Located between Falmouth and The Lizard, the cove of Porthkerris lays between another picturesque cove of Porthallow and Porthoustock beach. Depending on traffic, a good 4 to 6 hour drive which makes a long weekend visit the best option.
We had originally booked the Celtic Cat for the three days of Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A full charter for the latter two days of 10 divers, with 8 divers only for the Friday. But that was soon to change as restrictions and Covid-19 guidance mandated only six divers could embark the dive boat. Although a small challenge, all that was needed was two volunteers to surrender their Friday dive and open an invitation to club members for two more weekend divers.
Although reserved for the further afield dive sites, the Celtic Cat would be operating a shuttle service akin to the Celtic Kitten. This in hindsight was fantastic news as although we could not dive those more distant locations, we could add another two club members to the trip. The final tally was one group of 6 divers on Friday and two groups of 6 divers on Saturday and Sunday, nominated A and B.
The Five Pilchards
Half a dozen divers arrived on Thursday evening and the plan was to meet for dinner at the Five Pilchards in Porthallow. Once a rustic interior with fisherman’s nick-nack ornaments and popular with locals and visitors alike, it has lost its patina. With new owners in 2019, the pub seems to have transformed into a gastropub-style establishment with a focus on food. Where we have enjoyed a pint and pie in the past, we now enjoy a pie and pint. The ambience and decor were perfect, plenty of space for social distancing and the food and beer was great. Although different from previous visits, certainly will remain on the itinerary for future trips.
Friday First Dives
The first dive of the weekend was for just six divers on the SS Volnay. An armed merchant ship that was sunk in 1917, hitting a mine as laid by Uboat UC-64. Maximum depth for this dive was 20 metres and although varying visibility reports of three to five metres, Octopoda enthusiast Mandy was star stuck with her first UK find, spent most of her dive photographing her octopus.
The second dive of the day was the Vase Reef. “I’ll take you somewhere beautiful” was the promise of skipper Mike and his promise came true. Divers returned to shore with stories of a pinnacle wall, teeming with life and an abundance of crayfish. Crayfish were nearly becoming extinct from overfishing and diver goodie bags, but are returning to the coastline with vigour. Visibility was a reported six to eight metres and a maximum depth 26 metres.
As a newly qualified diver, Mark’s first-ever visit to Porthkerris was in June 2013, one of his first UK sea dives being the SS Mohegan. Lost in 1898 with the loss of 106 lives, he recalls Celtic Kitten skipper Dave telling the tale of the ship’s demise. Having left London, she was passing Falmouth and her captain made an incorrect navigation calculation to collide with The Manacles Reef and sink.
As part of the site briefing, Mark also recalls Dave commenting that the bodies of those who lost their lives that day are buried in a mass grave in the churchyard at St Keverne. Overdue on his itinerary, Mark made a trip Friday afternoon to the church which as he says, consolidates the human element and history associated with wreck diving.
Friday Quiz Night
In previous years, Friday evening entertainment mandated a visit to the White Hart in St Keverne. Unfortunately and with Covid-19 guidance restricting indoor entertainment, there was no quiz this evening. Nonetheless, twelve divers were welcomed for a pint and pie with the new arrivals eager to get in the water at the sound of great visibility.
We were two groups of six divers on the Celtic Cat, groups A and B. Diving from the enormous Celtic Cat with just six divers was very, very spacious. Coded for 12 divers, there was plenty of room for everyone. Embarkation logistics were quite different than before. As a charter, we would normally load all our kit, setting up en route to the distant dive site, but this time as a shuttle, we boarded fully kitted and ready to go as run times to the local dive sites are just 5 to 10 minutes. The two dive sites today for both diver groups were the Raglan Reef and Helford River.
Forming part of The Manacles reef system, the Raglan Reef is the most south-eastern point. With the top around 10 metres and dropping off to 40 metres, this is a lovely “pick your depth” wall dive with the possibility to circumnavigate if not too deep. An ideal check-dive for those who have not dived for a while.
Teeming with life, visibility was a whopping 10 metres at depth and temperature of 16°C. There was some particulate in the water and being a neap tide weekend, there was no current and everything was motionless.
All divers recorded sightings of Cuckoo Wrasse, Pollack, and Bass.
Always a favourite for two simple reasons. For those photographers, this is critter heaven and for those hunter-gatherers, scallops!
Dived on either a flooding or ebbing tide as a drift, you’ll be hard-pressed to get anything deeper than 10 metres depth. Today was a relaxed 7 metres on a gentle neap ebbing tide. Plenty of time to spot and photograph the wildlife and scavenge for scallops. Although a 15°C, several divers reported it being a little chilly towards the end of the dive, run times and easy 60 minutes.
Critters and wildlife spotted included a four-foot dogfish, thornback rays, Dover sole, spider crabs an abundance of hermit crabs together with many other crustaceans. Oh and, scallops!
Saturday Night BBQ
The consensus this year was to ask the Porthkerris Cafe to cook for us this evening. With both an omnivore and vegetarian menu, we were welcomed at 6.30pm to a delicious spread of burgers, sausages, chicken pieces, salads, cheeses and bread rolls. Divers brought their drinks and pre-dinner nibbles. With the BBQ dwindling, it was another bag of charcoal and once white, Tom and Mark were first to get the scallops going with Diver Dave offering a helping hand a little later on. A simple recipe of scallops in their shell, a dollop of butter, a crack of black pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Enough for all, everyone savoured at least two hand-dived scallops fit for any restaurant.
Bumping into Richard Walker and Christine Grosart earlier in the day, they were welcomed to join us for our BBQ fun. Richard and Christine were holidaying in the county and had popped down to Porthkerris for a little diving.
Mandy and Tom had a long discussion about Richard and Christine’s Ghostfishing UK charity and how Mandy could get more involved. A lot of talk of kit configuration, logistics and physical workloads of retrieving nets, together with safety aspects were discussed. Christine talked passionately about her charity fundraising challenges and how Covid-19 has negatively effected their goals for this year, while Richard offered Mandy his time without charge to help her with a little coaching in Vobster one day. Mark and Richard talked about inviting someone from the Ghostfishing team to one of the club’s social evenings, possibly February next year. So watch this space!
Scallops scoffed and everyone relaxed, it was time to let Chief Stoker (read that pyromaniac) Bill loose on the chiminea. As the darkness fell and under a starlit sky, the chiminea roared and crackled as the banter and conversation continued into the late evening.
Special thanks for this evening goes to:
- Alice from the Porthkerris Cafe for our dinner this evening.
- Sally, Tim and Tom for preparing the scallops.
- Ula for her delicious cakes.
- Chief Stoker Bill for keeping the flame going.
Although perfect conditions on Friday and Saturday, Sunday was forecast as the better day. A sunny day with no cloud covering, well deserving a lashing of sunscreen, with air temperatures of 19°C and winds of mere 9mph to 12mph gusts. The significant wave height was forecast 1 metre with an 11 second period. In other words, flat calm!
One of the nice things about diving Porthkerris is that typically there is no early start. No rushed or skipped breakfasts, hurrying to kit up for Ropes Off. It was no exception today with our embarkation times of 09.00am and 10.30am. The site of choice for both groups was the SS Mohegan which sank on 14th October 1898 with the loss of 106 passengers and crew of the 197 persons on board.
Previously named the Cleopatra, the Mohegan was en route from London to New York and while passing Falmouth, took a wrong navigation bearing and smashed into The Manacles reef system. Depending on tide height, she lays around 25 metres deep and relatively flat, her three boilers still standing proud.
Many local stories and urban myths surround the demise of this vessel, one of the most notable shipwreck sites in the area. The staircase of the Coverack YHA is said to have been salvaged from the Mohegan, whilst artefacts once on display at The Five Pilchards pub, were sold in 2019 by the old owners. Internet research suggests that the bell is located at The Bell Hotel in Thetford, Norfolk but there is no providence to this story as many replica bells have been manufactured in the past, along with those supposedly from the Volnay.
One sombre truth is that there is a mass grave at the church in St Keverne. Mark tells a story that he has dived the Mohegan some half a dozen times in the past and has always promised to visit the churchyard to consolidate the human element of the disaster. He finally did this during this trip, these then and now photos showing the burial at the time and the Celtic Cross today, with “Mohegan” “RIP” inscriptions.
Both groups experienced amazing visibility, a good 10 metres. The shot dropped onto the boilers made a perfect start point to explore this massive wreck. Unfortunately, there was no oxygen in the gas room this weekend due to delayed deliveries, so diving air only, your bottom time can be quite short.
Poem - The Wreck of the Steamer "Mohegan"
Good people of high and low degree,
I pray ye all to list to me,
And I’ll relate a terrible tale of the sea
Concerning the unfortunate steamer, Mohegan,
That against the Manacles Rocks, ran.
‘Twas on Friday, the 14th of October, in the year of ninety-eight,
Which alas! must have been a dreadful sight;
She sailed out of the river Thames on Thursday,
While the hearts of the passengers felt light and gay.
And on board there were 133 passengers and crew,
And each one happier than another seemingly to view;
When suddenly the ship received some terrible shocks,
Until at last she ran against the Manacles Rocks.
Dinner was just over when the shock took place,
Which caused fear to be depicted in every face;
Because the ship was ripped open, and the water rushed in,
It was most dreadful to hear, it much such a terrific din.
Then the cries of children and women did rend the air,
And in despair many of them tore their hair
As they clung to their babies in wild despair,
While some of them cried- ‘Oh, God, do Thou my babies spare!’
The disaster occurred between seven and eight o’clock at night,
Which caused some of the passengers to faint with fright;
As she struck on the Manacles Rocks between Falmouth and Lizard Head,
Which filled many of the passengers’ hearts with dread.
Then the scene that followed was awful to behold,
As the captain hurried to the bridge like a hero bold;
And the seamen rushed manfully to their posts,
While many of the passengers with fear looked as pale as ghosts.
And the poor women and children were chilled to the heart,
And crying aloud for their husbands to come and take their part;
While the officers and crew did their duty manfully,
By launching the boats immediately into the sea.
Then lifebelts were tied round the women and children
By the brave officers and gallant seamen;
While the storm fiend did laugh and angry did roar,
When he saw the boats filled with passengers going towards the shore.
One of the boats, alas! unfortunately was swamped,
Which caused the officers and seamens’ courage to be a little damped;
But they were thankful the other boats got safely away,
And tried hard to save the passengers without dismay.
Then a shriek of despair arose as the ship is sinking beneath the wave,
While some of the passengers cried to God their lives to save;
But the angry waves buffetted the breath out of them,
Alas, poor sickly children, also women and men.
Oh, heaven, it was most heartrending to see
A little girl crying and imploring most piteously,
For some one to save her as she didn’t want to die,
But, alas, no one seemed to hear her agonizing cry.
For God’s sake, boys, get clear, if ye can,
Were the captain’s last words spoken like a brave man;
Then he and the officers sank with the ship in the briny deep,
Oh what a pitiful sight, ’tis enough to make one weep.
Oh think of the passengers that have been tempest tossed,
Besides, 100 souls and more, that have been lost;
Also, think of the mariner while on the briny deep,
And pray to God to protect him at night before ye sleep.
William Topaz McGonagall – November, 1898
Vase Reef and The Volnay
While group A opted for another reef dive on the Vase Reef to the smiles of yet again wonderful visibility, against the advice of skipper Mike and the pleas from Mandy “not the Volney again, the viz was crap on Friday”, Tom, Ossie, Dave and Mark wanted more tin.
Green, snotty, hazy and dank visibility welcomed the intrepid five. Ian, sitting out this dive for a shore dive with Gill.
The Volnay was an armed merchant ship, sank when she hit a mine in 1917 as laid by Uboat UC-64. She was carrying shrapnel shell munitions along with luxury goods including perfume, tinned meat, flour, biscuits and fruit.
With a maximum depth shallower than the Mohegan at around 20 metres, she is a very silty wreck. Care must be taken not to stir up the silt and further impede visibility. While most of the luxury goods were washed up at the time of her sinking, the live anti-personnel shrapnel shells can still be found alongside hundreds of lead shot, the size of marbles and spaghetti looking cordite.
Internet reading of divers recovering the lead shot to turn into dive weights was consolidated by skipper Mike along with historic dredger operations to salvage the lead.
Photo Of The Weekend
To Sum It All Up
We could not have hoped for anything better. The sunshine got progressively better over the weekend, a gentle breeze and flat calm seas. There was lots of fun and banter throughout with Mark and Bill partnering in a new business venture (more on that later). Then we have Rhys’s heroic skills of rescuing Feranmi from his shot line entanglement, Dave and Ossie’s close encounter with a spinning RHIB propeller plus Tom and Mandy’s unexpected experience with a live WW1 shrapnel shell made a lively weekend!