H.P. Lovecraft, "The White Ship"
Our involvment with the particular wreck started back in 2008 when following information obtained by local fishermen she was dived for the first time by our team on July of the same year. Information for identifying the wreck was not readily available. Therefore it took a fair share of time and effort to arrive in our conclusion that it is indeed the 1877 built steamer Helmstedt which ran aground in the nearby Mandili islet and then sunk slipping into deeper water. A series of dives was conducted at the wreck during December 2008 and a full expedition was mounted in August 2009, both with the cooperation of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Greek Ministry of Culture.
Wrecks that will be presented under the heading of 'Various' are wrecks that we have occasionally dived all over Greece. They are either not concentrated in any particular area or were not the object of a dedicated full blown project. Some of these remain ongoing concerns.
Helmstedt was a rather plain, ordinary tramp steamer of the late 19th century. But its historical and archaeological interest may stem exactly from this fact. Her wreck is a fairly well preserved representative sample of a revolutionary period, when the steam powered, screw driven, iron ship was finally replacing sail as the world’s deep sea carrier. At a time when most technological drawbacks were overcome for the combination of iron, steam and screw propulsion to be both reliable and economically viable, these ships were becoming the workhorses of the growing seaborne trade.
The British-built, British-owned ship was typical of its time and intended use. She was built by 'Withy & Co' of West Hartlepool for 'R. Ropner & Co' who remained the owners throughout her life. She was launched on July 1877. Her official number was 78403 and she was registered at West Hartlepool. She was a raised quarter deck iron screw steamer, schooner rigged with two masts. Cargo was carried in two holds, one forward and one aft, each served by two hatches. Division was provided by four transverse bulkheads. Her registered dimensions were: length 81.38 meters, breadth 10.15 meters and depth 5.76 meters. Upon her built her grt was 1586 tons and her nrt 1012 tons, although these were changed twice (1889 and 1890), possibly due to modifications made to the ship. She was driven by a compound, two cylinder inverted, direct acting, surface condensing engine with cylinder diameters of 31” and 59” and a stroke of 33” producing 140NHP and driving a four bladed propeller. Steam was generated by two cylindrical, twin furnace boilers with a working pressure of 65 lbs1.
The ship was part of Ropner’s fleet for 13 years operating as a tramp steamer. At this point a comprehensive list of cargoes carried and ports called is yet to be acquired. On the other hand, information on the event of her sinking is available. Helmstedt left Leghorn in ballast on 17 March 1890. She was bound for Nikolayev in the Black Sea, her route taking her through the Aegean Sea; she passed Kea Channel, changing her course to NEE on the afternoon of the 22nd of March to pass the Doro Channel. The sea was calm but a dense fog came on and consequently the engines were put on half speed. At about 20:30, land was suddenly sighted ahead and despite the immediate maneuvering, the ship struck on the south side of Mandili Island, off Karystos. It proved impossible to keep the ship grounded and she slipped back in deeper water. She started to settle by the bow, taking water in her forward hold. When at about 21:40 the ship took a list to port, the crew abandoned her fearing that capsizing was imminent. However she did not sink and remained afloat for eight whole hours. Finally at about 04:40 in the morning of the 23rd she sunk bow first and apparently breaking in two. Her crew of twenty, managed to land at Evia wherefrom they were taken to Constantinople and subsequently repatriated. There was no loss of life. The court of inquiry attributed the sinking to the negligent navigation of the Master and concluded that little – if any at all – effort was made to save the ship. The Master's certificate was suspended for three months but he was allowed a Mate’s certificate during that period.
Available documentary sources in connection to the ship and her loss can be studied together with evidence gathered from diving the wreck, providing a link to a period of significant social, technological and regulatory evolution and with a historical context radically different from the present. Both documentary and field research on the project is ongoing and information presented herein should be treated as preliminary and subject to revision.
Bibliography and Sources:
During December 2008, we made a couple of dives at an unidentified wreck off the coast of south Evia. The dives were made just to get an idea of what the wreck might be as preparatory research did not yield any useful information in that respect.
We discovered a one funneled, screw cargo steamer with two masts and a raised quarter deck. A rough estimation would put her length to about 75-85 meters. Our primary goal, at the moment, is to identify the wreck. Documentary research made since, suggests that she might be the S/S Helmstedt which sunk in 1890 after hitting a rock at the nearby Mandili island. The wreck lies at a maximum depth of 71 meters with a SE (bow) to NW (stern) direction on a flat, sandy bottom and is standing upright. Her bow is collapsed, but the rest of her foredeck and accommodation are fairly intact. Aft, her decks and starboard side shell are also collapsed and only the port side is still standing.
Diving the wreck is moderately demanding. Due to the relatively shallow depth she makes an easy dive with bottom times up to thirty minutes. Weather conditions are usually better than the prevailing ones at the Parana, located only a few miles away. A slight current was encountered down at the wreck but became stronger at deco. The biggest problem is that the wreck is literally wrapped in fishing line and netting which makes approaching and penetrating her a tricky task.
Material obtained during the dives is studied together with written sources so that the wreck can be identified. The information regarding the wreck’s name is given with a word of caution, as a positive identification of the wreck has yet to be made.
In continuation of our scouting dives made back in December 2008, we decided to mount a full week’s expedition at the unknown wreck off Karystos. The trip’s objectives were to identify the wreck and to proceed with the task of exploring and documenting the site.
We initially planned to dive in May when the seas are generally calmer. However, due to circumstances beyond our control we ended up diving the first ten days of August which from a weather perspective is the worst period. This time diving was not that relaxed: apart from a single day with flat seas, the rest of the dives were done in conditions ranging from force 5 to 7. In addition we had to cancel a couple of dives since the weather further deteriorated during the last days. For the rest of the expedition we managed two dives per day, a superb result given the area and the time of the year.
Apart from weather issues, all preparations and actual diving went quite smoothly. J-tanks were sent to Giannis Zampalos who, once more, was kind enough to provide a base, as well as full support on everything we needed. The first day was spent moving our 90, another 4x4 and our RIB to Karystos and setting up the gear. Diving started on the second day. We dived in pairs, each pair having a surface support role for the other when not diving. Bottom times ranged from 25 to 30 minutes to a maximum depth of 71 meters and with total dive times up to 115 minutes. We used 18/45 and 15/55 as bottom gas and EAN50 and oxygen for deco. All deco was done on the fly. In dire contrast with the surface, conditions underwater were mild with little or no current down at the wreck and slight to moderate current during deco, mostly at the 9 and 6 meter stops.
With regards to our first objective we can now claim with a reasonable amount of certainty that the wreck belongs to the S/S Helmstedt. We came to this conclusion because of two main reasons. First, preparatory historical research suggests that there is no other ship lost in the area whose features resemble those of the Karystos wreck. On the contrary, the wreck’s main features do match these of Helmstedt: overall length and breadth, the raised quarter deck, the number of holds and masts, the 2-cylinder compound engine and the four bladed propeller as well as remains of the ship’s rigging such as deadeyes, belaying pins, etc, pointing to a ship which was sail assisted, were taken under consideration amongst others. Second, the hatches and propeller dimensions were measured and found to match exactly these of Helmstedt, further supporting in a more firm way our hypothesis.
In parallel with the task of identifying the wreck, bottom time was also spent documenting and exploring the site. Together with the usual photographing, enough stills were taken in order to create a plan view photomosaic. Expanding on the general observations made during the December 2008 dives we can report the following: the first 3-4 meters of the bow and the forecastle deck are now but a debris field; the ship is cut just forward of her foremost bulkhead (between the forward hold and the forepeak tank). Presumably this part has suffered severe structural damage when the ship grounded (and possibly during the sinking if the bow hit the bottom first), subsequently giving in to the elements and wear. Continuing, the forward part of the ship, including the superstructure, is fairly preserved. There is easy access to the forward hold and the engine room, as well as to the superstructure spaces although one has to be especially careful not to get entangled in fishing line. Aft, the picture changes once more. The raised quarter deck and the starboard side shell in way of it have collapsed. The ship’s main mast now lies pointing aft and to the starboard. The propeller shaft tunnel is visible and so is the propeller and the rudder blade. We noticed a vertical crack on the starboard side shell just aft of the superstructure which may have been caused because of the hull stressing during the sinking; according to testimonies, the ship‘...was seen to founder, apparently breaking in two...’. We are however, at this stage, unable to infer whether the wreck’s aft part state as observed today originated from such structural damage. The possibility of post depositional factors such as fishing by means of explosives cannot be ruled out.
Summarizing, we consider identifying the wreck as the Helmstedt an important first step. Shooting enough stills to attempt the photomosaic is also a considerable feat given the depth at which the wreck lies and its overall size, however additional dives are needed to gather further information and complete the site documentation.