Scapa Flow – August 2021

After having our original trip to Scapa Flow cancelled the day before we left in 2020 and deciding not to go on the re-organised trip we weren’t expecting to be on this one. But when Alan got in touch to say a few had dropped out we decided to take the places…. and by the end of it were very glad we did.

We set off 8 o’clock Friday morning and with a couple of stops along the way arrived at Thurso Premier Inn eleven long, long hours later….. so just time for dinner and bed. Then up for breakfast at seven followed by a short drive to Scrabster to meet the others on the early Ferry.

After a pleasant hour and a half on the Northlink Ferry, passing the impressive Old Man of Hoy along the way, we arrived at Stromness for 10am. Bob Anderson and his crew, Teresa, Zoe and Godfrey were ready for us, so just the small matter of loading all the kit into bags to be lowered down to the deck by the boats crane then handballing all the non-diving gear down into the passenger berths.

Bob’s boat, Clasina, is big compared to other boats running dive trips in the area and very well equipped. The six cabins in the passenger area each had two large bunks and just enough room to move around. We were lucky enough to have space under the lower bunk to store bags etc which was a big help. On deck, there is a large undercover area for kitting up / hanging suits, a large open area with benches and storage bins for each person’s gear and two toilet shower rooms. To one side of the desk is and opening gateway with a short drop to get into the water with a lift alongside to get out. The main bridge area has a further toilet shower room, two tables with enough room for everyone to sit down together and a full size range for cooking and keeping warm after diving in the lovely Scottish Summer.

As this was our first trip to Orkney, after a quick walk around Stromness to get our bearings and a coffee we went off for a look round the Ring of Brodgar, a large Neolithic stone circle a few miles outside Stromness. By the time we got back the rest of the group had arrived on the later ferry and got their gear stowed away.  After Covid not everywhere in Orkney had opened again and there was a local festival on that day but fortunately Martin had pre booked tables at the Ferry Hotel for the first two evening meals. The food was great but it had been a long couple of days so we headed off to bed after a few drinks, only to be woken a few hours later by the industrial firework display being set off a few hundred yards away closely followed by the local pipers getting stuck in.

Next day was supposed to be a seven o’clock start but the first Northlink ferry of the day gets warmed up at five thirty and only being about a hundred yards away was pretty difficult to sleep through. Anyway, after breakfast onboard we got underway and had our first briefing from Bob. This and all the other briefings he gave were excellent. He laid out all the history of the sites, what to look out for, the best routes for us first timers and lots of other detail for the more experienced. All this mixed in with his unique sense of humour made for a great start to each dive. Bob had laid out a plan of dives for the first few days with the end of the week left open for us to decide where we wanted to go.

The first dive was the SMS Dresden, a fairly intact light cruiser lying in 25m at the prow dropping to 38m at the stern. We got kitted up and in we went. Down the shot to a davit midship. Bob had suggested following a route forward from this past the bridge and armoured control tower, mast and on to the forward capstans. We headed off in this direction but with this being our first time mixed with the sheer scale of the ship and the fact my leg was filling with water, would be lying if I really identified much. We did reach the bow and came back up this and followed the hull hoping to find our way back to the shot again but no luck. So sent up an smb and came back up. The boat was waiting, and the lift was amazing. Back onboard there were plenty of moans about the vis but we thought it was pretty good…. must have been at least 5m.

After bailing out my suit I found a hole in the boot but there was not much I could do about that. Hung everything up to dry and Zoe kindly put my under suit in the dryer over lunch. We tied up at Lyness, the old naval base, for lunch. Unfortunately, the museum there was closed for renovations but there was still a fair bit of history to look at. Whilst we were having lunch the crew took details of what gas was wanted for the next dive and started filling the bottles. Lunch was home made soup and fresh baked bread. Really good. Zoe’s cooking over the week will be responsible for hours of exercise over the next few months to try to loose some of the weight gained!

After lunch we headed out again and had another briefing. The afternoon dive was the SMS Karlsruhe, another light cruiser lying on her starboard side in 25m. The shot this time came down just behind where the bridge used to be. This wreck is more of a jumble and can’t remember seeing the control tower but did find one of the huge 5.9 inch guns and forward from that the capstan with the anchor chains still wrapped around. We really couldn’t make anything else out so headed up the hull again to try and find the shot before my leg filled up again. No sign of the shot so back up with a bag again.

After the dive it was back to Stromness. My undersuit had been in the dryer again and once back in port I took my suit up to the Red Shed for an overnight repair, along with the Major to get a zip looked at and Gail to get a spare suit fixed. Andy had brought his bike so set off for a bike ride.

The evening meal that night was back at the Ferry. Again, really good, with most of us having the lamb after seeing it the night before. For us it was another early night.

After managing to get back to sleep for a bit after the five thirty ferry alarm was up for seven to find all the suits had been returned already. The majors zip hadn’t been done but only because they couldn’t get in touch to check if he wanted it replaced. Absolutely fantastic service, wish we had something like that at home.

After breakfast another brief, this dive was going to be the SMS Coln. Another light cruiser and sister ship to SMS Dresden. She was a bit deeper at 36m. This time Martin and Andy offered to lead the way to make sure we saw the main bits of Bob’s suggested tourist route and thanks to them we did. The bridge and mast followed by the armoured control tower. Very distinctive when you know what your looking at. Skylights and deck hatches and on to the capstans and huge anchor chains still wrapped around and disappearing into the wreck. We left Martin and Andy here and set off up the bow and headed back towards the shot. Another miss followed by a close call with a sticky reel but we eventually got back up top.

Back to Lyness for another amazing Zoe lunch then an hour or two free time. Some of us went up to the Naval cemetery and others up to the abandoned Naval headquarters at the top of the hill.

The afternoon dive was the F2 and YC21 barge, not far from Lyness. The F2 was a WW2 Germain escort boat that sank in a storm in 1946 and YC21 a salvage barge that went down in another storm in 1968 whist working on the F2. Both were in about 16m but there was going to be some run…. We got onto the F2 ok but have to say it just looked like a scrap yard. We swam round the wreckage field for about 20 minutes until we found the rope that is still connected to the YC21. It was a hard swim over following the rope with the current running across and by the time we got the barge and swam round out the current we had both had enough and came up the shot on the barge bow. It’s a shame as everyone else seemed to agree the best bits were the salvaged items still in the barge!

After the diving it was back to Stromness, this time for dinner onboard. Zoe had made us an cracking curry, complete with naan bread, poppadums’ and all the trimmings.  After a few drinks onboard we went for a walk past the end of town to the headland that some of the others had recommended. It was well worth it with superb views out over the channel the ferry uses and across the bay.

Tuesday morning the weather was very overcast but nearly managed to sleep through the ferry starting up. Out of port for eight again and off to the SMS Brummer this time. A mine laying light cruiser lining on her side in about 36m. I took a wrong turn from the shot but we managed to get back on track. It was noticeably darker on this wreck and the vis wasn’t as good as the other wrecks so not as easy to pick things out. But we did see the anchor chain and control tower with one of the big guns underneath as well as the famous brass bridge railings. Also, Andy happened to be passing at one point and showed us the search light iris blades which we would probably have missed. This time we found the shot and made our way back up.

After lunch we headed off to Pan Hope on the east side of Flotta to dive on the U-Boat UB116. Kate decided to take the afternoon off, so I went in with Ray. As the boat was blown up for salvage there was not much recognisable, but the vis was amazing, at least 10m. We did see ballast tanks and off the end of the wreck following a line for twenty odd meters was a large and recognisable part of the conning tower. There was plenty of life around the wreck and was sorry when it was time to go up.    

That evening we tied up in Burray on the top end of Ronaldsay. Andy went off for another bike ride whilst we chilled out for an hour or two then headed up to the only place to eat in town…. The Sands Bar. This was by far the best meal we had off the boat. The fish was fantastic but everyone else seemed to enjoy theirs as well. Best of all, a good nights sleep as there was no ferry in the morning.

Next day was cold and windy, but fortunately not the forecast storm force winds. After getting under way earlier than usual the morning briefing was all about our first battleship. The SMS Kronprinz. We really wanted to see the 12 inch guns but as the ship had turned turtle and was lying upside down this meant getting to the bottom at 38m and going under the overhanging deck. We were the last down the shot and when we got to the bottom had to queue up to follow a second rope the last 10m down to the sea bed. Unfortunately, by the time we got down there it was pitch black and churned up so you couldn’t see a thing……. there was no way we were swimming under the deck into that so came back up and swam round towards the bow. The boat is so big and quite damaged due to the salvage works so we couldn’t be sure what we were seeing apart from a line of portholes. We eventually came up the side and swam along the keel enjoying the wildlife before setting of a smb and heading up.

We had lunch whilst traveling up to Burra Sound as we were diving on the blockship Tabarka in the afternoon and needed to be ready for slack water.  This is a steamship that was sunk to block the sound and lies in 15m of water. After arriving we had our briefing then got kitted up ready to go in. Unfortunately, we hadn’t been listening properly and had to sit around in our kit for fifteen minutes waiting for the tide. After about twenty we were told to stand down. Bob had forgotten to add the hour for BST!            

After our unexpected hours break we got ready and lined up like lemmings on the deck….. under instruction to get in and down as fast as we could as there was still a bit of a run on.  And there certainly was! Once we did get down it was like being in a wind tunnel. Everyone was on the floor dragging themselves towards to lee of the ship using the kelp…. apart from Steve who was sitting on the wreck enjoying the chaos. After making the mistake of trying to get round the prow then over the top we eventually found a way inside through a hole in the side. Inside it was pretty impressive, lots of life and great vis with light coming in from lots of gaps in the sides. We did try to get out to the stern through the wreck but the current just made it too hard work and on the last attempt had to catch Gail flying past the other way…. After a good look round we decided to go up whist the water was still fairly slack as didn’t fancy it in a proper run.

With everyone back onboard we headed back to Stromness arriving by about three to leave us enough time to a bit of sight-seeing. We dropped Steve and Gail off at the ring of Brodger then headed round to the far side of the islands to see the Italian Chapel. Two nissen huts, part of the Italian prisoner of war camp, that were transformed into an amazing chapel by the prisoners, some of whom stayed on after the war to finish it. Relatives still come over from Italy to maintain it even now. After this we went for a walk around the main town, Kirkwall but arrived just before five and pretty much everything closes at five so headed back to the boat for another Zoe dinner and a few more pounds.

Ian had suggested the walk up the hill behind town so gave it a go to walk off some of the food and actually met Ian on the way back down. It’s a steep walk but up top are fantastic views of Stromness and the surrounding area as well as right out into the flow.   

Thursday was a later start as Bob had to wait for a fuel tanker so we didn’t leave Stromness until about nine. We had our briefing and headed off to the SMS Coln again but stopped on our way at the SMS Margraff, the deepest of the battleships at 45m, to drop Martin and Andy in. Martin had planned long dive to take in all the guns. Not sure Andy was as keen but he went along….

On the SMS Coln we were getting the hang of things at last, we stuck to the original route Bob had given us first time and managed to pick out everything along the way. The vis was a bit dark but still good so we enjoyed it. Swam around the bridge area and saw the mast then on to the armoured control tower. We missed the gun mounts but found the skylights and deck hatches and finally the capstans and anchor chains. We swam up the side this time and could clearly see where the deck was peeling away from the hull and through the gaps to the inside of the ship. We eventually came back to the shot and were able to go up this for once.

After collecting everyone and going back for Martin and Andy we headed off to a dump site just off Lyness. Alan, Ray and Gary hadn’t dived that morning and wanted to spend some time hunting for treasure. Nothing can be taken from any of the warships in the area but they were allowed to root around for objet d’art on the ‘Bottle Site’ so off they went. They did come back with a brass flange, a glass dish and what looked like a bit of shell casing but nothing I’d want on the sideboard at home. 

After lunch we set off for Burra Sound again for a dive on another block ship, the SS Gobernador Bories. A whaler and cargo ship purchased by the British Navy and sunk in about 17m as a block ship.

Wasn’t so keen after the fight with the current the day before but was assured it would be better this time…….so, after the briefing we all kitted up and lined up on the deck again. As with the last one it was all in together and straight down. This time it was slack water and good vis as well. The ship is quite broken up but covered in all sorts of marine life.  Really pleasant dive, we missed the prop and rudder but towards the end we came across the engine block. A huge thing open at the sides showing the con rods and pistons. It looked like it was starting to run after this, so we set off a bag and game up.

After collecting everyone we set off for Longhope, a tiny place on the island of South Walls. Aside from a small ferry terminal, a lifeboat station and a few houses the only thing there is a pub. The Royal Hotel. An interesting place….. When we got in there, they had a roaring fire going that we ended up sitting next to and one of the locals was trying to breath fire with his whisky. We were feeling the pace and after another bucket of coal was thrown on the fire we made our escape. Andy wasn’t so lucky… the owner took a shine to him and started giving him free whisky…..so he stayed late with Martin, Tom, Steve and Ray.

Friday morning was an early start again. Andy looked a bit worse for ware but was still up for a dive. Ray had ear problems so missed out on the last couple of dives. The last day was going to be SMS Dresden first followed by SMS Karlsruhe, a repeat of the first days diving. This was great as we had missed a lot on the first dives.

We came down almost on top of the armoured control tower and saw one of the 5.9 inch guns. Tried shining lights into the tower slits but couldn’t make out anything inside. Forward we found the capstan shafts where the deck had collapsed.  We followed the deck up to the top of the hull and carried on thinking we might get to the stern but we got to the end of our diving air first and came up on a bag. Really gave an impression of how big the ships were.

After lunch, we went down to the SMS Karlsruhe again. It made more sense this time but is still very broken up. The breach of the 5.9 inch gun and its barrel were certainly the highlights as well as the two capstan and anchor chain. We found the shot again and came up.

The it was time to head back to Stromness and pack up. Steve, Gail, Martin and Andy were getting the five o’clock ferry and driving back overnight. We were originally getting the 11am Saturday ferry but as everyone else was getting the early 6.30 ferry we changed our booking as well. We would have been awake anyway……

With Bob and the cranes help we got everything but the overnight essentials onto the quay and packed up the cars. We then all went off around Stromness for a few bits of holiday tat including an obligatory Scapa Flow sweatshirt from the dive shop and a fridge magnet. Other tat was available…….

After saying goodbye to those on the early ferry the rest of us got ready and headed back to the Ferry Hotel for another meal. Lamb for almost everyone….. it was very good.

Following another early night we were up at five to get ready for the early ferry and half six. After breakfast onboard and docking in Scrabster at eight there was just the small matter of the eleven hour drive back…..

Even with the long drives we both thoroughly enjoyed the week. Bob and his crew were great and looked after us well as did everyone else on the trip. Couldn’t has asked for a nicer group of people to spend the week diving with.

Finally, a big thanks for Alan for organising the trip. I know its was hard with all the cancellations, breakdowns and Covid but it was well worth it. Looking forward to the next one…….

Alan, Ray, Ian, Gary (A lot taller in real life), Tom, Andy, Kate, Steve, Chris, Gail and Martin

Thanks to everyone who has shared photos that have been used in this post

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