Varne Bank Tragedies Remembered



As described in the February 2021 issue of Sea Breezes, the Panama-registered Texaco Caribbean, built in 1965, was in ballast on passage from Holland to Trinidad when she was in collision with the Peruvian cargo vessel Paracas during the early hours of the morning on 11 January 1971. Probably due to the tanks not having been ‘gas freed’ from her previous cargo of ‘clean oil’ she exploded violently, causing the forward section of the ship to ‘break off’ and sink. The remaining section was semi-buoyant for some time, eventually sinking in much the same sort of attitude as the Sea Breezes photograph shows, leaving very shallow water over her. This posed a severe navigational hazard in a very busy shipping lane; 22 of the 30 crew were rescued from the sea.

Fortunately, Paracas was not severely damaged, and the German Salvage tug Heros, which had been on Salvage Station in Dover, was able to tow the Paracas to Hamburg for discharge and repairs.

The following night, 12 January, in spite of strenuous efforts from Trinity House and the Coast Guard to warn all shipping of the foul area, the HAPAG Lloyd MV Brandenburg, built 1951, outward bound from Bremen to Jamaica, struck the stern section of the Texaco Caribbean and ruptured her port side, causing a gash that we eventually found to be about 30 met re s long. It was no small wonder the unfortunate vessel foundered only two miles away. Once again, the loss of life was horrific. Out of her complement of 32, a nearby fi shing boat rescued 11, seven bodies were taken from the sea, leaving 14 unaccounted for.


I was employed as a diver by Risdon Beazley Marine, a well-known British Salvage Company based in Southampton. The Company had recently made headlines with the salvage of Brunel’s SS Great Britain from the Falkland Islands, back to her original 1843 building dock in Bristol.

On 14 January, we were called from our winter ‘stand easy’ to proceed with all haste from Southampton to the Dover Straits.

Upon arrival at the site of the disasters, our first task was to locate each piece of wreckage. Although Trinity House had approximate positions, our ex-Royal Navy Hydrographer was able to give the correct data from above every substantial piece of wreckage.

Our shallow drafted diving /survey vessel in conjunction with Echo Sounding lines supported by the Decca High Fix System was quite suitable for this task. When possible, diving identification was obtained.

The English Channel, especially the Dover Straits, was not the best place for scuba diving in the winter of 1971, with very thin wet suits and bare hands. Nowadays, divers would certainly not be permitted to dive freely as we did then. During survey dives, we very seldom ran into decompression time, but if we did, there was a two-man decompression chamber on board our little ship that we would not hesitate to use.

Apart from being very high on the wrecks, there was poor underwater visibility, caused mainly by the strong currents and turbulence from nearby sandbanks (Varne Bank). On many days, the underwater visibility would be absolutely zero, difficult to believe perhaps, but a strong lamp in front of your visor may not show more than a faint glow, so at times lamps were more of a hindrance than a help.


We discovered that moderate to strong winds from the West gave us the best chance of underwater visibility, but within an hour of strong winds from the East the sand banks would be disturbed, and any chance of seeing underwater vanished. Our other enemy of course was the strong currents. No matter what type of equipment they use, divers can only work in slack or near slack water. As soon as the current is about to increase, work has to stop and prepare to ascend to the ship above.

I recall salvaging a coaster off Dover’s Eastern Entrance. The MV Seacon that had been run down by a Belgian Ferry, the best slack water we could hope for was 10 minutes, which gave little time to perform the tasks required.


The Texaco Oil Company contracted Risdon Beazley to search the accessible areas of the tanker for missing crew members, which we achieved with some success in unpleasant conditions. It can only be imagined how a recently sunken vessel is internally; all loose fittings first become buoyant and then waterlogged, most doors are jammed with debris like mattresses, and if there was any visibility, it soon disappears when disturbed.

Sadly, over the ensuing days and weeks, some unfortunate bodies from these wrecks were washed ashore between Dover and Folkestone.

Due to inclement weather and spring t ides, we took shelter in Dover Harbour. As soon as the weather moderated, we returned to the Varne Bank and found the underwater visibility was excellent. We were then able to complete the gruesome tasks as well as we could without endangering our own safety.


During this brief period of unusually good underwater visibility, we were also able to make detailed survey dives on the Texaco Caribbean. We located her bow section and accurately positioned it, taking exact depth readings from over the top of the highest point.

The Brandenburg was the most interesting to dive on, with good visibility of about four metres on the top and perhaps two metres on the seabed.

Amongst other machinery, Brandenburg had a deck cargo of Ford County Class Tractors that looked pristine with the lashings all in place. She was lying on her starboard side.


By this time, Trinity House had laid many wreck buoys indicating the danger and, if I remember correctly, a Wreck Light Ship was anchored off the Varne Bank to warn shipping of the dangers beneath the surface. Also, there were frequent broadcasts on the Marine Radio channels.

On 26 February, due to Spring Tides and foul weather, we took a break in Dover. I was at home in Southampton and was called with the news that yet another ship had sunk, presumably having struck one of the wrecks at about 2000 hours.

The ship in question was a Greek registered cargo vessel named Niki, built in 1956 and on passage from Dunkirk to Alexandria with a cargo of railway lines. By strange coincidence, these three casualties were all German-built. Horrifically, there were no survivors from the 21 crew, plus the Chief Engineer’s wife.

In spite of very bad weather, we sailed to the site on 1 March. On approaching the area, we soon sighted our red marker buoys on the various high sections of Texaco Caribbean and Brandenburg. We noticed about two met re s of Niki’s mast protruding above the water, not very far away, but clear of the other wrecks. As it was slack water, I made a risky free dive (more in confirmation, not that there could be any doubt). Under the surface, it was pitch black. As I groped my way down the mast all I could really do was confirm that she was indeed on an even keel. On returning to the masthead, I then swam clear so that the survey ship could throw me a line to pull me to safety. After berthing in Dover, the Captain reported our findings to our Southampton office.

From my records, the following six days were totally unworkable due to storms and blizzards. When we did return, two of us dived on the stern of the Texaco Caribbean, and after a very detailed inspection proved without a doubt that Niki had come to grief within metres of the same area as the Brandenburg had struck. We had recorded the deep scoring and damage from Brandenburg, and now that same area had more than doubled with squashed and torn steel.


From experience, all our crew knew not to be trapped into loose talk with the many press representatives asking questions on our findings. Followed by, who did we think was to blame etc. Many of the questions our divers and crew found were surprisingly macabre, no doubt to add to the stories that were already making headlines at the time.


Risdon Beazley Marine was awarded the contract by Trinity House to disperse all the wrecks to give at least a depth of 21 metres at low water Spring Tides. Due to the strong currents and exposed location, to actually remove the wrecks by cutting them into large removable sections, would have been very difficult and prohibitively expensive.


Risdon Beazley’s men were well versed in cutting shipwrecks almost clinically, not blasting them and destroying the structural integrity. This was to pay dividends with the relatively large sections of wreckage which w ere to be virtually laid flat on the seabed to allow safe passage of shipping overhead.

Many of the shipwrecks that Risdon Beazley Marine worked were beyond diving depth, so an atmospheric observation chamber was used. The chamber was manned by a diver who guided the tools and explosives visually. Directions were given by phone to the ship above for movements on its 6-point mooring system.

All areas of the wreck were avoided, except the cargo holds that would contain the cargo Risdon Beazley intended to recover and with luck, if documentation had survived, indicating exactly where that should be. Often the cargo, due to its density, would be found in the lower tween decks or the lower hold on tank tops. This, of course, required the removal of most of the decks and overburden (unwanted cargo) to the seabed alongside the wreck by systematic grabbing and cutting with explosives. Most of these wrecks would be wartime casualties, others by collision or, in some cases, having run aground or foundered.

For many years, Risdon Beazley’s smaller ships had been working mainly in European waters on various salvage projects. One of the main tasks being wreck dispersal, which as the name suggests, is to allow free passage over a foul area. We had spent several seasons dispersing wrecks on the approaches to Dunkirk and Le-Havre, associated with H arbour and New Port developments.

Complete wreck and debris removal was required where Channels and Fairways would eventually be dredged. The method of location was by towing a heavy grapnel. On average, 3 or 4 complete anchors and chains were snagged and recovered daily. An average anchor weight was 3 tons. Some very large stockless anchors of about 7 to 10 tons were found. We assumed 90% of these anchors with varying lengths of chain were slipped during hostilities. Some anchors were reusable for moorings; others were scrapped with all the chain and other debris.

I noted a few times that we had found heaps of boulders or rocks, obviously alien to the area. Off Le Havre, diving inspection revealed some had a central hole or shaped sides. These must have been Ballast Stones from Sailing Vessels about to go into port to load cargo.

Those tidal and black water conditions had been similar to what we were faced with now on the Varne Bank. The exception was that we had fresh steel to work with rather than old wartime riveted wrecks, that were far from intact and covered in fishing nets.


The salvage ships nominated to work the Varne Bank wrecks were Topmast 18 and Topmast 20, identical vessels having been built as WW2 Naval Mark 3 LCTs (Landing Craft Tanks) converted to Risdon Beazley’s design. These two vessels were refi ned copies of the Topmast 16 that had been on permanent charter to the MOD (Ministry of Defence) for heavy mooring servicing for several years.

These ships were neither ocean greyhounds nor ocean-going tugs; they had to go into p ort for shelter when the weather became foul. Regarding work platforms, there were none better at that time, and no doubt with their small Paxman Ricardo main engines turning twin screws (both the same way), foxed even the best of ship handlers. They were cheap to run, each ship had a 6-point mooring system with 22mm wire to conical buoys about 400 met re s from the ship. It would take about 30 minutes with our experienced crew and powerful work boat to moor up ready for work over the top of a shipwreck.

The salvage ships’ former tank decks had been converted into acceptable accommodation, with a generator room used only for salvage operations. Forward of that was a very large hold, capable of carrying about 350-400 tons of cargo. The ramp had been welded up making a bluff but spacious fo’c’s’le. This was dedicated to stores and divers’ decompression chamber space, plus a magazine capable of carrying 3 tons of explosives.


The ships had a one-man operated derrick that was used extensively for grabbing with a Priestman type two wire cactus grab that was able to pick up loads of 10 tons at a time.

No doubt, that if we had the benefit of Dynamic Positioning or Anchor Handling type ships that were just appearing in the North Sea from the US, or indeed the very versatile Multi Cats of today, our work would have been so much easier.


On more than one occasion, we had to survey exact sisters to our ships during our work off Dunkirk and Le Havre. I remember seeing one that was obviously on passage to the beaches when it was either bombed or simply foundered. To dive briefly on an identical vessel that had been bravely lost with its cargo of sailors, soldiers, trucks and jeeps, was very poignant and sobering. I was very relieved that we had no requirement to re-visit the site and disturb the wreck.

The third nominated salvage vessel was our trusty little diving /survey vessel Queen Mother. At times, her name raised a few eyebrows. She had started life as a Bristol Channel Pilot ship. The purchase agreement stated that the Queen Mother must have the name retained as HM The Queen Mother launched the vessel in 1955.Mr Beazley purchased the diving survey vessel Queen Mother in 1968 to replace my favourite Topmast 17, which was a converted MMS inshore mine sweeper. A wonderful sea boat with a good turn of speed, but she had become leaky thanks to an armed merchant trawler that had obviously contained more than we bargained for after having to place explosives in a mangled heap of wreckage and nets off Le Havre. The ensuing detonation erupted like a mini Mount Etna. The explosives had been placed near the boiler, (there never was any underwater visibility on this site). The objective was to have all the wreckage grabbed clear to enable dredging to take place.


Work started immediately by the two salvage ships, laying their pattern of moorings round the wrecks chosen to work first by the senior Salvage Master. The Queen Mother commenced laying her pattern of 4 moorings round the stern of the Texaco Caribbean. Initially, all concentration was devoted to the removal of fuel oil from the wrecks. The Brandenburg gave the best results. Fortunately, there wasn’t any notable pollution from these recent sinkings, probably helped by strong currents, foul weather and also our attempts of oil recovery.

Cutting then started in earnest, using Beazley’s familiar style of explosive line charges, tailored to size for the thickness of the plate to cut and the depth of water. Each vessel would then pull to the blind side of the wreck for shielding from the blast and communicate with each other to ensure all divers were surfaced before detonating one at a time. Generally, all that could be seen was a disturbance on the surface after a few minutes as the gas arose. We knew from experience, the less disturbance the chances of a better result was likely, indicating the blast had gone internally and not outwards into open water. During the best neap tides, it was sometimes possible to get a further run of explosives on the same slack water using fresh divers, or the same diver, depending on depth and decompression allowance time.

Surface decompression chambers were always used on each ship as required. It was not possible to use ‘wet stops’ (in water decompression) unless it was only for a duration of about 5-10 minutes, as the current would in general have the diver streamed out like a flag. Between diving periods, the ship’s grab would be in operation tearing weakened ships structure and moving the salvage vessel on the moorings to lay large sections on the sea bed clear of the main wreck and taking careful note of position before opening the grab.


An early problem encountered with the Texaco Caribbean was for the divers to be able to orientate themselves in the pitch black water, as one piece of the wreck from the forward tanks to the after end felt the same. This was solved simply by using buoyant polypropylene rope with figure-of-eight knots corresponding to the tank number secured to the ship’s shell plate and transverse bulkhead. This could save us a long haul if the shot line or down rope from the diving ship above was at the opposite end of where the diver happened to find himself. A golden rule was never to let go from a wreck and just pop to the surface, as it was possible to get entangled under the ship or swept away in the current. Even with an air-line and telephone, the tender could have great difficulty pulling the diver back to the diving position.


After the Queen Mother’s divers had completed extensive cutting, one of the other ships would move over that particular section for several days grabbing and moving the cut sections clear to the seabed. Meanwhile, the Queen Mother would commence cutting or surveying elsewhere as required by the Salvage Master.

On Brandenburg’s stern castle, with careful placing of explosives inside a cross alleyway, I was able to place twice the usual amount (roughly about 150 lbs and about 5 metres long), then closed the weather door with the fi ring cable protected.

On detonation, no shock wave appeared, except a sort of ripple like a tidal eddy after 10 minutes. The following day it was found the stern had totally opened up like an orange and we never had to touch it again.

A memorable event occurred on the Brandenburg during one of the first explosive cutting operations. The explosives had been placed against the port side deck edge to help cut the main deck for eventual laying over on the seabed. The salvage ship was pulled away on the moorings for the customary 300 or so met re s, leaving the body of the wreck as a shield from the blast. It was approaching dusk at the time, the usual disturbance occurred but something large and black popped up out of the sea, then eerily floated away on the current. We had no idea what on earth this could be, so the work boat was launched and chased after the object and brought it back to the ship. It soon transpired to be a large inner tube from one of the County Class Tractors. The water pressure had made it look as if it was punctured on the wreck, but with gas from the explosive it had released itself from the wheel of the tractor, gathered momentum as it approached the surface and fully inflated again. We were to see this repeated several times over the next few days.


Nothing was salvaged as the cargo was written off by the underwriters, and our instructions were not to load our ships with items that would be subject to declaration. However, we were instructed by Head Office to keep a sharp watch for the Master’s Safe on Brandenburg, which we did indeed locate and brought to the surface by grab whilst removing the Bridge section. On opening it after a bit of a struggle, we found a small number of mixed coins (which is usual) and ruined documents. There were also many bundles of tightly bound Deutschmarks that we never tried counting, but guessed they were worth several thousand pounds Sterling. We took them to our laundry room to dry out for several days.

The Deutschmarks were eventually returned to the owners HAPAG Lloyd. We never received any acknowledgement from the Germans. No doubt the terminology ‘all in a day’s work’ applies.



Mention was made in the Sea Breezes article about other ships still coming too close for comfort. In spite of all the efforts made by Trinity House, we witnessed many ships straying much closer than they should have. Sometimes we wondered if it was similar to a motorway accident, and how some motorists can put themselves in danger to see what is happening.

The closest shave was on a beautiful calm and sunny afternoon. We had our 3 ships working on moorings that would be picked up on the simplest of Radars. Trinity House had 2 Wreck Light Ships moored, giving adequate warnings to approaching shipping, along with various wreck buoys. However, an enormous vessel was spotted more or less simultaneously by the ship’s watchkeeping officers heading straight for us. Everyone expected it to make a sudden alteration of course, but it seemed intent on ploughing through us, luckily not at great speed. All the ships started blowing ‘U’ on the fog horns ‘You Are Running into Danger’ as well as flashing with the ship’s Aldis Lamps and of course Channel 16 on the VHF, without any acknowledgement. We quickly realised that it was an aircraft carrier bearing down on us. Flares were sent up as the situation became very serious. At what we would say was the last moment, she veered off and passed close enough for the sailors to wave to the friendly Brits wishing them ‘bon voyage’. Without doubt, had our ships not been moored over the wrecks, the USS Forrestal of 59,000 tons could have come to grief. I remember someone saying that if she had become impaled, the best solution would be to turn her into a Lighthouse Station, complete with airstrip.

Another very strange event occurred one peaceful day when Topmast 18 was the only salvage ship to remain on the last piece of wreck to be dispersed. I asked over my telephone to the Linesman to check with the Bridge if there was a ship getting close to our location. I could hear the noise of fast propellers and thought it could be a cross Channel Ferry deviating from their usual route. But the answer was that the visibility was very clear, and no shipping was anywhere to be seen. I asked to check again, as the sound was intensifying until I was convinced there had to be a submarine very close. Indeed, the Linesman could hear the sound over his headphones. The Captain reported this to the Coast Guard, and they said they had no knowledge of any submarine activity transiting the Dover Straits. However, by the time these messages were relayed I terminated my dive as soon as possible and felt much more comfortable in the decompression chamber.

We delayed detonating our explosives, as one can only imagine a sonar operator’s eardrums when subjected to a surprise underwater explosion at close range. Those fast-running propellers must have been nothing other than a submarine not wishing to be seen by the Coast Guard.

Nevertheless, it was not unusual to hear very strange, isolated noises underwater in that location, which we could only put down to Military exercise pulses emitting from minesweepers or Dunking Sonars from helicopters. It could be rather scary, especially when we were handling explosives with electric detonators.


Not far away, and closer to Folkestone, lies the wreck of the 1953 Danish-built Kirsten Skou. She sank after colliding in fog with the German Hanseatic Karpfanger in March 1962.


At the time of working on the Varne Wrecks, a local one-ship Salvage Company had been dispersing this Danish wreck. Their methods were different to ours, simply because their salvage ship lacked a heavy grabbing system, and they relied on intensive blasting in the hope that the wreck would be compacted to the required depth. However, in spite of some very successful salvage projects over the years, they were unable to complete this final phase of the contract. Therefore, we were asked to complete the operation with our grabbing system and remove all the high wreckage which was destroyed beyond all recognition, but still standing too high for the clearance depth required by Trinity House.

We commenced work on the Kirsten Skou in May 1973. After several days of systematic grabbing and removing to the seabed we had reached the desired depth without any further cutting. With hindsight, perhaps we should have let go from our 6 moorings as the weather forecast indicated fog, but all seemed well. We intended to check for any last high spots by divers before declaring the site ready for inspection by Trinity House.

In the early hours of 24 May, the general alarm was sounded. I had heard our ship’s foghorn blowing ‘U’ for a few minutes, so I hurriedly got into my wetsuit. On reaching the starboard aft deck and above me, I saw the clipper-type bow of a grey ship just starting to nudge our funnel. At that moment I noticed part of the name and, in bewilderment, I could see the letters SKOU. I thought I was having a bad dream; we were moored over the wreck of Kirsten Skou. That bow sliced down our puny funnel and through the upper accommodation which was the officers’ mess room. The lower rake of the stem had penetrated our main deck by about a metre. Thanks to our coffin-shaped stern, it had only penetrated our main hull into the engine room by a half metre . Some crew on the ship’s fo’c’s’le w here shouting down to us to see if we were okay. She backed off into the dense fog, not to be seen again, but was of course in contact by VHF with us as well as the Coast Guard and Dover Harbour Control.

Our assailant was of the same company, and another of Ove Skou’s lovely, streamlined cargo ships called the Mette Skou built in 1963. Luckily, she must have been stopped or perhaps with barely steerage way and had come into contact with our Port Quarter mooring wire, and more or less glided along it until striking us. Had she been travelling at speed the outcome would have been very different.

Our engineers quickly started the main generators. I swung our 5-ton grab over the side and got a good bite of wreckage to help pull us over to Starboard, thus assisting in bringing the hull damage higher out of the water. The damaged section was quickly patched up by the engineers and divers from both sides of the hull. Our ship looked in a bit of a sorry state, but we were all safe and well. We enjoyed a late hearty breakfast rustled up by our oversized ship’s cook, who was still smarting after being ‘ticked off’ for getting stuck in the escape doorway while crew members were rushing about with mattresses to plug any large holes if required.

The Dover Lifeboat had been alerted to come to our assistance if required. We managed to recover our moorings rather than leave unlit buoys in the channel and were later towed ignominiously for a salvage ship, to Sheerness for repairs.


Over the years I have often been asked how Trinity House or, indeed the French Authorities, check on the clearance work we had done. We were to make sure that the exact clearance levels had been achieved so that the Admiralty Charts in use for that specific area could be corrected. If we had managed to go deeper than required, they would then continue to sweep until the true depth was found. However, needless to say, our company would not be paid any extra or a bonus for an increased depth.

The weather had to be flat calm and exact tidal predictions carefully studied for every 15 minutes or so. The survey vessel would go well up tide of the site to be swept, and a series of marked chains carefully lowered by hand over the length of the ship, with either spun yarn or seizing wire at the bottom between each chain. As the ship drifted over the wreck, any protrusion would foul the sweep and break the spun yarn or seizing wire. On fouling wreckage, the chains would also have been noticed to have led out briefly from the ship when coming into contact with wreckage.

We quickly learned that from the Surveyor’s point of view, the wreck was either foul or clear. If foul it was a disaster for us, as we would not have a clue as to which piece of the wreck may be standing high. It could be a piece of handrail inadvertently pulled up by a previously foul wire, or a large section of plate missed in the black water. There was no method of electronic fixing in those days, and it was not unheard of that a piece of the removed structure laid near the wreck had fouled the sweep chains.

Our solution on the Varne Wrecks was to spend extra time with a cargo derrick taken from Brandenburg and some clever rigging to have the derrick horizontal and set to about a metre below the corrected clearance depth with constant adjustments by our company Hydrographer. The salvage ship would move over the entire area of the wrecks on our moorings. If we touched something, one of the divers would attach a marker buoy to the offending object to be cut off or grabbed clear later or if very small, lifted clear at the time. We would use two divers at a time on this project, and in the summer, it proved to be quite a fun job.

I have no idea what methods are used today but I am sure it will be simplified, probably with the use of an ROV and electronic fixing.


Sometime after we departed, I believe the cargo of rails was salvaged from Niki. No doubt this was an easy job as they were totally exposed and ready for lifting.

I cannot imagine there is anything much exciting to dive on in this jumble of wrecks, except perhaps the considerable-sized bridge of Texaco Caribbean. We left it sitting perfectly upright on the seabed in one piece. One can only imagine how it will have been a safe haven for the custodians of the wrecks, such as Lobsters and Conger Eels etc. Sadly, many of my old shipmates who experienced those days ‘Working Off Dover’ are no longer with us. However, they deserve recognition for their dedication to hard and often dangerous work. I like to think ours were ‘happy ships’ with crews who looked out for each other at sea and ashore.


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