An extract from ‘DIVER’ magazine, January 1984, courtesy of Terry Blackmore.
What they were after, it turned out, was the wreck’s second giant prop. This is how they got it – in a report by Bill Bunting.
I didn’t know what they were up to when Brendan Jaffa of Torquay BSAC asked if I could take a group of divers out on Likely Lad for an evening dive on the wreck of the SS Maine. They asked to be put down on the stern end – a normal request.
Over the next few months we dived the Maine again and again - always on the stern! My suspicions were confirmed on the third dive when they went over the side with cameras, tapes and note pads. Brendan then felt obliged to let me in on his secret: they were going to lift the spare propeller!
Although as far as I was concerned, it started with that dive in early April, the planning and preparations were all carried out long before. Torquay BS-AC had purchased the Maine back in the early sixties, shortly after Derek Cockbill and his band had first dived on her. The ship’s main bronze propeller was raised and sold in 1963 by Derek and his team, an exploit well documented in DIVER.
The reason for raising the spare propeller, of cast iron, was obviously not financial and originally came about as an idea that was “thrown in” to boost somewhat sagging interest in the branch. As Brendan said, they owned the Maine and really ought to do something with it. Initially the talk was of selling the propeller for scrap, though at £10 to £14 per ton it would not cover the cost of the lift.
Much debate followed on whether the project would financially break the branch. Then came a breakthrough.
A new shopping centre was under construction in Paignton and the developers, Centros Properties Ltd, were planning a central feature - probably a modern sculpture. A casual inquiry as to whether they would be interested in a genuine, very large ship’s propeller that had not seen the light of day for 66 years received a favourable reply and eventually a budget was agreed.
But how to set about it? How much did the propeller weigh? The answer to the second question no one really knew. According to records of the ship, the prop was the same size as the bronze one. A reconnaissance dive established this to be so: 7ft 8in blade length, 2.5ft boss diameter and 27ins through the boss. The bronze prop we knew weighed 6.15 tons, but as the composition of the bronze was not known, it was impossible to evaluate the weight by comparison. The nearest estimate was between 4.5 tons and 6.5 tons.
When the original propeller was raised it was simply winched up by a salvage vessel. For our project, however, this proved uneconomical. No local boat had the necessary lifting capacity, and it was finally decided to use lifting bags.
After several more dives , clearing the site, fixing chains and attaching replacement marker buoys, which kept mysteriously disappearing, the date for the lift was set for Friday September 30, at the bottom of neap tides, thus giving the longest period of slack water. The fishing vessel LBP, in the extremely able hands of Bob Login and his son Mark, was hired to carry the compressor and make the tow back to Salcombe. Mike Glover of BSoUP was enlisted to make a photographic record of the event and Likely Lad was to be diver support vessel, photographic base and, eventually, floating canteen.
It was planned to make the lift during low water slack, thus making the tow back with the tide. However, due to misunderstandings, the compressor was not loaded on to LBP in time and we had to work the slack after high water and the tow back against the tide, making the trip considerably longer. The wind, from the South-East, was blowing at around 3 to 4, causing a fair chop, and fog reduced visibility to threequarters of a mile, completely obliterating the land.
Nevertheless, everything was ready, and we pushed on in the hope that the wind would not freshen, and the fog would lift. Postponement would have meant a fortnight delay until the next neap tides.
At the site we found the marker buoys had yet again disappeared and the fog masking the land rendered the transits useless. By using Likely Lad’s radar and sonar I managed to locate the wreck and eventually got a shot in within two feet of the prop’s boss.
The first pair of divers went down and attached a stout rope to the propeller. This rope was to serve the dual purpose of a mooring for LBP and later a tow line when the propeller came up. On surfacing, Brendan and Frank Hainsworth reported that the visibility was two to three metres, but because of their activities was now down to one metre or less. Mike and I looked at each other with despair, both realising that photography, at least on the bottom, was out.
Phil Jones and Terry Blackmore dived next and attached the huge 5-ton lifting-bag to the chain previously threaded through the boss, with a 10ft wire strop to enable the bag to clear the wreck.
The two one-ton bags were attached by webbing strops. These two smaller bags were then inflated, and enough air pumped into the big one to support its weight.
Suddenly – just as the tide was beginning to run - the mooring line parted! We stood watching, worried and helpless, realising that the only thing holding LBP to the prop was the 200ft of compressor hose, and 140ft of that was already paid out.
Bob Login responded rapidly to the situation and with great skill, slowly and gently manoeuvred his vessel back on station and held it there, against wind and tide, for the remainder of the lifting operation. At no time was any undue stress put upon the hose and we were very fortunate to have Bob's ability.
This minor crisis over, Brendan dived again, checked the fastenings and shackles, turned on the air tap on the five-ton bag, and left the water. With all divers back on the boats, filling of the bag continued until great clouds of surfacing bubbles indicated that it was full. The compressor was shut off, but there was no sign of anything surfacing.
The propeller, lying on the deck of the Maine, had two of its blades partially obstructed by the poop deck structure. Although the lifting chain had been attached with the intention of dragging the propeller clear, there was no guarantee that it would move in the required direction or not snag somehow on the poop deck.
The divers and crew leaned far out over the starboard rails, straining their eyes into the gloomy sea when, with a great rush of escaping air, the bags burst through the surface on the port side! A diver quickly ascertained that the prop was up and hanging 10m below the surface.
At last Mike and I could get in and get some photos. What an impressive sight met our eyes. The vis was between three and four metres and there, in the gloom, was this huge, perfect propeller swinging gently in the swells.
The sheer massiveness defies description. I recall an overwhelming sense of joy and awe. (Narked at 10m?). We shot off a roll of film each, frustrated by the poor vis.
While we were busy the Torbay divers were equally occupied, fixing a tow line as well as a marker buoy in case we dropped the prop.
Dusk was falling rapidly as we started the two and a half mile tow to Stairhole Bay at 4:30 PM. Fortunately the surface chop had subsided with the turning tide and there was now just a long low swell. The fog thinned slightly but still continued to restrict surface visibility severely. Likely Lad rode ahead, continually reporting the depth to LBP over the VHF.
At 8:15 PM the tow line parted but was soon picked up again and made secure. The tow continued until our little convoy crept into Stairhole Bay where the prop touched bottom in 10m at 9:30 PM.
In complete darkness the Torbay men quickly deflated and detached the lifting-bags while Mike shot another roll of film. We finally docked in Salcombe at around midnight , tired but happy that the first stage had been successfully completed.
The following Thursday (now spring tides) saw us in the bay at low water with the Salcombe Harbour Barge to make what we thought would be the final lift and tow into Salcombe. Across the entrance to the harbour is the notorious Bar which has a depth of 0.6m at chart datum. At high water on this day the depth over the bar was predicted at 5.9 metres. In any event the propeller would have to be lifted to a maximum depth of 3.5m to enable us to get alongside the quay for craning out.
The Harbour Master assured us that the barge could lift six-tons-plus and it was planned to winch the prop up vertically until the boss was level with the barge, leaving one blade projecting upwards and the opposite blade hanging down, thus giving a maximum depth of around three metres. This plan was fine except for one small detail - the winch simply could not take it.
By now low water had passed, so we settled for winching and securing the probe as high as possible and proceeding as far as we could. With the Harbour Launch pushing and Likely Lad towing we manipulated the barge and its precious load out of the bay and on course towards the harbour.
The wind was now freshening with some heavy swells building, making it heavy, slow going. Likely Lad, with her shallow draft and relative lightness, was struggling to maintain course when the fishing vessel Marion Claire, heading home, took up the tow. We now made better progress and soon the propeller bumped lightly against the Bar.
The divers went in again and with a combination of winching and rising tide we cleared the Bar. By now, clearances had become so critical that we dropped talking in metres and were working in good old reliable feet.
Once over the Bar, having cleared by 1 foot, we were into deeper, calm water and the tow became a much easier job. It was now apparent though that we would not get alongside the quay this night and therefore we proceeded to East Portlemouth Beach where the prop touched bottom at 14ft and was cast off for the night.
The following day Brendan, Rob, Phil and I assembled at low water. Because of the big spring tides the propeller was now exposed on the beach. Quite a moment, the first it had broken surface since March 23, 1917.
We set to, clearing all cables, buoys and chains to prepare for the last of the final lifts. We fixed two 2-legged chains around each of the four blade roots, coming to a central lifting point over the boss. We then attached a strop to the extremity of each of the blades to enable us to level off the prop once it was off the bottom.
Stan, on the Harbour Barge, told us that he drew 4 feet of water and the boss stood 3 feet high. As soon as the rising tide gave us seven feet, the barge moved in, winched on the central point and levelled off with the strops.
All we had to do now was to wait for the water and crossed the harbour to the quay. All went smoothly and the propeller was craned out at 7 PM. We now discovered why the barge had been unable to lift it: the crane operator informed us that it weighed well over seven tons.
Immediately, the high-pressure water jets were turned on, blasting great lumps of crud in all directions (it was probably this accumulation of growth that accounted for the difference in weight) until the clean, bare metal showed through. A coating of Fertan was immediately applied and we all went home at one o'clock.
The propeller has now been transported to Stavertons Yard at Totnes and, hopefully, will soon stand proud and majestic in Paignton for all to see. [The propeller was bought by a farmer when they revamped the Victoria Shopping Centre and is now leaning on a tree near the entrance to a farm in Kingsteignton].
Torbay divers Preparatory divers: Brendan Jaffa, Robert Pannell, Mary Jaffa, Robert Johnson, Claire Johnson, Ian Christie, Frank Hainsworth, Mike Coombes, Phil Jones, Dave Millin, Ray Butler, Dave Marks, Dave Lister, Reid Fleming, Carol Braudie, Sue Griffiths. Lift divers: Terry Blackmore, Phil Jones, Brendan Jaffa, Frank Hainsworth, Reid Fleming (equipment). Barge divers: Brendan Jaffa, Phil Jones, Bill Bunting, Frank Hainsworth, Rob Pannell.
Acknowledgements MV Likely Lad. Kingsbridge Watersports. MFV LBP. Bob Login, Mark and crew. Lifting bags: J W Automarine Ltd. Compressor: Cuming Plant Hire. Photography: Mike Glover. Archives and advice: Derek Cockbill and others. The Harbour Master and staff, Salcombe Harbour. Skipper and crew MFV Marion Claire. Winters Boat Yard Salcombe. Craning services: Cumming Crane Hire Ltd. Preservation: Fertan Ltd. Water jets: Aqua Power Cleaners Ltd. Chains and wire strops: Cosalt Ltd. Architects, contractors and developers: Victoria Shopping Centre, Paignton.
[Photo from Facebook page 'Paignton in pictures'].