Bergen and beyond
On a notable Saturday 2nd July, 11 of us met at Gatwick airport to travel to Bergen on the south west coast of Norway for a weeks diving organized by Jo Eaton.
It was notable only because it was also the day England exited the World Cup. The twelfth member of our party, Steve Collard, had kindly offered to drive to Newcastle and take the overnight ferry to Bergen, taking with him a multitude of our kit in his covered Ranger pick-up. Jo’s efficient travel planning had gained us a group booking with a massive 40 kg luggage allowance (each) on SAS Braathens, plus hand luggage, which together with Steve’s car meant we could take as much kit as we wished, collectively including twin sets, stage cylinders and Steve’s own rebreather. Our group consisted of Jo Eaton, Dave Tresidder, Trish & Ian Emery, Gren Hamlyn, Sarah Jenner, Simon Neuhoff, Claire de Jongh, Rob Lea, Dave Beadling, Steve Collard and myself, Jonathan Markwell.
Rob Lea, Simon Neuhoff, Ian Emery, Dave Beadling, Trish Emery, Jonathan Markwell, Claire De Jongh, Steve Collard, Joanne Eaton, Dave Tresidder, Gren Hamlyn and Sarah Jenner Climbed 480 metres above sea level to the top of “Alden”.
The flight from Gatwick took only 1.5 hours and we landed to news that England were out of the World Cup ﾐ but no-one really cared ﾐ we were there to dive. Bergen proved to be a small regional airport, which we efficiently exited and some swift negotiation secured us a minibus and taxi for the 30 minute transfer from airport to harbour.
Bergen is described as a small city, but still ranks as the second largest in Norway (behind Oslo) with a population of only 250,000! It is very much centred around the bustling harbour of Vﾃ･gen, which serves cruise ships offering tours up the fjords, fishing vessels and numerous ferry services, including that which Steve took from Newcastle. The city features lots of wooden buildings painted a variety of pastel shades, a modern shopping area and is renowned for its rain ﾐ over 250 days per year according to one local! We actually spent very little time in Bergen itself, as having arrived on an afternoon flight and being an hour ahead we had only a short time to faff with getting kit organised and stowed on deck, plus our luggage down below. The canny amongst us avoided the two cabins by the heads, the boat’s toilets being a constant irritation to Gren as he railed against the nightly toilet flushing clearly audible through his cabin wall, requesting we ﾒflush with eleganceﾓ rather than go hell for leather on the pump. Steve had kindly (and single-handedly) unloaded all our dive kit from his pick-up, transferred it onto the boat and filled our cylinders with a nitrox mix ready for our first dive. Well done Steve!
We met Gordon, skipper of the Jane R, which was to be our home for the next week and then strolled into town for a group beer. For some, this was to be their first experience of the high cost of living and in particular that you pay over ｣5 (or 50 Norwegian Nog) for less than a pint of beer. No-one was buying rounds! We found a bar with seating outside and were entertained by a group of Brazilian football fans, some in exotic national dress and singing ﾐ despite, we found out later, having lost their quarter final match as well. This did nothing to dampen their Latin spirit. The street lamps came on around 12 midnight, but it was still very light, something it was hard to get used to all week. The foolhardy amongst us stopped off for a Burger King on the way back to the boat, being fleeced for another ｣8 quid in the process.
The Jane R is an ex Scottish herring drifter, which has been converted into a liveaboard and is the same boat Dave Beadling and I were on for our trip to Narvik three years earlier. The skipper, Gordon Wadsworth, has been running trips to Norway for the past 13 years and has accumulated details of over 100 wrecks along the western coast during this time, including more than 30 around Bergen. The boat narrowly escaped a watery end, when in a commercial mooring in December last year it turned over and flooded the lower deck including the accommodation area and engine room. Gordon recounted how he spent the New Year trying to save the boat, his livelihood and our trip! Fortunately all had been restored to working order for this season and Gordon was joined by his brother Ian, whose role was everything from chief cook and bottle washer to ship’s mate. During our week Ian conjured up a series of delicious meals in a tiny galley, porridge and Nog bread for breakfast, two courses for lunch and three for dinner, including chicken curry, locally smoked salmon, fresh mackerel and a roast beef dinner ﾐ all with a little help from Delia’s Complete Cookery book! Ian even managed a passable vegetarian alternative. We ended the week with dinner ashore in a rustic restaurant in Fedje which served a great spread consisting of a rich and tasty fish soup followed by chicken breast and dessert of ice cream with berry fruits. There was so much Claire got back to the boat and remarked ﾒI’m going to lay on my back and moanﾓ (unless she was planning other last-night activities)!
We left Bergen Sunday morning and spent the week cruising along the west coast, principally off the county of Sogn og Fjordane, stopping to dive twice a day, for a brief time to step ashore for a short wander or a quick visit to the local shop for those essential supplies, only to find beer cannot be purchased on Sundays. This area is a mass of small to medium-sized islands and the fjords, which were to provide rugged and / or lush scenery all week. Each night we moored up in a harbour, visiting Fedje, Flora and the colloquially-known Midge Bay, the latter having plenty of the biting insects but no bar! Just as well we’d shipped supplies in Flora, where we also found the local government-run monopoly shop (Monoplet) that was the only place allowed to sell wine (｣8-｣12 a bottle) and spirits. One night we also moored up at a landing stage next to a steep hill known as Alden and after another hearty bowl of porridge the next morning all 12 of us managed the ascent to the summit at 480 metres. This was an easier feat for some more than others, with Rob managing it (despite plenty of vino the night before) in a very sprightly 36 minutes, the tail enders getting there over the hour. The views of the surrounding islands and fjord were fantastic ﾐ well worth the hot, sweaty hike and test of fitness ﾐ though Steve was heard to remark he was never going to snack on another crisp or peanut again and to join a gym immediately on returning home. The first resolution lasted until the next evening and I doubt the second has been carried out either!
Everywhere ashore the local Norwegians were friendly and virtually all spoke perfect English. Some of us experienced a cultural exchange at the bar in Fedje where we joined in classic songs such as ﾒAn Englishman in New Yorkﾓ (the Norwegians chose that), ﾒSwing Loﾓ and that classic ﾒThe Engineers Songﾓ – Simon new all the words to every verse. We also met a lady who was into extreme yodelling. This was the same little harbour where a Ukranian factory ship was moored up nearby, a couple of the crew demonstrating their fitness regime, which included what appeared to be an improvised barbell consisting of a scaffold pole with barrels at either end. The girls aboard our boat looked impressed at all that exposed Ukranian muscle! I wonder if they noticed the muffin tops on display (Jo had to explain to me a muffin top is that bulge of tummy flesh caused by following the latest female fashion of squeezing yourself into tight trousers or skirts and wearing a top that doesn’t cover said exposed flesh).
The times at which we dived varied during the week, ranging from 8am to 8pm, with meals being fitted in between. A hearty bowl of porridge followed 10 minutes later by a 35m dive go well together, though I soon found marmite is one of those things that tend to repeat on you underwater (it being spread on the Nog bread, not with the porridge). At least it gave us long surface intervals, when we could pump the cylinders, sleep or even take a BSAC Chart Work and Position Fixing course laid on for a very reasonable fee by our Regional Coach, Dave T. Alternatively, there were fishing competitions ﾐ well the two keenest anglers were very competitive, having to catch the biggest ugly-looking pink thing or the most mackerel every time, whilst the rest of us amateurs were just thankful not to get the hook caught on something onboard (eh Rob?). This was also time to compare who had got the best underwater pictures, or preview Gren’s video footage (DVDs will be on sale shortly at the club).
The scenery was lovely, the weather was generally good, but the diving was fantastic. There are over 30 wrecks along this short tour we made from Bergen along Sogn og Fjordane the fjord waters typified by no real tidal currents to worry about (hence we could dive at just about any time of day) and a halocline layer at around 5m, where surface freshwater meets salt creating a half metre or so that appears to be an oily layer as you de/ascend through it. A couple of times there were slight surface currents so you had to be ready for a hasty descent and once the shot buoy was so small and liable to be pulled under by the first pair that Steve Collard was tasked to be the ﾒhuman blobﾓ, he jumping in and holding the buoy for dear life as the rest of us scrambled over him and down the line. As Trish pointed out we did all go down on Steve!
Three of these wrecks were outstanding, the SS Frankenwald, the Wilhelm and the Ferndale & Parat (actually two vessels which lie adjacent stern to bow), so good we dived all of these twice. The Frankenwald, a German cargo vessel sank in January 1940, lies upright in 24-40m and is almost completely intact. She makes an easy square profile dive, down a bow shot, over the deck and up a stern shot. A huge main mast situated not far from the bow extends to within 5m of the surface and was covered in soft coral and there are four massive holds with cranes. The stern is interesting with easy and safe swim-throughs along a short corridor off which are various accommodation rooms and toilets and you can swim around the stern and out over the rails to the seabed ﾐ to find the prop has been salvaged. You can also swim over the rear steering gear and past a group of gas cylinders. On our second dive I also noticed numerous flatties along with the plentiful Pollack.
If the Frankenwald was a classic dive, the Wilhelm was even better, as she is one of the largest intact wrecks in the area. A German cargo vessel, she was sunk in November 1944 by a Norwegian MTB whilst carrying coal and lies on her port side with bow in 12m and stern at 70m. Our first descent was unreal, as there pulsating moon jellyfish everywhere around us (as opposed to the nasty stinging lion’s mane jellyfish we’d also encountered) and an eerie milkiness to the water as we descended the bow shot. The side was kelpy, but once over that we were treated to the sight of the largest ship I have ever seen, made all the better by superb 20m+ visibility that allowed you to appreciate the sheer magnitude and layout of the vessel, including the still-attached funnel just behind the bridge in about 45m. Other fascinating sights were the remains of a gun platform ﾐ a huge sort of wheel-shape with projecting tube ﾐ which sits on the seabed, complete with a perfectly white toilet bowl nearby. Coal was clearly visible in the cavernous holds and those who went a little deeper were rewarded with anti-aircraft guns near the bridge. Whilst the first dive on the Wilhelm gave us a quick tour of bow to amidships bridge and back again, the second time we descended a shot at about 40m forward of the bridge and had plenty of time to explore as we slowly made our way back to the shallower bow.
The final gem of the trip was to dive the Fernadale and Parat, the first a Norwegian motor vessel commandeered by the Germans during WWII and the second, a tug which had come to assist the Ferndale. On 15 December 1944 whilst sailing at night in a convoy, the Ferndale hit Seglesteinen rock. The tug Parat came to her assistance the next day, but both were attacked by British Mosquitoes and sank together. The Ferndale lies on a steep slope with the collapsed bow in 5m and stern at 45m to the seabed. The Parat then sits upright almost touching the starboard side of the Ferndale, bow at 45m and stern at 60m. The first time I dived the Ferndale only, but with 25m+ visibility at depth the Parat was clearly visible, not least because of her massive forward mast. The Fernadale is notable for her auxiliary steering gear at the stern, a swim through right under the keel around 20m (complete with rusticles hanging down ﾐ like icicles, but vivid orange/brown rust coloured) and the steep incline of the slope she lies on. Forward of about 18m the crushed bow end is very kelpy, to the extent where much is unrecognisable and the visibility a lot poorer at about 8m. Still, the swim forward from stern to bow is a good way to lose any decompression stops as you slowly follow the upward gradient. As you proceed through the halocline layer, the visibility clears again and you can end with a scenic dive around the Seglesteinen rock covered in colourful plumose anemones.
The second dive on these wrecks I ventured over to the Parat, so small in comparison to the Ferndale and with the clear visibility and the lure of guns, an intact rudder and prop, it is very tempting to keep on descending well beyond safe limits of air diving and your qualification! Rob and I had to hover well above the deck and could only look down at the stern from well above. Steve Collard (limited to 40m diving with his rebreather on air) reported a wonderful site being at the mast and looking down at the divers below illuminating various parts of the Parat with powerful torch beams. A return from the Parat to stern of the Ferndale gave another opportunity to explore further as you ascended the incline. Together these make a truly magnificent dive.
The other wrecks we dived were the Spring (a Norwegian collier), Hime (didn’t actually get to the wreck as the skipper’s direction on where to swim bellowed out of the wheel house got lost as we were readying to jump in, so Rob and I ended up having a drift instead!), Optima (known as the ﾒCheese & Wineﾓ wreck as it was carrying supplies for the German High Command ), Inga III, Havda (the ﾒBottleﾓ wreck, complete with good-sized monkfish ﾐ or technically speaking an Angler fish, as Rob kept correcting us – and some human bones) and the Solvan III (fishing boat sunk in 1980s). The visibility on these was also generally good, although the Havda sits outside a busy harbour and the vis was only 5m at a depth of 30m, whilst we had to wait for the inter-fjord ferry service to leave so we could dive the Solvan III as this fast cat ferry with gas turbine engines passed right over the wreck.
Dave Beadling proved to be a mean underwater artist competing with Diver’s wreck sketcher, whilst Gren provided underwater video footage and Ian and Dave T the still digital images.
The wrecks I dived in Norway, in particular the SS Frankenwald, the Wilhelm and the Ferndale & Parat are not just the best I have dived anywhere, but the combination of what there is to see on them (Norway operates a very strict no-take policy), their size, depth, how they sit and great visibility made this superb diving and not equalled by anything I’ve dived so far in the UK.
Many thanks to Jo Eaton for organising a great week, to Steve Collard for volunteering to drive to Newcastle and back for the return ferry journey to Bergen and to the assembled company who proved an easy to get along with group. I highly recommend this destination to anyone who wants great (cold water) diving that is a little challenging.