Last weekend was the latest installment in what is becoming an annual tradition – the Eid Al Adha 406 expedition. This year the destination was Beirut – the aim being to dive the “Souffleur”, a Vichy France submarine that was torpedoed by the British in June 1941. We also had a standing invitation to visit Sami Kyriakos, once a fixture on the dive boat but now semi-retired to his home in the Lebanon.
It nearly didn’t happen. Five days before take-off a car-bomb took out Wissam Al Hassan, a leading spook in the Lebanese security services, and injured a lot of other people. This led to demonstrations in Beirut and further north in Tripoli. Added to this were forecasts of thunderstorms in the area on precisely the days we were to be there and we naturally started to wonder what we were letting ourselves in for. Mercifully the situation calmed down and both Sami and Richard (who was already there on business) assured us that there was no trouble waiting for us. The weather we’d have to take a gamble on.
The trip out was very smooth compared to the hassle and aggravation we’d experienced at Sharm El Sheikh airport a couple of years ago. Sami was good enough to provide a driver to get us to the hotel, the Mozart in Hamra district, and we were soon dumping cases in our rooms and convening at the bar.
There was thunder and lightning overnight and in the morning it was still raining. Although the sea appeared calm, the advice from the local dive shop was that it could easily cut up rough later. This being the case we decided to give the sub a miss for the day and instead go to the “Alice B”, a wreck a few km to the north. This was closer to shore and more sheltered. Before we even left the harbour, the day nearly descended to farce when one or two us realized we were missing passports that the coastguards might want to see. A swift return to the hotel would sort out the problem but five minutes down the road, Geoff realized his suitcase key was in his dive bag still at the harbour. Sami executed a swift U-turn and the key was retrieved, as were the passports 15 minutes later.
The “Alice B” is a cargo vessel lying upright in 35m of water. In shape it’s not dissimilar to the Ajman Glory although it’s rather bigger. We had a quick look at the prop before ascending to the deck to maximize the bottom time. From the hold area you can ascend through the engine room which has had some holes blasted through it for easy entrance and exit. The viz was reasonable and there was a very welcome absence of both silt and sea urchins. Less welcome was the near absence of fish life generally – presumably because of over-fishing in the Mediterranean.
After lunch we did a dive on a reef opposite the American University of Beirut (AUB) beach. A reef it might have been but it was almost totally devoid of both coral and fish. Not one to remember to be honest. In the evening we had a few beers in the Jumaizah district of Beirut before heading for bed.
On Saturday the weather was much more settled and the party split in two. Option one was to dive the “Souffleur” which after all had been the main target in the first place. Option two was a cruise on Sami’s yacht followed with lunch at a fish restaurant up the coast. Being one who chose the soft option, I’ll leave former submariner Richard to describe the diving:
Dive on Submarine Souffleur, 29 Oct 2012
BSAC 406 Divers were Geoff Patch, Derek Roberts, Derek Brown and Richard James.
As the morning before, it took a while to get going and there were two decisions to be made in order for the trip to go ahead. The first was determining whether the sea state would allow for the 50min boat ride out to the dive site. The assessment for this involved our host Nasser heading up to the roof of the dive centre, peering out to sea, shrugging his shoulders then declaring ‘why not?’ This meant that now we only needed a sufficient number of divers to cover the $400 fuel costs which, being a Saturday, was easily achieved.
So leaving St George’s Marina we headed south towards the position where the World War II submarine was sunk. The Souffler is a Requin (or Shark) Class submarine whose name is the French term for the Bottlenose Dolphin, translating literally as ’Blower’ - which in context refers to the long funnel used by a glassblower which represents the animal’s long nose. The Souffleur was a Vichy French vessel sunk on Winston Churchill’s orders by the Royal Navy and now lies in 36m of water in two parts after being struck midships by a torpedo fired by HMS Parthian.
Having heard her story from Geoff and Mike Dalton, and having served on submarines myself, I was particularly keen to pay my respects to the 52 souls who lost their lives on 25th June 1941. Submariners consider ourselves a rare breed of odd individuals who choose to lock ourselves in a metal can underwater and live in close proximity to one another in this strange and peculiar environment. This inevitably forges strong bonds amongst crew members, a bond which we extend to our fellow brethren regardless of rank, background or nationality. However, it wasn’t until the journey out that the poignancy of what we were about to do actually hit me.
We tied up to the buoy, kitted up and got in the water which was still a bit choppy. Anyone who has dived with me will be aware of my particular issues and limitations in rough water and it didn’t help that I nearly lost my fins in true amateur style on entry. This resulted in a fair amount of pratting about on my part, before my fellow divers and the boat crew settled me down and finally I was on my way.
The water was a glorious rich blue with visibility around 10-15m and the perfect temperature for a 3mm wetsuit. The descent down the line was a very serene experience, but on passing 25m the eerie shadowy outline of the Souffleur started to come into view. Only a couple more metres down and there she could be seen in all her former glory.
Submarines become more than just the nuts and bolts that are used to fabricate them. In a strange way they take on a personality of their own and are of great sentimentality to those who involved with them. So seeing one lying stricken and forlorn on the seabed resembling a dead carcass hit me more than I had ever anticipated. I had to stop for a moment to take it in and I knew I wasn’t going to be capable of continuing further. Raising a tipped hand to my temple in salute to Lieutenant Benoit Lejay and his perished crew I had to say goodbye and return to the surface. As one of our hosts, Marwan, said when I got back “emotions are magnified tenfold underwater” and being so overcome as I was (as well as not having done the Underwater Sobbing speciality course) it was necessary to call things a day at 27m.
Given her Vichy status, there has been no formal recognition of the Souffleur and it is perhaps unlikely that there ever will be. However, what we were all able to do is pay our individual respects. For me, my personal tribute was to leave my submarine brooch on the wreck. This is a badge (of two inward pointing dolphins with a crown above an anchor in between) which is awarded to submariners who have completed their training and demonstrated a knowledge of how to operate every part of the vessel, akin to the way aviators are awarded their wings. I am especially grateful to those divers who were able to make it down on to the wreck and carry out this gesture on my behalf and, as a former deck officer, it means a tremendous amount that this was done on the submarine’s bridge.
Despite having been there for over 70 years the Souffleur is still in a reasonable condition especially considering the attack she’s been under from fishing activity and ‘salvage’ attempts. As Geoff and the two Dereks saw there are still the remnants of the gun turret, a very distinctive bow and the various mast housings which are still pretty much intact. The hull has been penetrated in a few places and limited entry to the pressure hull is possible although extremely cramped and hazardous.
In the aft part of the vessel it is possible to see into the machinery rooms and the prominent snort induction/diesel exhaust manifolds. This is in addition to a number of the accumulator bottles that would have stored compressed air for blowing into the ballast tanks in order to surface.The site is also home to some stunning marine life such as trumpet fish and starfish, but the most spectacular witnessed on this dive was a large Marble Ray.
For the return journey, we broke out some much welcomed decompression fluids courtesy of our very own Derek Roberts who declared the dive as his ‘best ever’ and certainly has some great accompanying photographs to support this. These were previewed along with a snack of Arabic bread and Philadelphia cheese which was greatly appreciated at the time but we now understand pales in comparison to what the other half of the trip were tucking into further up the coast………
Meanwhile the rest of us were relaxing, drink in hand on Sami’s yacht, “Vivianne”. It was tough I can tell you but someone’s got to do it. The yacht was magnificent and we cruised up the coast for an hour or so and moored at Amchit where there was a fish restaurant well reputed locally. The locals clearly know what they’re talking about as the meal was outstanding. There seemed to be about 17 courses, all delicious and we all tucked in happily at the table by the window looking out over the harbour. The diet starts tomorrow!
The final evening was spent in a jazz bar about 10 minutes walk from the hotel. The live music was excellent and the food looked pretty good although I couldn’t take much more after the enormous lunch.
Overall the trip was excellent and although I was disappointed not to dive the “Souffleur”, this does at least give me an excuse for a return visit. Next time perhaps a longer stay to see a bit more of Beirut and the Lebanon. It’s a fascinating place and although the recent press reports of riots and the country “teetering on the brink” proved to be exaggerated, there’s still evidence on the ground of the turbulent recent past. Opposite the harbour that we launched from is the shell of the hotel that was wrecked in the car bomb explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and round the corner the former Holiday Inn remains unrepaired since the civil war. Me, I’d like to see a bit more and I think the rest of us felt the same.
The party was Mike, Wendy, Ian, Cathy, Richard, Sharon, Geoff, Derek Roberts and Derek Brown. Grateful thanks to “our man in Beirut”, Sami, for his advance organization and his generous hospitality.
While we doing all this Peter was in Katmandu seeking spiritual enlightenment, good architecture and teaching some devotees the “OK” signal. See photo attached!