The wreck of the 7th HMS Vanguard lies off the Wicklow coast, south of Dublin Bay. We’ve so much written about it by now that it’s been given its own page in the guide.
|When||1.5 hrs before HW, 1 hour before LW|
The Vanguard is a wonderful shipwreck. She is a mid-Victorian iron battleship, built at a time of great innovation and experimentation in warship design. She lies shallow enough for experienced air divers to explore, and is remarkably intact. All in all, we’re very lucky to have her on our doorstep.
HMS Vanguard was an iron-hulled British battleship built by Cammell-Lairds at Birkenhead and launched on January 3rd 1870, the 7th ship to bear the name. In Ireland, she served as the guard ship for Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) until her sinking in 1875.
The Vanguard was one four sister ships in the ‘Audacious’ class, the others being the Audacious, the Invincible and the Iron Duke. These ships were ‘central battery’ ironclads, carrying their main guns amidships in an armoured gun battery. Earlier ships such as the Warrior had gun decks running the length of the ship for delivering a ‘broadside’ of fire. The central battery design improved on this, siting the guns in the most stable part of the ship, enabling some of them fire forward and aft, and allowing heavy armour plating to be concentrated where needed. The rotating gun turrets later used on all battleships were then still too heavy, and impractical for a masted ship like the Vanguard.
The Vanguard grossed 6,034 tons, was 85m long and had a full crew of 450 men. Her hull was made of iron, double-skinned up to the main deck level, with teak inside for reinforcement. She had two coal-fired steam engines, but could only carry enough coal for a few days under steam alone. She therefore also had three iron masts to give her greater range under sail, although she handled much better when steaming than when sailing. Her engines could produce 4,830 horsepower, giving the ship a top speed of around 13 knots.
Her main armament was ten 12-ton 9-inch muzzle-loaded guns housed in the 18m-long central battery on the upper and main decks. The upper deck gunwale sloped inwards and the gun battery jutted out, giving the upper guns a clear line of fire forward and aft. The Vanguard also carried four six-inch 64-pounder ‘chaser’ guns, two at the bow and two at the stern on the upper deck, and six 20-pounder breech-loading guns for saluting.
The sinking of the Vanguard
On September 1st 1875 the Vanguard was travelling in convoy with three other ironclads from Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) to Queenstown (Cobh), Co. Cork, on the final leg of a flag-flying tour of Irish ports. The other three ships were the Warrior (now a museum in Portsmouth), the Hector and the Vanguard’s sister ship, the Iron Duke.
Not long after leaving port, the convoy ran into heavy fog on the Kish bank. As the Vanguard sailed, a sailing ship appeared out of the fog in front, forcing the warship to turn to port to avoid collision. This manoeuvre, however, brought her directly in front of the Iron Duke, which was drifting off station and had no working forhorn. The Iron Duke was built, as commonly then, with a ram bow for sinking enemy craft. On impact, she tore a hole in the Vanguard’s port side near the engines and below the water line. Water rushed in, quenching the Vanguard’s boilers and stopping the steam-driven water pumps. The ship was now doomed, and sank in an hour. The three-hundred and sixty crew aboard took to the lifeboats and all were saved.
The Vanguard’s Captain, Richard Dawkins, was court-martialled and dismissed, which many at the time thought unfairly harsh. Shortly after the sinking, the navy tried to salvage the wreck, but when this proved impossible, the ship was dismasted and left for a hundred years.
Life on the Vanguard
Extract from a letter by Lieutenant William C S Hathorn to his sister, written on HMS Vanguard at Galway, 9th August 1875 (This letter was sent a few weeks before the ship’s sinking on the 1st.September 1875).
By my heading you will see that that I am actively employed onboard one of our enormous Iron Clads – we are at present in company with six other Iron Clads viz “Warrior”, “Achilles”, “Hector”, “Iron Duke”, “Penelope” & “Defence” besides two very pretty little Despatch Vessels called the “Imogene” & “Hawk” – on the 23rd of last month we sailed from Kingstown Dublin and arrived at Portland 3 days after – here the Fleet assembled & took on board Coal provisions & other necessities for sea life in the present day – on leaving Portland we were favored with beautiful weather & a fair wind so we did not take long booming down to Bantry Bay on the SW coast of Ireland – and altho’ we were kept constantly employed at different Drills with the Sails, great guns, torpedoes, Rifles, Swords & Revolvers not to speak of what we call Steam Tactics ie the evolutions which a Squadron would perform with an end to ram & therefore sink an enemy’s fleet, still All Hands are enjoying the trip in spite of the mimic warfare (without any glory) which we are involved in – I must tell you that we are the Reserve Iron Clad Squadron, we are manned by Coastguards men (those fellows you used to see at Dover), who have to go for a months or six weeks cruise every other year – the total number of souls in our Squadron including officers is 4029. On leaving Bantry Bay we shaped course for Tarbert on the left bank of the Shannon – but I did not notice anything of particular interest except that the officers in the Coast Guards appear to be well contented with their lot – it is a remarkably cheap country this side.
We arrived at our present anchorage yesterday – Galway – it is called the “City of Tribes”. I have not had much opportunity for seeing at all inland – and about the Coasts the chief attraction appears to be “Whisky & Milk”* – the Natives are quite uncivillized compared to the Hindoos – & they (the majority) do not understand a word of our language – the lower classes require great persuasion to come up the Ship’s side – and when they get inboard they give expression to great wonder, muttering (praises or curses) to themselves all the while. They walk about with great stealth like wild animals – in this particular they remind me of the N.W. American Indians. I should like to plan out a more descriptive & interesting yarn – but the “enemy” prevents me – & we sail early tomorrow – I send this through Mug at Liverpool & am in hopes that it will reach Dover in time for your Mail of the 12th inst or 13th.
Diving the Vanguard
The Vanguard lies on a sandy seabed in around 50m, tilted over towards her starboard side. The wreck lies with the bow to the south and the stern to the north. The wreck rises around 16m from the seabed to the top of the gun battery. Her solid construction and iron hull have ensured she remains very intact, and still very recognisably a ship. The size of the wreck means that it is generally only possible to see a section of it on each dive. The following information is put together from my dive log notes (S.P.) and reports by other DUSAC divers who have dived the wreck, cross-referenced with the ship’s plans.
Diving the forward section: gun battery to bow
The wreck is most often shotted at the highest point – the port side of the octagonal upper level of the gun battery. Landing on here, you can look down through holes in the battery roof to the upper deck, where the four huge 9-inch guns are still in place. The starboard-side guns are mostly buried in silt, but the port two are clear. The lower part of the cut-down iron main mast lies across the battery and over the starboard side. The mast was hollow so you can see inside where it has broken open. If you follow the mast, you can drop over the side of the ship and see the five starboard-side 9-inch guns poking out of their gunports on the main and upper decks.
Going forward from the roof of the gun battery, you drop about 2-3m to the main deck. A large rectangular well marks where the retractable funnel once stood. What looks like a section of mast lies inside it. Going on, you come to the forward steam capstan and then the cut-down forward mast. All along the upper deck are many holes and hatches. Dropping through one brings you to the area in which the crew slept and ate. Not much trace of daily life remains, but you can see the lower level of the capstan and the forward mast, and also various bulkheads that divided the ship into compartments.
Back up on the upper deck, to the left and forward of the mast you find one of the 64-pounder guns and two massive anchors resting on the deck against the port gunwale. Carry on in the lee of the overhanging gunwale, past the cat’s head (the jutting spar for raising the anchor) and you reach the bow, which is still intact and standing high above the 50m seabed. Descending, you see the the concave curve of the bow, designed for ramming other ships. Right at the bottom, wedged between the bow and the seabed is another anchor from the starboard side.
Diving the aft section: gun battery to stern
Again starting your dive on the highest point of the gun battery, but going sternwards, you soon reach a large crack across the ship, just forward of the gun battery’s stern bulkhead. Dropping down to the main deck level here, you can look forward into the gun battery with its big guns and piles of artillery shells. The port stern-most gun on the main deck has dropped down a deck, leaving a cavernous space ahead of it. Descending further into the crack brings you out of the starboard side of the ship to the seabed.
Sternwards of the crack, going over the battery bulkhead or through one of the open doors, you come to a sunken area above the engine room. The stern capstan is here, fallen over and lying parallel with the deck. Continuing, you pass the upper deck steering wheel and the mizzen mast. On the main deck, on either side were the quarters where the officers slept. Just ahead was the ward room where they took their meals, and further aft, the captain’s cabin at the stern of the ship. The upper deck in this area has partly collapsed, and large sections of the port gunwale have fallen flat, so it’s hard to distinguish between what stood on the upper and main decks.
Going over the port side of the ship, you see that the hull is still fully intact. As you drop down, you find the port prop shaft housing as it flares out from the hull. Following this sternwards, you reach a pair of weird-looking propellers. These have two blunt-ended blades each, and are mounted one just in front of the other, with the blades aligned. Just aft is the rudder, which pivoted on a rod running down its centre. The starboard props are mostly buried in the sand.
On a note of caution, while visibility off Dublin has been improving year on year, the Vanguard can still be a very dark and challenging dive. It has many open hatches and holes, so you can find yourself inside unintentionally. The Vanguard is also a long way out to sea, so only reachable in good weather. Strong tidal currents mean you have to judge slack correctly, and you’re best diving on neap tides. Best visibility is on low water, just coming off neaps.
Note also that all ships over a hundred years old are protected under the National Monuments (Amendment) Acts 1987 and 1994, meaning you need a license from the National Monuments Service to dive them. The Vanguard, though, is a superb dive and well worth the effort.
A recent sonar scan of the Vanguard by the INFOMAR project gives an idea of what the ship looks like today. The INFOMAR report can be found here.
For much more information on the Vanguard’s short-lived career, from construction to sinking and its aftermath, see Chris Thomas’s book ‘Lamentable Intelligence from the Admiralty: the sinking of HMS Vanguard in 1875‘.
The best way to see what she looks like is to visit her cousin the HMS Warrior in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Although they are not sisters – Warrior is a decade earlier and they are seperated by two classes in between – and there is an obvious difference being the absence of a box battery on Warrior (she has a long armoured deck instead with more lower calibre weapons) she is identical in many of the fundamentals. John Kenny, Jon Meredith and Amanda Rhynhart visited her in summer of 2013 after many years of talking about it.
It is an incredibly satisfying trip to any diver to appreciate how Vanguard would have looked and to explore the nether regions of the ship – the boilers, galleys, magazines etc that are now difficult or impossible for divers to access. There are many familiar features that are identical between the ships (capstans, hatches, wheel arrangements, arrangement of crew accomodations (incluing the incredibly lavish officers quarters), placement of funnels and sails, machinery, armour and water-tight construction)
Shot taken from bow looking towards stern with 110 pound rifled breech loading bow-chaser in the foreground – the equivelant is still visible on Vanguard
Main gun deck – crew tables, mess and hammock space (for 18 men) in foreground. Large item on the right of the photo is the mess for the 700 odd crew. This is the main difference between the ships and instantly apparent to anyone who has seen the box battery on Vanguard. The gun here is a 7.9 inch smoothbore muzzle loader as opposed to the 9 inch guns on Vanguard.
Main Deck looking forward from the stern with retractable funnel closest to the camera. The holes for these are still apparent on Vanguard. The fly bridge can be made out on the port side of the photo but there is no comparable structure on Vanguard. This is a great photograph to give a sense of the huge scale of these ships (and why trying to dive more than a small portion is not necessarily a brilliant idea)
Entry into the Historic Dockyard is £25 so pricey enough but Warrior alone is well worth the price. The Dockyard also has the HMS Victory but she is absolutely mobbed all the time whereas Warrior seemed to be nearly deserted and you could come and go as you pleased. We (JK, JM and AR spent a couple of hours on her and there was still more to be explored (and lots of pointing at things and trying to recall dimly remembered dives on Vanguard). Its a great day out and there are few (if any) examples where you can both dive on a ship (let alone an intact Victorian battleship) and then go and essentially look at the same ship at leisure.
Boats, charts, safety, facilities
See the Dublin Bay & Beyond section of the guide for all details.