By Mark Lewis

By Mark Lewis

14th April 2021

It was a text message from Chris Webb from Mutiny Diving on Monday evening, advising Maverick would be out diving for five days this week that spawned my “Buddy Wanted” post on social media and the [buddies] mailing list. Quick to respond was Tom and so plans were afoot to make a day trip to Dover on Wednesday.

Tide tables mandated there was only one wreck dive today and with a leisurely Ropes Off time of 09.45am, a simple drive to Dover and back in a day. The plan was that Tom would meet at my house and take my car. Telling my wife I’ll be home in time for The Chase, off we set.

 

Mixed Gases

Sitting around 25m to 30m, the target today was the HMTS Monarch, a WWI cable laying ship as sunk by mine, laid from U-Boat UC-5 in 1915. Tom was diving his 15 litre cylinder of 32% Nitrox and I was diving sultry old air on twins. The air remnants were from a coaching dive at Vobster on Saturday, only one dive that day and with 160 bar remaining and plans of another coaching day in a fortnight, that’s all I had.

Without detailing the dive plan explicitly, it meant that while Tom’s bottom time was limited by gas volume, I was limited by NDL. We needed to agree a balance. A balance where I was happy to deco on back gas (and accelerate if needed), but where Tom wouldn’t be waiting forever on the ascent for me to finish. The plan was a 40 minute run time, diving a 10 minute “mandated safety stop” for me though a non-stop dive for Tom. Even though Tom would have a no-stop dive, he was happy to wait 10 minutes for my deco to clear. Simples!

 

VIP Treatment

Travel to Dover was a breeze and with a forecast ETA of an hour and half before ropes off, we stopped at the Folkstone Service Station for a coffee and comfort break. All very civilised.
Arriving at Dover Marina, the car park was pretty empty and while visiting the Harbour Master’s Office for a parking permit, we noticed Maverick was already at berth on the pontoon. It was clearly visible that there was a low tide and with the steep steps down to the pontoon meant two things. First, this is a clean flooding tide and visibility should be good. Second, when we arrive back to the harbour, those steep steps down would be a horizontal walkway, rather than a steep incline. Add the fact that there was hardly a cloud in the sky, a gentle breeze and calm waters, this would be a good dive.
We rigged our kit in the car park and took it to the boat. Chris was not there. We took our favourite positions onboard and went back for our bags, just as Chris arrived at the car park. Jovial belated “Happy New Year” exchanges were made and onto the bigger question of, where do we want to dive?
Today it was just Tom and me. Two divers, one boat, one skipper, one deckhand and the whole channel to explore. Do we continue to the Monarch as the initial itinerary, dive a U-Boat for some photography for Tom or some rummaging for treasure for Mandy? And you’ve guessed it, a little treasure with the new target of the Mindora.Having dived the Mindora once before, we were confident that we would find a souvenir for Mandy.
Bottle Of Ginger Beer From Mindora
Bottle Of Ginger Beer From Mindora

Maybe Not The Mindora Either

We talk about “Chasing the Viz” when we dive Dover and “target” dive sites. Today was an ideal example as to why. When we got to the Mindora, Peppa and George would have loved this muddy puddle. Diveable for sure but as Chris pointed out, this would be minimal visibility. And with an “OK, we’ll dive the Varne Wreck”, off we steamed into the shipping lanes, just SEE of the Varne Lightvessel.

 

"Marking the dangerous Varne bank, a five and three quarter mile long sand bank in the Dover Strait, lying nine miles southwest of Dover in Kent."

Trinity House
Lying almost in the middle of the international traffic separation scheme of the English Channel, the Varne Bank is a constant concern for shipping. Ships will straddle either side of the bank for navigation through the Dover Strait, which is between 60m and just 3m (low tide) in depth.
And where are we diving? Smack bang on the bank, in between the two navigation transits, in what is known as the world’s busiest shipping channel.

Dive Briefing

We were diving an unknown shipwreck known locally as “The Varne Plate Wreck“. As the name suggests, the name is not known and full of crockery. Chris described it as a flattened wreck with no overhead environment. The size of a squash court and with what looks like concrete barrels in the middle standing 2 to 3 metres proud. The plan would be down the shot, reel out to circumnavigate the barrels, looking for plates that will be beneath them. “You may need to dig a little” he said. Being that we were in the middle of the shipping lanes, no DSMBs today unless in an emergency. Down the shot, reel out, reel in and back up the shot. Oh and, a little deeper than the Mindora at around 32m.

The Dive Itself

The good bit and what we came to do. Now remember three things. Tom’s on 32% Nitrox, I’m on air and the depth is 30 metres (as witnessed on Maverick’s Humminbird sounder). Dive time, 11.41am.
The surface was calm, no more than half a metre swell. The current had dropped off and it was good to go. Though as we all know, there can be a little surface current. We were told to immediately descend to 5m and sanity check. Tom agreed I would go first and down the shot we went. Five metres, stop and all OK. Then 10 metres, 18 metres to 32 meters and still no end in sight. “Tom’s on Nitrox” I remembered and turned around to see if he was OK. Along the shot a little more to 35 metres and still no sight of the anchor. A little bit more at 37 metres and there it was. Another check with Tom and all OK, although a slightly higher PPO2 of 1.50.
What I forgot to say was, we had a job to do first. We had to tie the “blue rope” off the shot carabiner to the wreck, detach the anchor from the shot and send the anchor to the surface with a lift bag. Only then could we line out. And while Tom was doing all that, I was already placing bits and bobs into my goodie bag. Tom sent the bag up, I lined out and voila, I’m now at 38m, some 8 minutes into the dive and 5 minutes of NDL. I have to confess, that my focus was not helping Tom, but picking up bits of broken crockery. A little Nitrogen Narcosis for sure!
At 11 minutes into the dive, that’s just 3 minutes from sending the lift bag to the surface, I’m showing a 1 minute obligatory stop at 6 metres with a TTS (Time To Surface) of 5 minutes.
Visibility was good. I did suspect ambient light, but I think I was being fooled. With torches on, it was a dark 2 to 3 metres. There was certainly particulate in the water, but quite clear. There was an old fishing net strewn over the area. Tom was no more than 3 metres from me and I was no more than 6 metres from the shot. The dive was pretty much picking up artefacts off the seabed as hurriedly as possible.
Just 17 minutes into the dive and for me, a one minute stop at 9m, six at 6m and a TTS of 11 minutes, I started to think of Tom’s gas. Signalling Tom, we reeled back to the shot, unclipped and up we went. Time 18 minutes  into the dive and 12 minutes TTS.
The ascent was not problematic per se, the only observation was that with now heavier goodie bags, one’s buoyancy shift had changed. With goodie bag in one hand and shot in another, we had to compensate. This meant that Tom and I ascended at different rates along the shot line, that was more ‘L’ shaped. Alas, we hit 6 metres at 28 minutes into the dive and there we hung for my remaining 6 minutes, albeit Tom was clear.
Total dive time, 35 minutes. Maximum depth, 38 metres. Visibity, 2 to 3 metres and very dark. Temperature, 7°C. Total fun, 100%.

What Would We Do Different Next Time?

Every dive is a learning dive. We were not a matched pair of Purdey’s. We should have had the same back gas. I try to keep my twins with 32% in readiness for a text from Chris. It’s just this time I had 160 bar of air from Vobster. Tom suggests a lift bag for sending the goodie bags to the surface so not to affect the ascent. Even though Tom carried his 7 litre bailout, I think I would like to run a re-plan of the dive in with an ‘out of gas’ scenario.

And To The Spoils

Tom wins this game. A few whole bottles, a whole plate and a broken mug for Tom with one whole bottle, two broken plates and two broken saucers for me. None of them have any markings, other than one small saucer of 13cm diameter with a rampant lion and crown indicia,  straddled by the letters ‘B’ and ‘F’.
Rampant Lion and Crown Indicia With Letters B and F
Can you identify this rampant lion crown and BF letters as a maker's mark or crockery pottery ceramics or porcelain? ?

And What About The Varne Wreck?

This is what I find fascinating, what is indeed that wreck? It’s been known for many years as the Plate Wreck and has been dived many times before. Canterbury Divers talk about muskets coming up. If that’s the case, I’m guessing that’s got to be early 1800’s.
It’s interesting that none of the crockery held any makers marks, which may give a clue to the ship’s nationality. I’m not convinced the lion is British, and Belgium was my first knee jerk. Indeed, the only two British Pottery manufactures with the initials B and F are “B Floyd” and “Burmantofts”, of which neither have the same marks.
I’ve looked for rampant lion flags and Scotland cropped up, but I do not associate the crown with Scotland. Czechoslovakia popped in a search, but that seemed a dead end, along with Poland. Danish and Netherlands makers marks bear no resemblance, but we get close with Belgium with the names “Timor Keramis BF” and “Boch F”, but no lion and crown. The closest we get is Germany, more specific Bavaria with “Shumann Arzberg” and “Ahumann Dresden” with a rampant lion and crown, but no B or F and the lion hold a flag.
I’ve found and read the online .PDF files from University of California and the same found at the Western Australia Museum, a book titled “A Manual of Marks on Pottery and Porcelain dated 1894. To no avail. Uploading various crops of the image to Google Lens bears no tangible results.
I’ve used Google’s “site” tool to query indexed web pages of the Wrecksite.EU website including the word “Varne” to find any wooden ship lost in the 1800s. Although 47 results, none of them look correct and adding the word “musket” to the search criteria, there are zero results.

And What Does Tom Have To Say?

"I love an impromptu dive and Dover diving always adds an extra layer of excitement. Being the only 2 divers on the boat was an unexpected luxury and meant also that we could choose where we wanted to dive. Whilst the weather was spectacular it was cold and unfortunately the wind was from the east which meant a choppy sea and the likelihood of poor visibility. We ended up almost halfway to France and the rummage dive on the unknown wreck off the Varne lightship. It was absolutely the right decision with my first treasure find of my diving career. Thanks to Mark for inviting me and special thanks to Chris Webb."

Tom Bryer