibranches.
Weybourne - The Rosalie - Engine centre 052o 57.101' North 001o 07.997' East
The Rosalie is now spread over a large area. There is no superstructure left erect and the opened hull extends more than 20m either side of the keel in places. The boilers, engine and prop shaft have all remained in place and are the obvious circuit for a first dive. The engine is 3-4m long and its remains rise 5m from the seabed. The twin boilers are each 4m long, 3m round and lie inshore of the engine - there are only low hull ribs and plating further in - though it is covered in life all the way to the curved stump of the bow. Aft of the engine the propshaft runs back for 30m still supported 1.5m from the plate covered seabed. Halfway along you will find a propellor, it might seem an odd place to find one but this is the steel spare and so wasn't fitted or salvaged.
At the end of the propshaft the quadrant for the rudder stands at an angle marking the end of the wreckage. There is little beyond that point as the seabed is plain and sandy, the wreckage is a very real artifical reef in a comparative desert. The Rosalie seems to be a little more sheltered than the Vera and there is a layer of fine silt over some of the low flat areas although most edges are clean or like higher parts of the wreck covered in something growing. For most people it is the plumose anemones which are the most striking fauna on the wreck, they cover almost everything and seem to have displaced the deadmans fingers which used to share the area 50/50. There are a spectacular number of lobsters about and every size and type of crab imaginable - lots of variety too.
Click on the image for a larger version
Sketch of the Rosalie from one of our 2007 Seasearch surveys - no major changes noted in 2008 - click for a larger version
Tour plan. Start at the engine and head back down the prop shaft, you'll see the spare prop and plenty of plates before reaching the steering gear. Return up the other side of the prop to the engine, with the prop shaft for reference, you can afford to spread out and search under the plates for eels and lobsters. The hull on the starboard aft is remarkabley clear and has a significant low void underneath, the outline of the hull is marked by ribs on the starboard fore section but has plates again once you have rounded the curved keel at the bow and start to return up the port side. The port aft is harder to reconcile as it appears that the main upper bulk of the boat has fallen out to the East and there is quite a mountain of scrap iron. Back at the engine move on to the boilers and after a good look down all the tubes you can head inshore along the keel to the bow, where you'll only be about 50m off the beach.
The GPS has, amazingly, confirmed our estimates about the size and position of the wreck. The hull outline is around 120m long South - North and about 50m wide East-West - the debris plain is considerably wider with flat sections for 15m to the West and more broken pieces to the east. The propshaft run 60m from the engine and the very end of the main wreckage is 10m past the tall rudder gear and broken final section of the propshaft.The rudder itself lies to the West of the mooring bollards at the stern of the wreck, about 3-4m long, apparently the last piece of wreckage but after a sand/gravel area some fallen upper structure extends further to the West - although this is part of a continuous debris plain if you approach it from the South. The twin boilers are 6m across and accompanied by a third round object on the starboard side. It is flat ended like the boilers but sitting on its end rather than in 'yule log' position like the boilers. The propellor on the wreck is the iron spare and is found some 20m back from the engine, between the propshaft and the starboard hull edge. It is more than 7m across and many people don't recognise it as typical Norfolk vis doesn't allow you to see it all.
If you want to examine the site more closely here is the Google Earth .kmz file which will let you look around the coast at Weybourne, be sure to have a look at the Muckleburgh tank museum! In time I'll annotate this with photographs of the things you'd see on the way round. You need to save this file and open it in Google Earth.
Cley - The Vera - Engine centre 052o 57.968' North 001o 03.236' East
The Vera seems to lie in a gravelly scour around a small core of remaining wreckage. The metalwork looks shotblasted in places by the action of shingle. This seems to keep the metalwork clear of rust and life on some of the lowest platework, and there's less silt than on the Rosalie. We think that the Vera is just slightly less protected from the tidal currents than its neighbour which contributes to the surprisingly good vis so close to shore. Like the Rosalie there is no upper structure left and so you are diving a low debris field with the familar trio of engine, boiler and propshaft as landmarks. This is an excellent macro photography dive with slugs, pipefish and even porcelain crabs. Cley is a popular spot with anglers and the Vera has seen shoals of bass and mackerel as well a large resident population of juvenile bib.
Click on the images for larger versions
Sketch of the Vera from one of our 2007 Seasearch surveys - due an update as major changes were noted in 2008
The tour plan follows the same rationale as that for the Rosalie; circle the engine and propshaft and come back for the boiler... The boiler itself has been rolled 20m to the West of the engine and it's easy to miss it. Another cylindrical object, perhaps some sort of tank or pressure vessel, is easier to find from the engine. There is a pole leading out from the North West of the engine block which points straight to the 'pressure vessel'. From there is a trail of wreckage and ribs which leads South South West and onto the single boiler, although its easy to head on straight and miss this guide to a complete visit. If you head off the wreck there is a 2-3m patch of gravelly scour before flat barren sand starts - if you drop in to search for the wreck this may be your best clue that you are nearby. The large gravel expanse in front of the engine has occasional broken plates and you can go straight across to the boiler which is around 20m away. Recently a pair narrowly missed the wreck and found an interesting area of large flints to the North West of the main wreckage, this may be a small natural reef or some spilled ballast from the wreck.
GPS Plotting a dive on the wreck has allowed us to be more definite about it's size and orientation. The main debris field is around 60m long East-West and 25m wide North-South. The propshaft extends 30m from the engine and the very end of the main wreckage is 5-10m North of space where the prop would have been. There is a propellor on the wreck but like the Rosalie it is the iron spare and is found 5-10m back from the engine, between the propshaft and the starboard wreckage. It is 4-5m across so many people don't realise what it is and assume they are passing some twisted platework.
If you are really keen and want to examine the dive even more closely here is the Google Earth .kmz file which will let you zoom, fly and scroll around the coast at Cley to your hearts content. In the fullness of time I'll annotate this with photographs of the things you'd see on the way round. Interestingly you can clearly see the Vera in the water on the satellite view without the plot outline.
Bonus Diving: The chalk gullies
Any group considering this as a trip should note that with small boat cover the nearby chalk gullies off the stretch of coast between Sheringham and Weybourne can be dived as drifts between slacks and can make for a very full day of non stop diving. They too are shallow, 4-7m, and packed with life. There's normally a line of lobster pots strung along this area but a thorough guide needs another page to itself. From our recent boat explorations it would seem that you need to go further along than our old club used to recommend, about 1km from Weybourne beach and about 200m out - we estimate a position of 052o 56.945' North 001o 09.500' East is a good place to start a drift.
In East Anglia we are somewhat short of sites for training and practice so dives tend to be full on RIB adventures or blown out. The Vera and Rosalie are a very pleasant alternative for divers of any grade who just want a chance to get wet. Their depth and wildlife can make for an enjoyable, low stress dip but don't be fooled into thinking you can bank on them. As they are so close to shore the vis can be gone in no time at all and any element of Northerly wind and the vis and the sea will be unsuitable for all but the desperate.
We have been suggesting these dives as a good option for Seasearch Observer students looking to complete their two supervised qualifying dives. Of course any dive can be a Seasearch dive but these are simpler to arrange than most. We're very pleased that there's been plenty of interest and we'll make every effort to support anyone who would like to dive the sites when we are around. We're happy to brief on the site and suggest a dive plan but remember you are responsible for your own dive... That certainly doesn't stop the sites being good and well within the capabilities of most divers.
We've dived this piece of coast for ten years now and have numerous galleries from our trips which will give you an idea of what you might see. They're in amongst our UK galleries.
Dawn and Rob
Seasearch Eastern Region