THE SOUND OF ENGINES REVVING hard astern and ropes being hauled along the dive boat's wooden deck woke us at 4am. The liveaboard Hurricane was mooring up at Rocky Island, 240 miles south of Marsa Alam in the southern region of the Egyptian Red Sea, following a 10-hour overnight passage.
Our itinerary was also to include the islands of Daedalus and St John's, but our main objective was the 8205 tonne steamship Maidan, which sank after running aground off Rocky Island in the early hours of 10 June, 1923, en route from Port Sudan to Suez.
By 7am our Swiss dive guide was up and knocking on cabin doors with a far too cheery (and loud): "Good morning - briefing, please!"
With a long deep dive ahead of us, we declined the invitation and tried to get a little more rest while the early birds kitted up and departed in RIBs for their first dive of the day.
Later, with the boat more or less to ourselves, we got up and focused on final equipment checks, calibrating the rebreathers and reviewing plans for our 120m descent down the reef wall to the wreck of the Maidan.
Ninety minutes later, fully kitted up with our rebreathers and carrying two 12 litre side-mounts each as open-circuit bail-out, we entered the water and swam to the main shotline against a slight current.
After completing in-water checks at 6m, we settled into a steady controlled descent down the line. It would take some seven minutes to complete.
The temperature dropped continuously, but at 60m there was a very noticeable thermocline - visually, a similar effect to the swirling patterns seen when lime cordial is mixed with water!
Around this point, we were able to identify the dark shape of Maidan's upturned hull stretching out below us. Unaccustomed to diving in such clear water (visibility was around 40m), we briefly had the false impression that we were about to land on a small wreck, rather than a large wreck further away.
A quick check of our instruments clarified the scale of what we were looking at. It was another two minutes before a sense of "ground rush" confirmed that we were about to land on something very big.
The first part of our plan was to carry out a multi-level dive, exploring the forward deeper section with a maximum total dive time of 40 minutes. Switching our rebreathers to a higher oxygen set-point, to balance balancing CNS (central nervous system) exposure against minimum inert gas loading, we beganto orientate ourselves with the wreck and its features.
Keeping to our left the hull, which towered almost 20m above us, we began the long swim towards the bow. Initially visibility was good, and we continued along the port side of the wreck into deeper water. Looking down into the drop-off, the clear deep blue gave way to black, and the water here felt a little colder again.
As she sank, Maidan had torn her way down the reef wall, ripping off super-structure and leaving a long debris trail before finally coming to a halt on a sloping sandy shelf at the edge of a 700m drop-off.
The wreck now lies twisted, its stern upright at 80m, mid-section on its port side and bow upside-down at 120m. Massive tears in the hull enable easy access to the holds, and what remains of the 10,000 tonnes of cargo.
Our HID torches illuminated Maidan's upturned bow, which partially overhangs the ledge at 120m. In 2004, when we first dived this wreck, we followed a trail of debris descending over this ledge to 135m.
Looking up at the sight of this precariously balanced immense ship, silhouetted against the deep blue background, is a profound experience, and one that compels us to return to this site again and again.
Having reached our planned turn-around time of 20 minutes, we signalled to each other and, assisted by a slight current, headed back towards the stern.
Earlier in the dive, we had noticed a large hole in the port side created as the momentum of more than18,000 tonnes of ship and cargo collided with a massive boulder at the edge of the drop-off.
Without this boulder, Maidan would certainly have continued down the reef, disappearing over the ledge to be lost forever.
Arriving back at the hole, we saw that it led into the ship's forward hold and offered easy access through a tear in the hull to the top of the wreck.
At 110m, we entered in single file and ascended carefully past the somewhat disappointing cargo of endless bales of hessian sacks, all tied into flat bundles and still neatly stacked despite the chaos that must have taken place. Research suggests that there were some 10,000 tons of cargo on board. However, other than the bales of hessian, we found nothing and can only assume that the remaining cargo - whatever it was - has rotted away.
The second half of our plan involved a 152m return swim from the bow section all the way to the stern. At 25 minutes we briefly explored the remaining two holds. In terms of content they appeared much the same as the first.
We swam onto the engine and boiler-room, which revealed a tangle of pipework, catwalks and mounds of coal, a wheelbarrow with bricks in it, a red tiled floor - and the telegraph.
Outside, near the bridge area, Adina found an intact glass decanter - quite possibly last used by Maidan's disgraced master, Captain Nicholas Breen.
With only a few minutes of bottom time remaining, we observed the spare prop blade still bolted onto the deck, but continued on our way around the stern to see both the propeller and massive rudder. Each blade of the propeller is larger than an average-sized person; a truly amazing sight.
At 39 minutes' runtime, and having accrued four hours of decompression time, we left Maidan, and turned back to the reef. Because of the shape of the ledge, we continued to ascend in midwater against a very slight current to 70m, where a lone rock lay.
Conveniently, this was our first deep stop, and from there we swam towards the steeper part of the reef, and onwards up to 50m.
Tucking in close to the wall, presenting a low profile and picking a sheltered route, we were able to ascend comfortably, avoiding the effects of the current.
At 45m we flushed the bottom gas of trimix 6/72 out of our breathing loops to replace it with an intermediate 20/30 trimix and further raise our oxygen set-points. The combination maximised our off-gassing efficiency during the ascent.
At 40m, when the reef wall became more vertical, and just over an hour into our dive, we deployed our SMBs as planned to indicate our position to the support team on Hurricane, where a RIB was on standby with drop gases.
Several hours on a pristine reef that resembled a well-stocked tropical fish tank gave us the chance to watch plenty of activity between fish vying for food and survival.
We were visited by large humphead wrasse, tuna and even a whitetip reef shark, making this one of the few dives on which, even after four hours of deco, we were reluctant to leave.
Despite the amazing diversity of marine life and often crystal waters, this is not a dive to be taken lightly.
Currents in the area are unpredictable and can be strong. Winds can whip up the sea in less than an hour, and it would be difficult for dive boats to chase divers who unexpectedly drifted into the blue.
There have already been a number of serious incidents among less experienced technical divers visiting this wreck. With the nearest recompression facility 24 hours away, it is important to plan a dive thoroughly and to have adequate support to cover emergencies.
The steamship Maidan, built by W Hamilton & Co of Glasgow, was launched in March 1902. She was 500ft long with a beam 55ft and, with her four-cylinder quadruple-expansion steam engine, could reach a speed of 14 knots.
Maidan doubled up as a cargo and passenger vessel, operating the Eastern trade routes between Europe and India before and after World War One. In 1914 she was commandeered as a troop-carrier, and transported the first Territorial infantry battalions to be sent to overseas, the Liverpool Scottish Regiment and the Queen's Westminster Rifles.
At the end of the war, of the original 1000 men from the Liverpool Scottish Regiment only 65 remained, the rest having been killed or wounded on the battlefields of France. These survivors became known as "The Maidaners".
Laden with cargo from Calcutta, a series of bungled course corrections led to Maidan foundering on Rocky Island in the early hours of 10 June, 1923. She had been sailing from Port Sudan en route for the Suez Canal under Captain Nicholas Breen, a master with 20 years' experience and, though very professional, apparently too stubborn to accept advice from his first mate when the vessel drifted off course near St John's.
Despite attempts to save her, Maidan sank 17 hours later, without loss of life. Captain Breen was disciplined for causing the vessel's loss, and never mastered a ship again.
Maidan was rediscovered by diver Grant Searancke, guide for the liveaboard Excel, in October 2003, after its captain reported having lost anchors at Rocky Island. Nick Gilbert and Adina Ochert first dived the wreck four months later with the team of Andy Abery, who located the ship's bell (below) on that expedition.
In 2005 the bell was raised by other divers and hidden to protect it from looters, who had already plundered a nearby wreck. Tony Backhurst, who organised the trip aboard Hurricane described here, is working to bring the bell back to the UK for the Liverpool Scottish Regimental museum.
Nick Gilbert and Adina Ochert with a glass decanter found on the Maidan
The massive rudder and propeller
Hurricane's dive deck
RIB support and the liveaboard itself
Surveying the stern