James Eagan Layne

Liberty ship remains a classic despite the ravages of time

Author: Pat
30th May 2013

The depth to the top of this familiar wreck is now nine metres instead of six.

The JEL, or SS James Eagan Layne to use her full name, probably needs no introduction. It’s one of the most dived wrecks in UK waters, partly due to the shallow depth but also the ‘wow’ factor. Her vast holds are open and offer an unforgettable swim-through for everyone from the novice diver upward.

Yet the pre-dive briefing indicated that the shallowest section has now dropped by approximately three metres. At some point last summer, part of the uppermost structure had collapsed.

It was a sobering reminder that these underwater playgrounds are in a constant state of decline, and will undoubtedly become little more than flattened piles of plating, in the end.

Her holds are seriously big!

With this thought in mind I descended the permanent shotline, partly expecting the wreck to have changed beyond all recognition. Much to my relief this is not the case: the JEL still looks very ‘ship-like’, and is still sit vertically upright on the bottom. In places her hull has rotted away or collapsed to the sea floor, but enough bulkheads remain upright to continue providing a ‘penetrative’ dive feeling.

Nick and I drop down over the forecastle area and sink into the calm, protective shield of the bow – then head south. The JEL is full of Wrasse, Bib and Pollack, all swimming aimlessly above her scattered innards. Lots of rusty wreckage fills the holds beneath us, some of it undoubtedly telling her story but most of it unrecognisable to laymen like ourselves. Thick brown girders lay placed at obtuse angles, interspersed with thick pipes and large piles of long-fused wiring.

Yet amidst this chaos, there is order. With the bulkheads standing it’s possible to explore the holds by swimming from one to the next. We squeeze through gaping holes between the upright pillars, into the neighbouring compartment, working our way slowly from bow to stern. Large brown steel crossbeams high above do their best to filter out already low levels of sunlight.

The James Eagan Layne was a large ship, and as Nick and I float through her innards, the sweeping arcs of torchlight illuminate cavernous spaces below. Her holds are seriously big! We resist the urge to sink deep into the ship, hovering instead midway between rust and roof. And then we move on.

Gradually, the level of degradation increases until we reach an area where the sides of the vessel are almost flat: here the wreck is more like a large pile of rusting debris. Eventually, at around 22 metres, the seabed shows itself here and there, and the outline of the ship becomes harder to determine. The stern lies off somewhere distinct to the southwest, but without a bearing, it will elude us today.

The second half of our dive is done in reverse, bimbling back through the Layne’s cathedral-like holds and under the watchful eye of Spider crabs, Tompot Blennies and inquisitive Whiting. Gradually at around the 10 metre mark is the bottom of the shotline, tied into the wreck and swaying gently in the current. For all her evident decay, the James Eagan Layne remains an exciting place to explore.

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