January 28, 2011 10:03 pm

Sink and swim

 
The Kittiwake wreck

Divers examine the wreck of the Kittiwake

Standing on the bridge of the USS Kittiwake, I turn the helmsman’s wheel, check the navigator’s compass and imagine I’m steering a course across the ocean. But the crew has long since jumped ship and the engines are dead.

Earlier this month, the Kittiwake sank close to the coast of the Cayman Islands, not as a result of a storm or an accident, but in a controlled, deliberate operation masterminded by the islands’ tourism authorities.

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They had spotted the growth in popularity in scuba diving on wrecks, such as those from the second world war at Scotland’s Scapa Flow and Truk Lagoon off Micronesia, and set about luring a new wreck to their warm, clear waters.

Launched in 1945, the 251ft, 2,200-ton Kittiwake was originally built to rescue sailors from downed submarines. During 50 years of service, she took part in countless missions around the world. They included recovering the black box from the Challenger space shuttle disaster, as well as saving the lives of many in peril on the sea. This is the first time the US navy has donated a decommissioned ship to a foreign country for wreck diving and tourism officials behind the plan soon discovered it was a process wrapped up in enough red tape to sink a battleship.

“Our original plan was to sink five ships at different locations around Grand Cayman and call it Shipwreck City,” explained Nancy Easterbrook, who first came up with the idea of sinking a ship in the Cayman Islands and spent seven years bringing the project to fruition. A member of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, she also runs Divetech, one of the island’s biggest diving companies.

“We simply didn’t realise what was involved in finding the right vessel, getting it here and then sending it to the bottom,” she says. “Shipwreck City is on hold right now but it could still happen in the future.”

Arriving in the Cayman Islands, all the hazardous materials on board had to be painstakingly removed, often with heavy cutting gear. The Kittiwake was then towed to the sink site and slowly pumped full of water to ensure she sank evenly, coming to rest upright on the ocean floor.

Just 800 yards offshore and with the top deck 15ft below the surface, Kittiwake is one of the most accessible wreck diving sites in the world.

The trip out from West Bay Beach lasts a matter of minutes and I share the dive boat with a shoal of enthusiastic divers eager to be among the first to explore the five decks of the ship. Some are bristling with cameras and video equipment, many are experiencing a wreck dive for the first time.

I’m one of the latter and have had a brief refresher diving course in a swimming pool before heading out with Steve Chenoweth, my instructor and “dive buddy”. Arriving at the dive site feels anticlimactic, the calm waters giving no clue as to the treasures that lie below the surface. Three yellow markers show the position of the Kittiwake and that’s it – it could be just a lobster pot down there. However, straining my eyes as we get closer, I can just make out the faintest outline of a ship’s hull running between them.

Most of the divers are already in the water and heading for the seabed before I launch clumsily off the back of the shuttle boat. I’m suddenly peering into an unfamiliar landscape that, for a moment, has been blurred by bubbles and my inexperience in wearing a mask.

But as the waters clear and I peer into the silent ocean below, the sight of the Kittiwake almost empties my air tank in one excitable gulp. Out of the blue mist I can clearly see the ship from bow to stern, perfectly intact and dotted with the slow-moving forms of half a dozen or so other divers.

For any wannabe Jacques Cousteau, this would be a beautiful sight. But for first time wreck-divers such as me, it’s like opening the door to another world.

As we kick downwards towards the ship, a fearsome-looking barracuda glides by. A giant stingray is basking beneath us, lying low in the sand.

Just a couple of minutes later and, for some reason, I’m having an emotional moment, hugging the ship’s propeller. It’s huge, made of solid brass, and it once powered this ship and its company of 108 men for hundreds of thousands of miles.

Floating up past the deck, Chenoweth lets me peer inside one of the many open hatches. We pass silently by the recreation room, an empty mess hall and then a small workshop used for onboard repairs. A huge A-frame is still fixed to the deck, positioned to haul divers and diving bells back to the surface.

Two decompression chambers are the highlight of the tour for many divers, as well as the crew’s cramped living quarters. There are names scratched on the bunk beds and warning signs riveted to the walls. It feels claustrophobic inside the narrow corridors but there’s always a comforting block of sparkling light from each open hatch.

Later I speak to Jon Glatstein, who served on the ship from 1984-1986 and was invited to the Cayman Islands to see his old ship delivered to its watery grave. “It was a bittersweet experience for me, as you might imagine,” he says. “But now it’s over I’m pleased she will give enjoyment to others as a dive attraction. It’s certainly a better end than being cut up for scrap in a shipyard.”

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Details on how to dive the Kittiwake are available at www.kittiwakecayman.com or www.divecayman.ky. Inclusive prices start from around £50 for a one-tank dive, lasting about 40 minutes. The official tourism website for the islands is www.caymanislands.co.uk

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