The wreck of wrecks only in 15 metres
You can see more pictures of this popular wreck in our online Countess of Erne Photo Gallery.
The Countess of Erne is one of the most highly dived wreck sites on the South Coast. This iron hull wreck lies upright in 15m of water close to the inner breakwater and to the north of the east entrance of Portland Harbour. While subject to continuous yet gentle tidal flow, the wreck acts as an artificial ledge between the silt-covered sea bed of the harbour and the stones that make up the breakwater itself. The wreck and its surroundings attract a variety of sea life, some of which are rare and alien to Portland.
Underwater Explorers divers have been diving and monitoring the Countess of Erne since 1998 - documenting a significant deterioration of the wreck after 2000 which may in part be due to the increased traffic of heavier "hard" boats directly tying onto the superstructure. There is now (as of 2013) significant damage on the deck structure towards her bow and parts of the stern (where the rudder is still intact).
Direct influences on the wreck and its marine life include (dive boats as above), tidal flow running through the harbour entrances and, to an extent, recreational diving activities (including sport and technical diver training due to her shallow depth and 'accessibility').
The Countess of Erne sank next to the north-east breakwater on 16 September 1935 after breaking her moorings. Built in Dublin in 1868 as an iron hulled paddle steamer, she had a short career working as a passenger ferry before being converted into a coal hulk. The Countess sits upright, parallel to the inner breakwater, on a silty sea bed at about 15m, with its shallowest point being about 8m. She is intact with all her superstructure removed, her open stern and connected three cargo holds exposed to view (the holds connected together via silty 'swim-throughs'). The structure of the upper deck towards the bow shows signs of recent deterioration/damage. The stern and rudder are more intact but deteriorating.
Due to its shallow depth and easy accessibility by licensed and authorised dive boats like her sister dive site the Dredger, the Countess of Erne can be regarded as a low risk dive. Despite the influence of water circulating in and out of the harbour, the wreck can be dived at all times of tide. Notable diving risks include loss of direction due to low visibility, loss of visibility due to "silt out", discarded monafilament fishing lines and hooks, loss of direction or entanglement during any attempted "swim throughs" between holds or overhead parts of the wreck and loss of contact with wreck (which exposes divers to the tidal flow of the harbour's East entry which is closeby)*. Divers are also advised that due to deterioration the Countess boasts sharp and "spiky" parts often facing up (hazardous for uncontrolled fast descent in low visibility conditions).
* June 22 2015 Update: Portland Harbour Authority has issued a written statement on this risk assessment reported on our Facebook Pages as: Portland Harbour taking measures to avoid diving incidents related to the Countess of Erne. Wreck to be permanently marked with buoy to bow and leaflets to be prepared. A written statement from the Harbour Authority we received today noted detailed handouts would also be prepared for visiting divers to avoid in-water accidents following an incident on May 22 where three divers were swept out of the East Channel as a 90 metre tanker was being piloted in. The divers had apparently failed to find the Countess of Erne and started an ascent during which they were doing a 5 metre safety stop while drifting through the channel - as the tanker with a draft of 5.4 metres was being piloted in. It was only because the pilot boat spotted the divers’ SMB and the tanker being relatively small enough to alter her course that an incident was avoided. “Had this been a larger less maneuverable vessel and had the timings been a little different, this may have resulted in a very serious incident” the statement said. It added, “we intend to mark the bow of the Countess of Erne with a designated buoy and will produce a detailed handout to help avoid this situation happening again”.
The Countess of Erne was built by the firm of Walpole, Webb & Bewley of Dublin in 1868. She was an iron hulled paddle steamer approximately 73m (240ft) in length, with 2 engines, built by Fawcett Preston & Co of Liverpool, delivering a total of about 300hp to two side paddles. She was fitted out to able to carry approximately 700 passengers, with more than 100 of those being in first class. She was also able to carry 700 tons of cargo. In 1869, the ownership of the Countess was transferred to the London & North Western Railway Company for use on their Holyhead to Dublin route. In 1873, she was transferred to their Greenore route. Sometime during 1888-1889, she was put up for auction in Liverpool, where she was purchased by the Bristol Steam Navigation Company who put her into service for 2 years, before she was sold for scrap. In 1890, she was converted into a coal hulk and used at several ports before finally being moored in Portland Harbour. On the 16th September 1935, she broke free of her moorings and drifted before holing herself on the north-east breakwater of Portland Harbour and shortly afterwards sank. (Thanks to Havering Scuba Divers for collecting the detailed information and sharing it online).
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