DROPPING THROUGH THE CLEAR ATLANTIC, I first glanced at my depth gauge as I swept past the 100m mark. Below, I could just make out a flashing strobe. Fine-tuning my buoyancy, I arrived at 125m. Drop time had been five minutes, and now I was looking at the Egypt. The thought that gold lay somewhere within the wreckage would be enough to fire up any adrenalin junkie.
I focused on my task, to capture as many images as I could in 20 minutes. I made my way along the inside edge of the port hull. Far behind me, I could make out a torch glow. Geraint and Robin, wearing rebreathers, were exploring the area of salvage.
A row of internal portholes disappearing into the distant darkness looked a promising image, but without sophisticated lighting I would have to write that one off. I focused instead on a lone window that was swinging contentedly in the flow.
Tales of shipwrecks laden with treasure are guaranteed to fire a diver's imagination. There can be few lost treasures that will remain inaccessible to man forever, but there are those that take vast reserves of courage and ingenuity to recover.
That was the case with the gold and silver from the Egypt. Almost any book about treasure will include this elegant 500ft Edwardian passenger liner of just under 8000 tons. Launched by Caird & Co Ltd of Greenock, it was owned by the P&O Steam Navigational Co and was the third of the five India-class ships that made up its last single-screw passenger liners.
The Egypt's maiden voyage was to Bombay in September 1897, and she spent most of her early days on the Australian run. From1910 she cruised the Mediterranean, and in 1915 entered government service as a hospital ship, carrying up to 460 patients at a time through the war years.
On 19 May, 1922, the Egypt left Tilbury bound for Bombay. She made her way through the Channel and turned south into the Bay of Biscay. Three days into her journey and some 25 miles off the French island of Ushant, she encountered fog so dense she almost came to a standstill.
Vulnerable on a main trading route, the Egypt had littlechoice but to make slow headway while sounding her whistle. But at 7pm she was rammed by the French cargo steamer Seine, its bows strengthened to deal with Baltic ice.
The Egypt heeled over and sank within 20 minutes, with 86 lives lost. And the liner might have been forgotten had she not been carrying some 10 tons of silver and 5 tons of gold bars, plus many thousands of sovereigns.
In 1922 this cargo's value was estimated at £1.054m. Almost 80 years on, that's equivalent to more than £36m! Trouble was, the wreck now lay at the bottom of the Atlantic at 125m, more than twice the depth any diver of the time had plumbed.
The underwriters had to write off the cargo. That was before Giovanni Quaglia, an Italian who ran a cutting-edge salvage company called Sorima, took on the mission of recovering the bullion on behalf of Lloyds insurers.
In August 1930 Quaglia used the traditional method of towing a cable suspended between two vessels over the seabed to locate the wreck, which lay upright on an even keel. The strongroom containing the bullion was a narrow chamber 7m long, three deck-levels down at the bottom of the ship.
enter the iron man
Quaglia was depending on an "Iron Man", a half-ton armoured diving suit that could be lowered to the wreck as an observation chamber. The diver would use a phone link to direct operations carried out from the salvage vessel Artiglio, with the surface team guiding explosives and steel grabs into place using cranes and winches.
For two years the team slowly tore its way through the wreck. These were the Depression years, and Quaglia's personal fortune followed Sorima's working capital into the undertaking. At one stage work had to stop while he sought more capital.
But in June 1932 the first gold was recovered, and by the end of the month a pile of ingots and coins had been amassed.
Quaglia was given a hero's welcome by Lloyds in London, and newspapers around the world ran the story, sharing with their intrigued readers the salvors' progress through illustrated reports.
Each season until 1935 Sorima returned to the wreck, and recovered an estimated 95 per cent of the treasure. A mere 17 gold bars, 30 silver ingots and 14,929 sovereigns were unaccounted for.
The operation is still regarded in marine-recovery circles as one of the greatest salvage feats of all time, and Seventy Fathoms Deep and The Egypt's Gold, two rare books by Times journalist David Scott written at the time, tell the whole incredible story.
seven on the wreck
For the Starfish Enterprise deep-diving team, an exploration attempt on the Egypt was a serious undertaking. The success of previous Starfish expeditions had been based on team effort, with safety the core consideration, so Egypt 2001 expedition leader Chris Hutchison had plenty to think about.
Chris, front man of the ground-breaking Jutland expeditions over the past two years, also organises the team's Channel wreck-diving programme and has an impressive CV of pioneering wreck exploration. He planned to use a similar approach to that employed on the 1998 Britannic dives with, in this case, no more than seven divers hitting the wreck at any one time, while the rest concentrated on safety duties. The success of the operation would depend largely on the weather.
The Starfish team was using Deep Blue Diving's Loyal Watcher, a 24m former-Royal Navy fleet tender and now a full-blown expedition vessel, with a range of more than 2500 miles. It can stand the worst conditions - the crew say bad weather would probably defeat them well before their ship gave in!
Thirteen divers and five crew left Plymouth in search of the Egypt at the end of June. Ushant is famous for images of waves crashing against its lighthouse, and a previous Starfish attempt on the wreck had already been entered in the bad-weather file, but on this occasion the Atlantic looked promising.
We travelled overnight and sheltered among the islands for a day to prepare equipment, boost final gas mixes and assemble our decompression station and numerous safety droplines.
The next day skipper Steve Wright succeeded in locating the wreck and David Wilkins and Richie Stevenson, tasked with fixing the grapnel, became the first team-members to set eyes on the Egypt. The shotline, as it turned out, had cosily draped itself into a trawl-net suspended off the tip of the bow. On the second day Steve would succeed in dropping the grapnel just metres away from that same point.
Visibility was exceptional, far beyond a lamp's beam. When asked about it on their return, the first divers down said: "How far do you want to see?"
They knew they were on the Egypt because Richie had recovered porcelain displaying the P&O shipping crest. David's monitor reading for his Cis-Lunar rebreather indicated that he had reached the maximum depth limit for which he had been trained - 125m. They had been expecting to hit the deck at 110 to 115m, but they hit bottom, so 70 fathoms was spot on!
home to big conger
That day seven divers explored the upright bow. It helped that the wreck was not heavily encrusted with marine growth, because its features were easily distinguishable.
We knew from commercial reports that the Egypt lay upright with a section missing, courtesy of the Sorima project. We had also heard that it was home to some extremely big conger, and several took considerable interest in our presence.
We were making good progress along the very intact foredeck when the wreck suddenly dropped away to seabed level. The port side of the hull remained intact, but all the interior deck levels had broken away.
Looking up from the seabed, what remained, suspended of its own free-will, was a bellied hull displaying the inner sides of the portholes. These were all complete with drip-trays and square-fastening dogs, a trademark of P&O liners such as could be seen on the popular Moldavia wreck. Several appeared damaged, perhaps due to the salvage work.
As our eyes settled on each dive, ambient light was good enough to let us see the upper outline of the wreck from the seabed, which was made up of clean sand and pebble. This no doubt contributed to the good visibility.
It was difficult from the bow to find any traces of the bridge, but past where it should have been the deck dropped a level, with a cargo hold lying just beyond. The hatch-combings of the hold appeared intact, as were small oblong brass windows alongside.
Beyond this hold, the wreck broke down. Geraint Ffoulkes-Jones swam on for some distance, and reported no change in its character. On the dropped deck level was an unusual sight - a spare prop-blade, lying upright and intact.
On the far port side at this point we found the lamp locker. Several lamps could be seen, showing their age like the compartment walls, which had begun to rot and collapse.
plates and a porthole
Central to this deck level was a companionway leading back towards the bow. Finning along this passage, now totally within the wreck, we could see rooms leading off either side.
Some were obviously sanitary areas containing rust-stained and broken ceramics, others cabins with their contents slumped to the floors. In several rooms, large amounts of crockery were distinguishable. There were no signs of any gold, silver or coins, but apart from Richie's plates a porthole was recovered for identification purposes. After the initial dives we established that the wreck did not quite lie across the tide but more NNE by SSW, its bow at the far north-west end of the site.
When your contents-gauge needle moves with every breath you take, you know time is of the essence. Maximum bottom time for those on open-circuit was no more than 20 minutes.
Convinced that he was carrying enough gas in his twin 20 litre tanks, Chris Hutchison was forcefully reminded of his depth when, 10 minutes into his dive, he found that he apparently still had 230 bar left. In fact the water pressure was so great that the glass of the gauge had forced itself against the needle and jammed it. If he returns to dive the Egypt, Chris has promised to treat himself to an oil-filled gauge!
Christina Campbell set a new record for the deepest wreck to be visited by a female, one she originally set on the Britannic. She insists that she's not in the game to claim records or be the first there - like the lads, she simply enjoys exploring wrecks. "It just so happens that some of them are a little deep," she says.
After several days in the Atlantic, Loyal Watcher headed home. Bad weather was approaching, and we had day-jobs to go to. With the foundation laid, we're planning a return visit to the Egypt in search of that remaining treasure.
the remains of the lamp-locker within the ship, where the partition walls are deteriorating rapidly
Mooring bollards found on the foredeck of Egypt
This spare prop-blade was an unusual sight upright on the bow decking
an intact hatch combing alongside a brass skylight window
Typical P&O portholes on the interior of the Egypt's port hull
A small head to the starboard side of the forecastle
Preparing to dive on the Egypt
Paul Kent and expedition leader Chris Hutchison
Richie Stevenson with the P&O plates he recovered, and fellow team-member Alex Vassallo, being cooled in the Atlantic heat
Geraint Ffoulkes-Jones and Leigh Bishop with a P&O porthole recovered from the wreck
Bob Hughes and wreck depth record-holder Christina Campbell
the wreck was home to some large ling like this one, as well as conger
|THE GAS MENU|
Divers on the Egypt chose to dive with either twin 15,18 or 20 litre-based open-circuit configurations or closed-circuit rebreathers (CCR).
Open-circuit divers breathed a bottom mix of heliair (helium and air) 9/57, giving a target END (Equivalent Narcotic Depth) of 42-44m for the expected 110-115m to the upper part of the Egypt. Heliair - as opposed to trimix with an optimised ppO2 - gave some flexibility to the MOD (Maximum Operating Depth), which was fortunate when the divers found themselves at 127m!
The Starfish Enterprise team prefers lower ppO2s at depth, to avoid potential problems when the workload is high and to keep the CNS loading down. This allows it to be boosted later, when it is most beneficial for deco and the divers are under observation. Total CNS loading was a maximum 160 per cent.
The first stops were at either 81 or 78m on bottom mix, depending on exploration time. At 54m divers switched to the first decompression gas - trimix 25/20 (25 per cent oxygen, 20 per cent helium, the balance nitrogen). Nitrox 50 was breathed from 21m to 6m, where another switch to pure oxygen was made, with a five-minute break on trimix 25/20 every 20 minutes.
Had the divers originally known that the Egypt was at 125m, a stronger helium-based bottom mix would have been selected, with the trimix 25/20 replaced by two intermediate decompression trimixes.
Buddy Inspiration rebreather divers used a diluent of 7/67, giving an END of 30-35m for the 110-125m depth range. They were run with a fixed ppO2 of 1.3 until the 6m stop, where it was kept higher manually. From 6m upwards, stage-cylinders were used to take a five-minute air break every 20 minutes, counted as part of the deco schedule.
Side-mounted 7 litre cylinders of 13/55 trimix bottom bail-out, and in some cases a 50 per cent nitrox deco bail-out, were carried. This would provide enough gas to overcome any problem but a total CCR loop flood, in which unlikely situation a CCR buddy pair would have enough gas for an open-circuit ascent.
Each rebreather diver ran an 18 minutes' bottom time, giving run-times of just over three hours.
All deco schedules followed Gordon Henderson's DD Plan V2.12, with gradient factors for open-circuit set to 25 and 75 per cent, and for CCR 20 and 85 per cent.
The deep-support diver carried 10 litre side-mounts of trimix 25/20 and 50 per cent nitrox and would meet the divers arriving back at the deco-station breakaway point at 45m. CCRs were used for this task so that none of the spare gas was required for the support divers' own deco schedule.
The shallow support diver carried 10 litre side-mounts of oxygen and 50 per cent nitrox and would meet the divers at 12-15m. Two 12 litre cylinders of oxygen with double take-offs were also staged on the station.
Three additional 30m emergency droplines were available on the support boats, each with 10 litres of oxygen and 50 per cent nitrox fixed at 6m and 21m respectively, with a standby support diver to ensure correct delivery and provide any gas for stops deeper than 21m.