"What's the wreck we're heading for?" I asked. I had never dived a shipwreck before. Something about the swinging boat; the fried breakfast and the fearsomely cold and inhospitable conditions made me wonder if I really wanted to. We were still thirty minutes out and the skipper was offering us a cup of tea. I declined.
"The Rondo", he said.
I had first heard the name of the Rondo the night before, in the pub. I was being told, with some certitude, that we wouldn't be heading there the next day because it was too technical a dive for a novice like me.
Now, the next day, we were headed there and I was keen to know why it was such a technical dive. I picked off a book from the shelf and had a flick through to find the entry for the SS Rondo. I really hoped that nobody had died on this wreck.
On the 25th January 1935, a steamship by the name of the Rondo left Glasgow, bound for Oslo to offload ballast and pick up cargo. She entered the Sound of Mull, hoping for a safe passage North in the narrow channel between Mull and the mainland. Despite the relative shelter that Mull provided from the open Atlantic Ocean, the channel was exposed enough to make navigating around the rocks and islands a daunting prospect. The weather was too much though; fearing they would become another wreck in the Sound, the Rondo took shelter in a shallow bay and the crew retreated to bed to wait out the storm.
In September 2006, conditions weren't much better. I sat in the wheelhouse of the MV Brendan and clutched a nearby shelf to steady myself as we lurched over the waves. A single tiny windscreen wiper pawed feebly at the window as it was lashed with waves and I continued to read about our wreck and her strange underwater profile.
The crew of the SS Rondo were woken during that January night when the anchor chain strained and snapped. The ship lurched sideways and began to drift into the middle of the channel, dead in the water and at the mercy of the fierce storm.
The Sound of Mull is a narrow strip of sea running between the Isle of Mull and the wilderness peninsula of Morvern in the Highlands; used as a passage for shipping for centuries, it had a certain reputation for wrecking ships -- even in 1935.
With no power, the ship was turned sideways in the storm and carried into the middle of the sound. She rolled for 3km over the waves, towards the widest part of the channel until she reached Dearg Sgeir, a small outcrop of rocks right in the middle of sound. A lighthouse signalled a warning, but the crew were powerless to take any action. With an immense swell below her, the hull of the Rondo was lifted sideways and smashed against the rocks next to the lighthouse.
Ten minutes out and the skipper was asking us to get our kit together. The drill for a wreck like this is that she has to be dived at slack water; that is, when the tides change direction and the currents are safe enough to let you get down onto the wreck and back off again. That's assuming the skipper gets his timing right. If you hit it wrong, you can get swept off the wreck and end up drifting down the Sound of Mull yourself.
I put my dive kit together and checked everything was working.
"There's the shot," said one of the divers. I looked at where he was pointing and saw an orange buoy in the water. It looked like any normal orange buoy, except that on the end of this one, there was a shipwreck.
The crew's luck changed. With their ship driven hard onto the rocky outcrop and the hold filled with ballast, she stuck fast and was able to wait out the storm. While the crew lived for two weeks on their beached ship, her insurers declared the Rondo a total loss and the process to strip her down for salvage began. Given this was winter in the Scottish Highlands and the sea was to make one more attempt to take her, it came as no surprise that in February 1935, another storm came and this time, the Rondo slipped beneath the sea forever.
I pitched backwards into thin air and felt a second of free fall before I hit the icy waters upside down. Righting myself, I broke the surface of the water, signalling to the boat that I was OK. The boat was already several metres away -- not because she was moving, but because I was. The surface current swept my dive buddy and I towards the buoy. I turned and saw it gunning down on me. Grabbing the rope under the buoy, I signalled to my buddy. I knew that we had to get down below the current, and if we let go, even for a second, we wouldn't be able to fight the current and get back onto the rope. My buddy agreed: Time to dive.
The Rondo pitched forward, bow first into the water, dragging her hull across the rocks. Dearg Sgeir is actually the top of an underwater pinnacle, a steep cliff some 50 metres high from the seabed. Slithering all the way down the cliff, the bow of the Rondo hit the seabed and crumbled with the weight of the hull bearing down. But she didn't tip and she didn't keel; she stayed balancing on her nose against the cliff, performing an underwater handstand.
At 6 metres, I saw the rudder section. The rope -- known as the shot line -- was tied to what was left of the rudder. Out of the worst of the current, my buddy and I carried out a few more checks and agreed to proceed over the edge onto the deck.
With a gentle fin, we both glided over the transom and looked down at the hull of the wreck disappear downwards. Visibility was around six metres, which was standard; even verging on good.
Bending my knees slightly, I made a long and deep exhale and we began to fall like slow-motion skydivers. Every few metres, more of the wreck passed by above me and the light faded. When we reached ten metres and turned on our torches, I injected a little air into my dry-suit to relieve the squeeze. I glanced at my wrist-mounted computer; it counted up slowly from ten to fifteen metres. As long as I let the computer calculate how long I could stay here and make a nice controlled ascent, I shouldn't get any pesky bends.
By twenty metres I was at amidships and still descending. The pressure was increasing; each breath would use three times as much air as it did on the surface and my mask and suit needed air added to them to relieve the squeeze. It was pitch black now and all I could see was our two torch beams, catching the silt and stoor like wide ragged light-sabres.
The superstructure had collapsed inwards over time, and masts and deck housing had formed a complex wall of vertical debris. Interpreting what you are seeing on a shipwreck is a skill that requires years of practice; a skill I have never mastered. Identifying the life is much easier: yellow and orange dead-men's fingers carpeted sections of the wreck; shoals of fish swam in and out of the nooks and crannies; antennas of squat lobsters dangled over the mouths of holes in the hull and lone wrasse scanned the living structure for food.
Here's a quick tip for the rookie wreck diver: whenever you find a porthole, don't stick your face in it -- that's where conger eels sleep.
We reached 35 metres and my eyes began to bulge. I looked at my computer and pushed the button that lit up the display. It glowed green and pulsated slightly. I was starting to feel tipsy.
Beyond thirty metres or so, divers begin to feel a mild drunkenness, which increases and decreases as their depth does. Like real drunkenness, nitrogen narcosis can cause reckless behaviour such as trying to feed your air regulator to a passing fish. We call it the narcs; coroners call it 'misadventure'. It has given me the giggles at forty metres before and if you've ever been to 40 MSW, you'll know it's not that funny.
I have heard divers talk about the dark narcs; in the deep dark places, some people get the heebie jeebies. Sometimes they decide they need to get out of there as quickly as they can.
A rapid ascent from down deep like that is like opening a shaken bottle of coke, all of that gas that was absorbed by the liquid under pressure suddenly escapes at once. That happens in the blood and prevents the flow of oxygen around the body; it can lead to something called a cerebral arterial gas embolism. Put simply, the blood going into your brain turns to sludge and you're dead before you hit the surface.
That's why I decided that we wouldn't be seeing the bow of the Rondo today; best to stop going down before you have problems. I signalled my buddy by waving my torch and he stopped -- he didn't want to go deeper either. We agreed to ascend.
On the way back up I discovered that, where the wreck was leaning against the wall, there were some gaps that were large enough to swim through between the wreck and the rock. This meant that you could corkscrew back up around the hull and, every so often, find a hole to wriggle through the hull and cargo holds out to the other side.
The black slowly became dark green as we ascended. This is always my favourite part of a dive; it's like emerging from a dark room into a summer sunlit garden.
Nobody died when the SS Rondo sank, but many have died on her since. A diver was to lose his life on the Rondo the very next day after my dive. When I returned to dive her in 2008, I opted to stay shallow and peel off looking for scallops in the nearby bay, partly because there was still the body of a diver somewhere down there and I didn't want to be the one to find him.
Diving wrecks is a dangerous past time. Why do we do it then? Well, I guess there's no simple answer to that, but maybe this story can give you a fair idea.
Magicguppy makes videos with dead people in them for a medical school. In his spare time, he tries to block out the visions by running, hill-walking, photography, film-making, jamming and writing scripts. He won't be diving for a while because he has a baby due pretty much now. Come to think of it, he won't be doing much of anything for a while.
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