Written by : Derek M. F. Cockbill

Part I, the discovery....

On the 21st March, 1917, the S.S. Maine, a 3600 ton cargo vessel sailed for London's East India dock bound for Philadelphia with a crew of 43 under her master Capt. W. Johnston, carrying a cargo consisting mainly of horsehair, goatskins and seeds.

At 8 a.m. On the 23rd March, a damp and misty morning she was steaming at about ten knots on a zigzag course approximately thirteen miles South of Berry head. As was usual in wartime lookouts were posted on the fo'c'sle and up with the master and 1st officer keeping a sharp lookout from the bridge when, without warning the ship was hit by a torpedo on the port side in number 2 hold which blew off number 2 and 3 hatches, smashed the port gig and partially wrecked the bridge.

Immediately distress signals were made by radio, flags and rockets and although badly damaged with number two hold filing and the ship settling by the head Capt Johnston got the steering gear working and set a course for land under her own steam.

Fortunately assistance was at hand, Liuet. Comdr. P.N. Taylor D.S.C., R.N.R in command of a flotilla of mine sweepers was returning to Devonport after clearing enemy minefields from the Dartmouth approaches when the disabled Maine was sighted about five miles S.S.W. Of Start Point.

The sea was calm so torpedo boat number 99 went alongside to take off most of the crew{fortunately there had been no loss of life.} Hailing Capt Johnston and learning that the ship was, by now, totally disabled, the whole of the mid-ship section being flooded, Liuet. Comdr Taylor offered to tow the vessel in an attempt to beach her either at Hope cove or Bigbury bay at the same time calling Plymouth command asking that rescue tugs be sent to assist.
Towing wires were passed to the stricken ship, the remaining crew handling them as best they could but they continually parted under the heavy strain. About noon a tugboat arrived on the scene to assist. Progress during the morning had been slow, shortly afterwards the Maine’s bulkheads collapsed and at 12:45 p.m. She sank gracefully and upright on an even keel beneath the waves only a mile from shore between bolt head and bolt tail. The master and the remaining crew left the vessel in the ships dingy which had been lowered to deck level to be picked up by L.C. Taylor together with the bridge telescope which floated clear amongst the remaining wreckage.

So ended the career of the S.S. Maine and she might well have passed into history as one of the many forgotten victims of the U boat war had it not been for a committee decision made one evening in the spring of 1961 by the Torbay branch of the British Sub aqua club.

The item on the agenda that was to radically change our routine was the one dealing with the coming seasons diving program. Our diving had followed a rather haphazard program with no particular goals except, perhaps, the location of even better areas for our quest for crab and lobster {my note: the more things change, the more they stay the same} but it was generally felt the aims of the club should be on a slightly higher plane in the future.

After much discussion it was decided to embark on a systematic survey of all wrecks both charted and uncharted within a 20 fathom line along the South Devon coast in order to explore, photograph and record the history of each vessel. The ultimate aim was to obtain a complete record which we hoped one day to publish.

Accordingly we set to work, first we purchased the large scale admiralty charts available for this coastline and noted all wreck marked and began enquiries both locally and from the hydrographic department of the admiralty. The latter proved most helpful, giving us all the information available on all the charted wrecks that might be of interest to us. Meanwhile reports of many other vessels which had perished close inshore and were not charted were unearthed through local sources.

For various reasons we decided to base our operations in Salcombe hiring the 30 foot fishing boat 'Princess' owned by skipper Michael Dornom. We later installed our newly acquired echo sounder bought with monies earned by our salvager work in the Salcombe estuary. From experience we know diving would always be rewarding in this area and in the event of bad weather we could always dive in the estuary. The main reason of course was that the reports that showed the area had taken a heavy toll of wrecked shipping over the years.

As the diving season got underway we pinpointed the many sites we wished to investigate, amongst them was the torpedoed 'railway line wreck' as it was know locally – the vessel we knew to be the Maine. With so many areas to search there seemed to be more enthusiasm for those situated closer inshore where crab and lobster as well as a wreck may be located {old habits die hard}. The cry - ' what about a dive on the railway line wreck' was repeatedly overruled by what were considered to be more rewarding sites. One glorious Sunday morning in July however, we had spent an abortive morning searching the site of the H.M.S. Ramilles, the 74 gun Man o' War which was driven ashore in 1760. As the site is also the haunt of a colony of seal out crustacean hunters were also having a thin time of it and when a suggested move was mooted it was agreed {more in resignation than enthusiasm} that we would have a shot at locating the railway line wreck which lay approximately one mile from where we were diving.

From his trawling experience Mike Dornom knew its rough location {our echo sounder was not yet installed} and approaching the area we could see a patch of disturbed water on an otherwise mirror smooth surface caused by what was obviously a large obstruction disturbing the smooth passage of the tidal stream which was in full ebb. Steaming against the tide and moving ahead of the disturbed water Mike judged our position to be over the wreck and let go the anchor. In a moment the anchor rope stiffened and we knew we had hooked.

As soon as the tide slacked sufficiently to allow a safe dive we entered the water and descended the anchor rope. As we approached the 70 foot mark a dim shape unfolded before our eyes, a complete wreck except for the superstructure lying upright on an even keel, a fabulous sight. We had hooked into the guard rail on the fo'c'sle and after checking to see the rope was not chaffing we began our exploration. Going forward we found the spare anchor in place on the fo'c'sle and descending over the bow found her port and starboard anchors still in the hawse pipes. On the bottom we found various parts of the superstructure {presumably the result of wreckage clearance after the war} but apart from this the wreck was virtually intact.

Back on board after the dive notes were compared and other divers reported various finds including a gun on the poop and a spare propeller on the upper deck. Everyone agreed, without doubt, it was the finest wreck dive to date...

Part II..The purchase

Interest in the Maine immediately flared and nobody talked of any other dive and during the weeks that followed, when weather permitted, we dived it a number of times, each one producing something of interest. Port holes were wrenched from their rusting frames and hauled to the surface, a table fork bearing the steamships company stamp and on one trip... a door lock, on the following week, the key to fit it.

A closer inspection of the spare propeller showed it to be made of iron and had misled us into failing to check sooner the material of the single screw under the counter stern.

During a trip out one Sunday later in the year however, Mike Dornom causally commented on the value of such an item if it were bronze. Surfacing after his dive a couple of hours later, 'Mac; Johns who had dived under the stern reported the marine growth appeared more sparse on the propeller and on scraping was convinced it was not iron. We immediately dived with a hacksaw for a sample and in the gloom under the stern the first cut into the metal revealed a dull gold gleam in the torchlight...it was bronze!

The immediate reaction of those on board was...SALVAGE!!! Here was a propeller, 17 feet in diameter, of considerable but unknown weight, firmly attached to its 19” diameter shaft in water 120 feet deep under the stern a mile from shore. Yet with Torbay BSAC equipped with nothing more lethal than a hacksaw we blithely dreamed of untold wealth as we steamed homeward. Could we have seen at this stage the work, frustrations and crises that were to face us in the coming months the project might well have folded there and then but being blissfully unaware of the difficulties ahead we began our enquiries.

At this stage there were three main avenues to explore: To find the actual owners of the wreck and to make an approach for salvage rights; find the weight and actual value of the propeller; obtain photographs, drawings etc. and any information relating to the vessel which might help any further salvage operations.

We were nearing the end of the 1961 diving season at this time and during the winter months we wrote to many sources in our quest to gather information. This proved to be more of a marathon job than first perceived and it was many letters later we finally ran to earth the Liverpudlian underwriters who still held the subrogation rights for the vessel and whom, after much delay, offered us the salvage rights for a 'nominal figure' of £100.

During this period we also wrote to the ship builders, D&W Henderson and son, Glasgow, whose name we obtained from admiralty records, we learned that the ship building side of their business was would up in 1935 with no records of the vessel preserved. However, being a Glasgow ship, we wrote to the city librarian for information and it was from this we learned the vessel was originally built for the sierra shipping company of Liverpool in 1904/05 and named the Sierra Blanca. She sailed under this flag until 1913 when she was bought for about £30,000 and renamed Maine by the Atlantic transport Company, the owners at the time of her sinking.

Having drawn a blank with her shipbuilders we logically argued that probably the propeller was made in Glasgow so we approached the two largest propeller manufacturers in the city submitting samples of the propeller with the rough dimensions we had requesting information an weight and possible scrap value. Both companies were extremely helpful, confirming the sample was indeed bronze and worth in the region of £110 per ton scrap but the dimensions we had at his time were insufficient for an accurate assessment of it weight which depending upon the design could be anything from 6 to 14 tons.

In spite of intensive enquiries at this stage our efforts to unearth a photograph, drawing or any information regarding the vessel proved futile, although we had some interesting correspondence with the united state lines who are the parent company of the Atlantic transport Company.*

Our protracted correspondence along these lines had brought us to the early spring of 1962 and we felt we had sufficient information to put before the committee to decide on future plans. It was obvious from the minimum weight quoted we had a value of at least £660 and with the salvage rights of £100 we had £560 to play with. Of course much discussion ensued as to the many possible ways and means of achieving our objective but it was unanimously agreed we should 'give it a go'

Of course, club funds could not stand this sort of expense and capital was required immediately to buy the salvage rights so it was decided to raise funds by creating a salvage syndicate issuing £5 shares and limiting these to two per member. In this way the load was spread amongst as many as possible and we were ale to raise the money immediately from the more adventurous and enthusiastic of our members. For the diving operations we decided to call upon the more experienced members of the club for their services as and when required. The cheque was dispatched to the underwriters and the Maine was ours, we were in business.

{my notes: in 1962 the average house price was £3000 in 2010 it was £230,000. Using this unscientific approach the cost of buying the Maine would today be approx £7600, the value of the prop if it came in at the minimum 6 ton would be approx £50,000 so a gross profit of £42,400...not a bad days work....}

Part III... Kerboom!

Although no final decision could be made at this point as to the method of raising and transporting the propeller to dry land we felt that if at all possible it should be salvaged in one piece and we therefore decided to proceed one step at a time. The first was to separate it from the wreck. There seemed to be three ways: by undoing the nut, by cutting through the 17” diameter shaft by torch or by hand or by blasting, after further discussion and more inquiries we decided on the latter.

Now, although we had a working knowledge of explosives we had never tackled a job of this description, it was another matter to accurately assess the requirements to obtain the desired results. Submarine blasting gelatine is the only suitable explosive for working at this depth and a great deal of thought, discussion and inquiry was given to the weight of the charge, the 'making up' and its positioning. It was finally decided to use a 25 Lb necklace charge made up of 4 Oz pills which were threaded onto a length of Cordtex {instantaneous fuse}. On the 15th June, 1962 four divers, Tony Hayward, Neil Howick, Terry Hall and Derek Cockbill left Salcombe onboard 'Princess' to carry out the first major part of the operation. The wreck had already been permanently buoyed with a wore attached to the barrel of the gun on the stern and mooring to this we made our final preparations while waiting for slack water. As soon as the tide eased Tony and Neil dived down with the main charge which was put around the shaft in the aperture between the inside facing of the propeller boss and the stuffing box. Terry and Derek followed down with the Cordtex fed from the boat which was threaded into the main charge to act as a detonator. We all then returned to the boat and a detonator with a length of slow burning fuse supported by a cork float was attached to the Cordtex, the fuse was lit and we backed off. Moments later there was a thump from the depths with a momentary flattening effect on the surface of the water..... the charge had detonated.

We decided to wait for visibility to clear before examining the results but all thoughts of the job in hand were cast to the wind when we suddenly saw stunned fish by the dozen breaking the surface. Throwing off our gear we jumped into the water to collect the fish and during the next quarter of an hour filled three potato baskets. An unexpected bonus...

Anxiety about the job soon returned and donning our gear we descended once again to the deck. Dropping cautiously over the stern we peered onto the gloom, we could see the propeller had a slightly drunken look, it was resting half way along its taper, the securing nut was missing and in the stem post there was a one inch crack. The force of the explosion had sheared the propeller shaft on the outer face of the propeller boss blowing the propeller and securing nut rearward together only to be checked by the stem post which fractured under the impact. The nut with the threaded end of the shaft still in place had dropped to the seabed. The result could not be better, our biggest worry was behind us...

The explosion had also cleared the area of every vestige of marine life and closer examination of the boss revealed the makers mark cast into the metal. It read: Stones Bronze London 1904 440.

Part IV...the lift

Checking Kellys trade directory the following day we found a J. Stone Co. Ltd under propeller manufacturers and wrote immediately to ask if they had any record of this item. A few days later we heard that they had traced it in their records and could confirm its finished weight to be approx. 6 ¼ tons. Moreover, they added that is we were interested in disposing of same they would appreciate the opportunity to put in an offer. To date we had not 'counted our chickens' but now, with the propeller free, we felt in a better position to negotiate a sale. We were therefore delighted when we eventually received an offer of £137 per ton on their lorry on site, saving a fairly hefty transport bill as previously suggested prices varied between £120 and £125 per ton.

Although stones would accept the propeller either broken or whole the expressed a preference for the latter as it would be a more spectacular operation with a greater publicity value, we were determined to raise it intact if humanly possible. To reduce the possibility of fouling during the lift we also decided to clear away the stem post, steering gear and rudder and on four subsequent dives this was achieved using small charges. At the same time the propeller was dropped off the taper and left resting against the severed shaft supported on two blades.

There were three methods considered for raising the screw: Buoyancy, tidal or winch. We gave careful consideration to all three but the main drawbacks of the first two were the high cost of the gear, the need to take the propeller to a suitable crane for loading onto a truck and the time available for what could be a protracted operation with our uncertain weather to contend with.

As Plymouth or Devonport, 14 miles distant, were the only suitable ports the safest and most suitable method of success seemed to be the hire of a suitable vessel capable of winching and supporting this weight and this was the line we decided to pursue.

It was here we had our first major setback. Although we made endless enquiries we met with no success in any quarter including our request for the hire of an admiralty mooring vessel. This vessel would have been ideal, it is capable of lifting 80 tons on the 'horns'. Although we had been turned down initially we felt this might be due to lack of more detailed knowledge of the situation. We telephoned the mooring officer for an appointment to personally explain our plight. Over a pint in a Plymouth pub we had a sympathetic hearing and it was suggested we reapply giving more details and requesting a quotation for the job, both for special operation and 'on passage' i.e. When returning to port and passing over the wreck en route.

While pursuing our inquiries for a suitable vessel we were also endeavouring to obtain a photograph and/or a specification of our vessel. In desperation, since the vessel had strong Liverpool ties we wrote to the Liverpool Echo and the magazine 'Sea breezes' telling them of our activities and requesting information. In August our story appeared in the Echo and three days later we received a photograph and seventeen pencil sketches in a notebook giving full details of the vessel from stern to stem. The article had been read by a Capt. H. J. Chubb, now retired, he had served his apprenticeship aboard her from 1909 to 1913 and made the drawings from memory. These have since been interpreted on the drawing board and Paul Truscott has made a full scale drawing of the vessel which has been most helpful in our subsequent explorations.

Even more remarkable was an airmail letter received from Capt. P. N. Taylor now living in Florida who had read our letter in (the magazine) Sea Breezes. He wrote to inform us it was he who was in command of the flotilla of minesweepers which came to the aid of the Maine at her time of sinking.

While we were awaiting an answer from the admiralty we heard, quite casually, that the 85 foot MFV Universal Dipper, owned by Universal Divers Ltd of Liverpool was completing some work in Paignton and was due to return home. We approached the company with our problem and although they considered it approaching the limit of the vessels capabilities they agreed to help us. It was now December but the weather was still good so we made our preparations for the attempt.

Unfortunately due to various delays the Universal dipper was three days late arriving in Salcombe, with weather forecasts for from optimistic we rendezvoused ant he wreck at 3 pm on the 6th December in a desperate attempt to complete the job before the weather broke. Although we dived and managed to fit a strap to the prop boss and complete the necessary preparations daylight faded before the final shackling could be completed and we returned to Salcombe apprehensively.

The following day we put to sea despite the obviously worsening conditions but returned without further diving as the south westerly winds strengthened to force 6soon becoming a gale. It was an extremely dejected group that gathered at the Fortesque arms in an attempt to improve the outlook. This subsequently proved to be the beginning of the worse spell of weather experienced in Salcombe in living memory. All vessels were port bound for three months, we had missed our chance by one day but that is the way with salvage and the sea. The only bright spell on the horizon was the arrival of a letter from the admiralty reconsidering their previous decision and agreeing to help us in the spring, their quotation : £56 on passage, £156 on special operations, that was more like it.

With winter upon us plans were shelved until March when we decided it was time to contact the dockyard and make preliminary arrangements. We knew the mooring vessel was due in the river Dart to lay racing marks for the naval college in late April or early May and we were anxious to obtain its services on its return journey.*

A new mooring officer, Lieut. Comdr Donald Watts had been appointed since our previous visit and over lunch in the ward room of HMS Drake the full position was discussed in detail and we were grateful for the enthusiasm with which the project was met. One minor bombshell was exploded when we learned tha thte third party insurance cover required by the admiralty which we had reason to assume would be in the region of £25,000 for which we had been quoted £20 through BSAC would now be £200,000. Fortunately we were able to obtain this cover locally for the sum of £15.

We collected a 4” lifting wire and strap we had arranged to hire from the dockyard. We would shackle them to the propeller and lay same on the seabed ready to be buoyed so tha the mooring vessels only task was to lift the wire and winch it in.

The days passed and we heard that a provisional date of the 2nd May was the deadline but the weather which had continued to be foul prevented any diving to lay the lifting wire. With a slight improvement in the week preceding the deadline we resolved that if it were humanly possible we would dive and on Thursday the 25th April Princess once again left Salcombe and headed for the Maine with the lifting wire and four divers aboard, Roy Hawkins, Terry Downes, Geoff Sanders and Derek Cockbill.

As our buoy was swept away by the winter storms our first objective was to re-buoy the wreck, Mike Dornom, with his usual dexterity, quickly located her and the anchor was hooked, Roy and Derek descended the anchor rope to bitter cold and utter blackness at 20 feet. In spite of the powerful lanterns visibility could be measured in inches. Gradually working down to 80 feet we located the anchor which, mercifully, had hooked into a guard rail so that by groping along the ships side the stern was eventually reached. A rope was quickly tied to the bollard and we surfaced. Diving again with one end of a thin wire we dropped over the stern to the prop and shackled the wire through the boss. There was now a wire direct from the Princess to the propeller boss.

It had been decided the mooring vessel would drop a stern anchor some distance astern of the Maine, steam forward to pick up the buoy wire connected to the lifting wire which would be taken aboard and winched up. This plan was put into operation and was running smoothly when suddenly the wind freshened and the Barbastel {mooring vessel} began swinging to starboard. The stern anchor dragged in the soft shingle and the vessels full weight was thrown onto the thin buoy wire which stiffened like a bow string and suddenly parted a splice. The heavy lifting wire, inches from the winch, dropped back into the water and the Barbastel, with nothing holding her, swung further to starboard sweeping the stern buoy from the wreck. We stood helpless and stunned.

With so much at stake the mooring vessel which had taken so much negotiation to organise we felt we must make some effort, however desperate, to retrieve the situation and so, while Roy Hawkins and Derek Cockbill kitted up Mike Dornom relocated the wreck and dropped the anchor. As quickly as possible we descended the anchor rope, much relieved to find greatly improved viz and the anchor fouled close by the snarled lifting wire which was coiled about the upper deck close to the stern. Freeing the anchor and working our way to the stern we ascended with the mooring rope. Princess once again picked up the mooring.

Diving again almost immediately with a thin line, the free end of the heavy lifting line was located and the line secured. Surfacing, we passed the line inboard. With as much weight on the line as we could carry without parting the divers descended again with a heavy rope which was passed through the eye or the cable and returned inboard. Lifting was resumed to the limit if the winches capability. The wire was now close to the surface and we signalled to the Barbastel to throw us a heaving line to which a wire was connected. This was hauled aboard and connected to the main wire. The Barbastel now had the wire and she began heaving in, the securing rope was cut and Princess drifted clear. Tension mounted as we watched the steady progress of the winch taking in the lifting wire over the bow. Suddenly it stopped and a signal as made requesting a diving check to ensure the wore was clear of the wreck. Diving immediately Roy Hawkins descended to the gun and over the stern, no propeller, no wire...

Drifting slowly westwards the Barbastel had dragged the propeller clear. Following its trail 20 yards along the seabed Roy found it gently bumping into the bottom over clear sand. She was completely clear.
Winching was resumed and moments later first one blade and then the whole propeller broke the surface. The culmination of two years of negotiation, frustration and hard work was suspended before our eyes, a sight never to be forgotten by those who had worked and strived so hard to achieve it.

We wrote immediately to Stones telling them of our success and on the 6th June the dockyard crane loaded the screw onto their truck for its final journey to London.

A few days later we were informed of its safe arrival and that consideration was being given to preserving the propeller for exhibition which we are sure is a happier and worthier fate than the scrap yard. Its exact weight of 6 ton 2 cwts. 3 qts was also recorded and our invoice for £840.16.9d requested.

After repaying the loans made by the members to finance the operation the balance will be used on equipment to further our program of wreck location and exploration. We can now afford to be more ambitious as we still have 3,600 tons of salvageable wreck containing valuable non-ferrous metals to be worked at our leisure. So although this is the end of an exciting project, for us it is only the beginning....

Our Address

Torbay BSAC
Unit 0008
Beacon Quay
Torquay
Devon
TQ1 2BG