"WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WRECK DIVES?" The question comes up again and again. Every diver has his or her preferred sites and most weekend wreck-divers are only too happy to conjure up a list of regular haunts special to them.
For me, the USS Illinois, lying in 70m in mid-Channel, is a Top 10 classic. I first dived the wreck almost 10 years ago, and by that time divers had already been enjoying the delights of this WW1 oil tanker for some years. The first divers to explore the wreck had been real pioneers, because three-and-a-half-hour journeys out to sites just didn't happen then.
So what makes a dive on Illinois so special? For starters, there's the fact that she still lies upright and intact. This makes for easy navigation, and being able to identify sections of the wreck readily is a great bonus.
Admittedly, the visibility can be unpredictable, especially on the ebb tide, but the flood brings with it clarity, and I've often swum the decks in ambient light, with no torch needed.
The engine-room is easily accessible and entry from above makes a visit here a safe prospect, not to mention an interesting one. Swimming inside wrecks can be a hazardous pastime, but on Illinois you never seem to be too far from a reliable exit-point.
Inside, the number of corridors, rooms and separate compartments available to explore add to the exhilaration of the dive. The sheer size of the wreck always impresses divers visiting for the first time, too. As the Illinois lies with the tide, if the skipper hooks in at one end a drift back across the wreck when the slack turns really brings the scale home to you.
USS Illinois was a 5225 ton tanker. Completed exactly a year after work commenced in 1912, she was powered by a three-cylinder triple-expansion steam engine and three single-ended Scotch boilers. She was 390ft long, had a beam of 52ft and a draft of 31ft.
During the Great War, Texas Company tankers could be seen ploughing the waters of the world. In 1915 Illinois, along with Georgia and Brabant, were released temporarily from their coasting and put on runs to Britain.
The Texas Company was well-placed to profit from having enough tonnage to move British products, because rates for chartered tankers had risen with increasing demand. It was, however, among the first to suffer from enemy action.
On 18 March, 1917, Illinois was returning to Port Arthur in Texas in ballast. She was north-west of Cherbourg and about 20 miles north of Alderney, in the heart of the English Channel and effectively the centre of a war zone. At 7.45am, a German submarine was spotted about three miles away. The ship's master, HH Iversen, watched it dive and hoped this would be the last they would see of it, but soon UC21 surfaced much closer, and Iversen was under fire.
Shells took out the wireless equipment and penetrated the engine-room, forcing the engineers to shut Illinois down. Iversen ordered his men to the boats. The German commander ordered Iversen's boat to come alongside the U-boat.
What happened next may seem to conflict with the evidence seen by divers of damage to Illinois' starboard quarter that appears to have been caused by a torpedo. Research indicates that several of the crew were replaced by German sailors, who were rowed back to Illinois to place scuttle charges aboard.
We move forward in time to August 1989, and find Skin Deep, a dive boat with a reputation for hard offshore deep wrecking spanning two decades, hooking into a new target 40 nautical miles south of her home berth, Weymouth. At the helm was the late, legendary skipper Andy Smith.
After waiting anxiously for the fast-moving tidal currents indicated by a submerged marker "pill" to ease off, the old-school London / Kingston & Elmbridge divers embarked on a deep dive on one of their biggest unknown targets to date.
"Come slack water we entered the water and descended the shotline in visibility of 40-50ft," says one of the divers, Alan Dunster. "Then, an awesome and fantastic sight, not an upside-down vessel as we had suspected, but an upright, intact ship!
"The captain's grapnel hook, comfortably caught within the forecastle, secured our return. The hookline itself lay over the forecastle, the bow stem and the starboard anchor [housed] being the first sight of the wreck, along with her winches.
"My first of what were to be many visits would see me as far up the wreck as the accommodation block along the starboard gunwale. After 25 years of diving, this rates as the best wreck I've ever dived!"
On return dives, the divers soon discovered what they felt could only be a huge torpedo hole in the wreck's starboard stern quarter.
Fast forward to another August eight years later - it's the bank holiday weekend, and while most scuba charters quietly hug a sheltered cove awaiting a second dive, Skin Deep and Wey Chieftain II have made their way deep into the separation zone between the east- and westbound shipping lanes of the Channel, the busiest waterway in the world.
Today, 23 August, is to be the day the wreck of the Illinois will give up its prized possession. The bell has not been found where it might be expected to be and the divers, a mixed group of Kingston and Starfish Enterprise plus Wey Chieftain regulars, know it is still hiding in the wreckage.
But Portsmouth diver Bob Hughes is destined to drive home later with a new name given him by the deep-wrecking community, and one that will stick - Illinois Bob!
"I had intended to explore the engine-room in greater detail but the shot was between the bow and midships bridge," he wrote in his logbook for that day. "The visibility was not fantastic and, as it turned out, I had moved towards the bow.
"I entered the starboard side of the forecastle, and in among the debris the bell was buried upside-down. A combination of doubt and disbelief at my find at the 10-minute mark of my run time slowed down the recovery. Any casual onlooker would have laughed at my efforts.
"I really could not believe my fortune in having gone straight to the bell, having previously talked about our luck turning aboard Wey Chieftain."
Despite extensive research by Bob Hughes following the recovery of the bell, to date it has still not proved possible to discover who owns the wreck.
At the time of the sinking, the owner was the Texas Company, and its direct successor is Texaco Inc, the multinational corporation based in Delaware, USA. Texaco may have some claim to ownership of the sunken Illinois, but it seems that its records dating back to 1917 are hard to locate, following several relocations.
As the loss occurred under conditions of conflict, it's likely that a war-risk insurer would have been involved, settled a claim for the loss and would consequently have an interest in the wreck. However, neither Texaco, the US Dept of Transport Marine Administration, the UK Dept of Transport nor the UK Receiver of Wreck has any record of this.
Under US law, once insurance is paid out, the original owner cannot pursue a further claim on a wreck. Texaco has not relinquished any property rights to the vessel, but it has no objection to divers visiting it as long as they comply with UK law. It also cautions that claims which may arise from activities in relation to the wreck are the responsibility of those divers.
Divers making the long journey out to the Illinois today will not be disappointed. The wreck rests on a sand and gravel seabed at 70m, 33 nautical miles south of Portland Bill. Other than her supposed torpedo damage, she remains completely intact, sitting on an even keel with her decks reachable at 55m.
Illinois, originally a "three-island" vessel with two decks and two masts, is effectively one of the largest intact wrecks in the mid-Channel area. There is no need to drop to the seabed simply to view the area of a mysterious missing prop. Most of your dive can be carried out on top of the wreck in the shallower levels.
Working forward from the stern, you note that, for reasons unknown, a small section appears to have been broken off or is simply missing. We know from photographs that the Illinois sank bow-first, so the damage was not a result of seabed impact.
The accommodation block can be found at the stern castle, and you can swim freely around the remains of various rooms and corridors. On your exit, you can see where many portholes have fallen onto the decks.
Immediately behind the accommodation block is the ship's huge engine-room, easily accessible by swimming directly over the top of the wreck and dropping through the roof void, which has long since collapsed.
The three-cylinder triple-expansion steam engine is still in position, and you can swim 360¡ around the entire block, following the different gantry walkways once used by the crew. On the sides of the engine are various pipeworks that lead to intricate oil boxes of various sizes.
On each deck level within the engine-room are several rooms to explore, all with their hull sides intact.
As you leave the stern castle, you immediately notice that huge hole in the starboard side, created by what we believe was a torpedo. The damage appears too extensive for scuttle charges alone, and penetrates right through the ship and into the port hull.
Scuttles may have been placed aboard, but perhaps they didn't have the desired effect. Did UC21 slam a torpedo into Illinois to finish the vessel off? Had the crew by then rowed to a distance, or been in a position where they could not observe such actions?
Further evidence in support of this theory is that the damage is within the area of the cargo storage tanks, an unlikely place to plant charges. Normal practice would have been to put them at the lower reaches of locations such as the engine/boiler-room or pumphouse.
Located in the same damaged area is the stern mast, which now lies along the wreck in front of the engine-room. Continuing along the decks, you swim across ladders leading to different deck levels, as well as debris from the now-collapsing amidships castle and a mass of huge pipework with large flanges.
Along the decks, several winches become obvious, as do mooring bollards still fixed securely in position. The structural frame of a small pumphouse remains intact, as does its covered skylight. It is relatively easy to locate the once-elevated bridge area, and to the starboard side the diver will see a spare prop still secured fast.
Over the years, the bridge has collapsed, its structure and framework now forming a W-shape. You can swim under and through towards the bow. As you approach the raised forecastle level, you are confronted by the huge anchor winch and machinery. As the tide picks up, you can drift back across the site to use those last valuable minutes of bottom time to best advantage.
With visibility variable (average 8m) and such a large wreck to explore, many divers return to explore previously uncovered areas. Alternatively, the Illinois makes for one of the better scooter dives in British waters, allowing you to cover the entire wreck in a single dive.
Fortunately, all of Illinois' American crew survived their ordeal, and were picked up some time later by the Alderney pilot's boat.
As the Illinois is one of the best wreck dives in the English Channel, its exact position has been withheld here on request. The Diver Guide to Weymouth & Portland describes the wreck as a "Skin Deep special" and Ian Taylor, who is now skipper of the boat, will make the journey out to the wreck with experienced divers (www.skindeepdiving.co.uk). Graham Knott, skipper of Wey Chieftain II, will also run charters to the site (www.wey-chieftain.co.uk).
A diver pauses as he swims across the accommodation block
"Illinois" Bob Hughes with the bell he recovered from the wreck in August 1997
Leigh Bishop and Christina Campbell with an engine room lamp
Bob Hughes holds his prize recovery from the Illinois
Photographs of the sinking of USS Illinois taken from UC21 were circulated throughout Europe as propaganda evidence of the effectiveness of German U-boats. The nationality of the target could not have been clearer, as she was heavily decorated with the stars and stripes, with "USA" in large letters on the side of the ship. The USA would declare war on the central powers on 6 April that year.
Bridge telegraph recovered by Kingston diver Dick Tye.
KEY TO ILLUSTRATION BELOW
1 Stern winching gear
2 Top of triple-expansion engine
3 Ladders lead to deep within the wreck
4 A port-side ladder leading to the well deck from the upper accommodation level
5 A small blockhouse centred across the port well deck
6 Mooring bollards located on the port well deck, aft of the amidships bridge section
7 Spare prop blade located under the collapsed bridge
8 Main bow anchor winch above the forecastle
9 Anchor chains and machinery
10 Tip of the deck bow above the forecastle
11 Intact housed anchor located on the starboard bow
12 Open deck hatch
13 Hawser on port side
14 Small pumping room accessed from blockhouse aft of the bridge
15 Machinery located as the diver drops into the well deck
16 Pump stations deep inside the wreck
17 Inside the accommodation block
18 The prop appears missing though the shaft remains intact