Text and photography by David Oldale
Although (in my opinion) previous ships had been adequately cleaned down with hazards removed – EU Law demanded more stringent measures and hence a higher cost, €1,300,000 was the approximate figure mentioned for the work involved in putting down ‘Karwela' and ‘Comino Land' including the cost of purchase and installation of a new decompression chamber at Gozo General Hospital (due to be operational by November 06) and further facilities for divers i.e. handrails installed at popular dive sites throughout the Islands. This amount would be paid by means of grant from the EU structural funds.
The clean-down and scuttling operation was entrusted to Cassar Ship Repair of Marsa, Malta – a company of renowned reputation who had put down both the ‘Um el-Faroud' and ‘Imperial Eagle' with considerable success off Malta. To ensure a slow gentle-ride from the surface to an upright position on the seafloor a number of steel (removable) buoyancy cylinders were constructed and affixed to both vessels. This was ‘a first' to be used on a scuttling operation – Cassar's commercial divers would remove all the cylinders the day following scuttling.
To many it may seem odd that both ships would be put down in close proximity to each other and not on either side of the small Island of Gozo . However, there was a question to be answered on whether small marine organisms (at the lower end of the food-chain) would attach themselves more readily to a wreck devoid of paint than one painted! This experiment could only be accomplished satisfactorily with both ships being sunk at the same location and being subject to the same weather/water conditions and currents. Hence, the ‘ Comino Land ' was scrubbed of paint and the ‘Karwela' was left in its painted condition.
3 trips in 3 Months
It was June 06, I was at Malta International Airport for my flight back to Gatwick after 2 glorious weeks in the sun where I had done a few dives onto two new (to me) wrecks – the ocean liner ‘Polynesian' in 65 metres (sunk by torpedo in 1918) and the barge ‘Z Craig' in 20 metres near Anchor Bay (used in the feature-film ‘Popeye').
I crept out of the lounge after the announcement that my Air Malta flight was boarding to be greeted by Peter Lemon and his wife (who wrote the book ‘Shore Diving the Maltese Islands'). We passed the time of day after which Peter stated that the Maltese Government were scuttling two ships off Gozo in a few weeks (July). I paid little heed.
My daughter was holidaying in Malta in July – I thought I would surprise her, after all – I wanted some more shots of the ‘Rozi' and the ‘Um el Faroud' – I decided to go back – for a week! Five hours before I was due to leave for the airport I received a fax from the Malta Tourist Authority informing me of the sinking of the 2 ships off Gozo on the 29 th . July (3 days after my expected return date to the UK ). This I couldn't miss – I phoned the MTA in Malta who without hesitation extended my stay for an extra week, so that I could cover the story.
I enjoyed those two glorious weeks, pastizzis (Maltese savoury cheese cakes) the wine, beer and the burning sun and did a little diving. The ships – dates shifted back a few days and my stay was extended
another week! And then the ships would not be put down until the 12 th . August – I could not spend 5 weeks in Malta – as much as I would have liked! I visited the Cassar Ship Yard in Marsa, going on board the ‘Karwela' and ‘ Comino Land ' as they were undergoing their final preparations before retuning to the UK for eight days. Sharon at the MTA had booked me back on the evening flight from Heathrow on the 11 th – the day after all hell broke loose at UK airports. I was to interview the Prime Minister of Malta and Minister for Gozo whilst enjoying the comforts of the Press Boat on the day and now there was a question mark if I would ever manage to leave the UK . A phone call to Air Malta allayed all fears – No problem, check in at the Club Class desk, you are booked thru Fastrak and have all the facilities of the VIP Lounge and will be flying in Club Class. It all worked like heaven – I pushed my trolley through the crowds straight to the check-in desk, my camera case was personally and safely placed into the hold (as no hand baggage was allowed on all flights out of the UK ). The only delay – Fastrak, I was informed that today it was Slowtrak due to the increased security – it was! The lounge was help yourself to anything – superb, with the comfort, service and meal menu on the flight nothing less than magnificent (from 1 st August 06 Air Malta show an in-flight movie on all flights with free head-phones).
My rental car was waiting for me at the airport with me arriving in the early hours of the morning at the Selmun Palace Hotel. Whilst the main hotel was a pleasure to stay in, it was not for me on this trip – I was shown to a 2-floor luxurious suite in the 18 th Century Castle. No time for bed – unpack, service the cameras before a shower and drive up to the dive centre ( Aquaventure in Mellieha Bay ). It was at Aquaventure that I was to pick up my dive kit (where I had left it the week before) and to collect Ian before meeting the VIP Boat at Marfa at nine – we made it – just!
Hours on end
After picking up more invited guests from Gozo we eventually were drifting very close to the proposed wreck site by 1030. Many craft were spread over the flat calm water near the ‘Karwela' and ‘ Comino Land ' with many hundreds of people lining the waters edge and car park at ix-Xatt l-Ahmar. The hours went slowly by with seemingly little happening other than the very slow settling by the bow of ‘Karwela' (with all sea-cocks open). Whilst we were very well looked after (drinks and food) throughout the day it was not until after 1535 when the ‘Karwela' showed signs that she was imminent of making her final trip. At a few minutes after 1600 hrs ‘Karwela's' bow slipped silently beneath the surface, the stern rose briefly and then she was gone! The only indication of her previous position – some five minutes of white foam and bubbles. With the only activity on the day seemingly carried out concerning ‘Karwela' I wondered as to how many hours it would be before ‘ Comino Land ' would join its sister ship on the seafloor? As if in answer to my question the engines were started on our craft and we moved as if making headway back to harbour on Gozo. But within minutes we had turned and were heading back to our previous location – what was up?
Seeing how long the scuttling of the first ship had taken, the ‘Fireboat' from Valletta had been summoned. Anchored and on station, vast quantities of water were being discharged into the hull of the ‘Comino Land' from radial branches at a rate of so-many thousand gallons per minute. Within 20 minutes the ship was well down by the bow and going quickly – this was to be no gentle glide to the seabed! The positional lines snapped like cotton thread as the ship headed down to collide heavily with the sandy seafloor. Whilst I had every confidence that the ‘Karwela' would be on an even keel resting on the sand, the ‘ Comino Land ' could be anywhere at any attitude! A dive would be the only way to discover its resting place – both Ian and myself were ready to dive but our boat was now again heading back to port; we would not be diving that day!
I relaxed around the picturesque pool with a cold ‘lemonade' to hand – I was slowly drifting off, it had been a long hot day. As the ZZ…'s started to flow and I was dreaming of our arranged dive the following morning to the wrecks I was sharply awakened.
‘Would you like some slices of cool Melon sir?' asked the waiter.
How could I refuse! This was heaven!
Overnight the wind increased in velocity and changed direction. With the Instructors from Aquaventure I looked out over the sea from the car park at ix-Xatt l-Ahmar as waves crashed over the shoreline rocks with white horses surmounting every crest. I thought Okay, you would get in but you wouldn't get out – the first dive was scrubbed. As my friends went off to dive the other (calm) side of the island I hauled myself over to check in to the Atlantis Hotel in Marsalforn; I had a story to write and I couldn't keep travelling on the ferry daily in the hope of diving the wrecks.
On the outskirts of Marsalforn is the Atlantis Hotel (with PADI 5 star dive centre). Like my previous hotel rooms the Atlantis was spotlessly clean, well appointed with excellently prepared meals and service. Although I hadn't dived with the centre before they came with a superb recommendation from none other than many dive centres all over Malta ‘They are the best on Gozo', they said. I found I had to agree!
You're pushing it!
The weather forecast had looked fine for the Monday morning – it was, with the sea flat.
At 0840 we were the first to park in the car park. A walk to the far right of the railings then a short easy walk straight down over the rocks to the waters edge. A step in, submerge to 10 metres following a heading of 180º for around a 5 minute fin had us over amidships of the ‘Karwela'. But, it does lay deeper than the proposed 25 metres! Bow pointing more or less shoreward on an even keel it rests in 38 metres by the bow and 42 metres at the rudders. There was no damage visible from contact with the seafloor. Within 36 hours of its sinking shoals of baitfish in there hundreds were cruising over the wreck. Thorough exploration including wreck penetration is easy (all doors and glass have been removed for divers safety) but be warned due to the depth it is easy to find oneself needing to carry out deco stops; this wreck is for experienced and qualified divers only.
It is possible to briefly look over both wrecks on one dive (as the ‘ Comino Land ' lays close by) but there is no doubt that a lengthy deco stop will be required!
Coming off the bow and keeping the distant line of reef rocks to our left we came upon the bow to midships section of ‘ Comino Land ' again after about 5 minutes of easy finning. As in the previous case this wreck also lays on an even keel on the sand in around 32 metres of water with its bow pointing approximately to shore. However, the ship after its rather quick trip to the bottom did sustain some slight damage – crushing of the bow and denting of the forward starboard side. If fact as it was pointed out to me later – this looks rather more like a real wreck; it's got character!
I was amused to find that the ‘ Comino Land ' sported none of the fish life that shrouded the ‘Karwela' even though all its paint had been removed – but it's early days yet. As we were one of the very first to dive both wrecks all the air-filled cylindrical (blue) buoyancy chambers had not been removed from the wrecks although a small number had broken free on there own during the sinking.
By diving both wrecks I had accumulated about 20 minutes of deco-time – yuk! But, I had 120 bar left in my 12 litre cylinder and stops would not be boring – just a gentle cruise along the reef shallows with Cuttlefish, Octopus all out and about. A great dive!
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Jos L Meyer Paenburg built MV Karwela in Germany during 1957. It was commissioned one year later and used as a ferry in Germany under the name MV Nordpaloma.
In 1990 the vessel was purchased by Captain Morgan Cruises of Malta and renamed MV Karwela. It was operated on a daily schedule around the Maltese Islands as a holiday tourist island cruise ship. After 15 years service with Captain Morgan Cruises the Karwela was considered of beyond financial repair and was therefore decommissioned – being finally scuttled on the 12 th . August 2006.
Gross Tonnage: 482. O. Length: 45 metres. Width: 8.5 metres. Draught: 1.7 metres.
MV Comino Land was built in England by Philip & Son of Dartmouth in 1942. The vessel was equipped with two rotary diesel internal combustion engines (operated through a boiler system) manufactured by General Motors in the USA .
The Comino Land arrived in Malta in 1974 and was operated by Captain Morgan Cruises being registered as a passenger ship. It was operated regularly on harbour cruises and trips to the Island of Comino .
O. Length: 34.5 metres. Width: 8.08 metres. Draught: 2.46 metres.
Two Maltese Navy Patrol Boats are scheduled for scuttling at dates to be confirmed possibly from November 06 – February 07. One off Cirkawwa near the resting of the tugboat Rozi; the other to the south of the Island near Marsascala. Updates will follow.
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