Book review: Great British Shipwrecks

Given his busy output, it’s amazing author Rod Macdonald finds time to go diving

Author: Pat
2nd February 2013

The new volume from renowned writer Rod Macdonald is an easier-going read than his previous wreck diving guides.

Great British Shipwrecks – A Personal Adventure (to use its full title) pulls together thirty-seven of the UK’s finest diveable wrecks into one tome, complete with their history, illustrations and photographs.

A visit to even the best-known and most popular wrecks can be unfulfilling: promising awe, delivering unrecognisable scrap. Nonetheless, many divers you meet love these wrecks for the thrill of exploration, happily paying to descend on an old coal barge. A smaller subset of divers – the true ‘wreck heads’ – not only love exploration but take an encyclopaedic interest in ships and shipbuilding, in maritime history, and employ a detective-style approach to wreck discovery. Rod Macdonald fits into this latter category.

the enormous Empire Heritage today looks like a Sherman Tank car park

Great British Shipwrecks is physically larger than Rod’s earlier works, presented as it is in landscape A4 format. Although covering the entire coastline around the UK, the book focuses on several dense areas of shipwrecks. This should makes it more useful for those planning trips, as well as reflecting the reality of shipwreck diving in this country.

No British wreck book could overlook Scapa Flow for instance, and Rod’s book opens here at great length. Scapa was scene of the mass scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, and broadly considered Mecca for wreck divers from across the globe.

Also in the spotlight are wrecks of the West Coast of Scotland, White Star vessels of the Irish Sea, popular sites in the English Channel and some of the less dived North Sea wrecks. A great many vessels have foundered off our coast over the years, a trend accelerated by World Wars I and II.

The book is a gripping coffee table read in its own right and distinct from Dive England’s Greatest Wrecks and Dive Scapa Flow, Rod’s other enduring titles. However, it’s worth noting that the new book contains re-worked content from both of these. Many of the illustrations too are the same ones: no bad thing, as they’re beautifully done and show the hulks today as they lie on the seabed. Rod has gone to the trouble of updating these where appropriate. Time and the ocean take their toll, leaving many in states of major collapse.

Once the story of the vessel has been told, Macdonald dons his gear and narrates us through a guided tour. Some of the wrecks are at recreational depth but many are in technical territory: below the pounding action of the surface, and in water offering terrific visibility. His accounts of diving the Justicia, HMS Audacious and Empire Heritage off Ireland’s North East coast can’t fail to deliver schoolboy-like excitement. Sunk in close proximity during war, awe abounds: Justicia was a White Star liner of the RMS Titanic era, while the enormous Empire Heritage today looks like a Sherman Tank car park.

To put a figure on it, each account is perhaps 75 per cent history, 25 per cent dive guide: each has a box-out showing the ‘essentials’ (position, depth of water, date of sinking etc), and there are small maps showing the site and surrounds. As an overview, the book is excellent. For dive planning – particularly on the deeper wrecks – further reading is probably advisable.

In his book ‘The Darkness Below’ of late 2011, Rod recounted his move from open circuit to CCR diver, and the great challenges that went with it. Such technicalities are left out here in favour of good, no nonsense bedtime reading. As such, Great British Shipwrecks will be enjoyed by a broad range of readers, young and old, divers and non-divers alike.

Great British Shipwrecks by Rod Macdonald is priced £18.99, and is published in softback by Whittles Publishing. For more information call +44(0)1593 731333 or visit ISBN 978-184995-077-0

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