Oceana SS

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P&O Liner, passenger ship
Built 1888,
LengthxWidth (m): 163 x 13 468ft x 52ft ,
Weight (tons): 6610
Propulsion: steamer 7000hp triple expansion engines.
Cargo; General plus £747.110 worth of gold and silver ingots, 40 passengers, 210 crew, London to Bombay.
Position: 50 42. 32N; 00 25.75E. or 50 42 19N; 00 25 45E, Depth, 22m.
Sunk: 16 march 1912, In collision with Pisagua, 2850-ton German four-masted steel barque which made her sink. Pisagna herself was towed into Dover.. Nine Oceana drowned when lifeboat capsized.

Diving: Beware strong tides, dive only on slack of 30 minutes. Boilers stand 6m high amid tangle of wreckage. Sand covers and uncovers some sections. One more silver ingot recovered by a sport diver in 1996. All except a few ingots recovered in immediate diving salvage operation.

Launch: Eastbourne.Bexhill.

This is one of the most interesting wrecks on the south coast, every diver will find something of interest. Whether it will be sea life, portholes, crabs & scallops or maybe even a silver bar left over from the cargo, which they say some has still not been recovered!Depth 25 mts dependant on tide the wreck stands up 8 to 10 mts in places. She sits on gravel ground and usually has good visibility.

A vast amount of silver inglots and gold coins was present at the time of sinking. The ship was salvaged, but some silver has been reported as missing

They say that there is still £3,000-worth of silver bars somewhere in the tangled wreckage of this 6,610-ton P&O liner, but the author cannot confirm it. Local divers say that a single silver ingot was recovered in 1996 by a member of a visiting club. The wreck is at 50 42 19N; 00 25 45E in 22m and is “well blown” as one Eastbourne diver described her.

The story of the sinking of the Oceana and her gold and silver cargo, worth £750,000, begins on Friday, 15th March, 1912. On that day the P&O liner – 468ft long with a beam of 52ft – sailed from Tilbury with 40 passengers, a crew of 210 and a lot of general cargo in addition to all those gold and silver ingots. Her destination was Bombay. Her Captain was T.H. Hyde, RNR, and her engines could give her 16 knots from their 7,000hp.

The second day of the voyage dawned clear but windy. Oceana was going well. She was cruising only slightly below her maximum speed, and she was little affected by the head-wind because the sea was calm.

Beating up the Channel on that March day was the Pisagua, a famous four-masted steel barque, and a great ocean-racer of the Laeisz Line. The Pisagua that morning had the wind behind her, was under full press of sail, and was traveling along at nearly 20 knots. She was nearly home, heading for Hamburg from Mexillones with a cargo of nitrate.

Aboard the Pisagua, the Oceana had been seen, and her master was confident that the liner would soon give way to his sail; but just to make sure, as the ships drew closer, he burnt a warning flare. In the Oceana the Chief Officer saw the flare and gave the order to port the helm. At this, the pilot who was still aboard, a Mr Penny, came out of the charthouse. One glance was enough to tell him that the turn was the wrong way and not big enough. “Hard aport!” yelled Penny, and as Captain Hyde hurried to his bridge, the Pisagua struck. All 2,850 tons of her traveling at nearly 20 knots was like taking a steel tin-opener to the Oceana’s side – and a gash 45ft long opened up below the waterline.

The two ships bounced apart. The Pisagua, with her foretop mast shattered and her bow stove in, drifted away to leeward. The Oceana was in a worse state, and though her watertight doors were swiftly closed, some of the passengers had to wade through flooded companionways to reach their lifeboat stations. There was no panic, and all went well until one lifeboat was lowered too soon, and seven passengers and two crew were drowned when it capsized.

Most of the rest of those on board were safely taken off by the cross-Channel steamer Sussex, which had picked up the radioed distress call. Now it was the tug’s turn. The Newhaven tug Alert took the first tow, stern first, at 8am.

But soon the Oceana developed a list, which increased so much that the stern with her propeller began to show above the water. Captain Hyde and the officers plus those crew who had stayed to help with the tow now had to abandon ship and were taken off by the Alert. The towing cables were cut, and at 10am on Sunday, 16th March, 1912, she started to sink. It took her a full 20 minutes to go down, and finally she settled on the sea bed with her masts and the tops of her funnels showing. The Pisagua, meanwhile, was towed safely to Dover for repairs.

At dawn the next day the salvage divers were at work. The first divers were into the Captain’s cabin to get the keys of the strongroom. Then three of the room’s five locks were opened with the keys, but two would not open and had to be smashed off with hatchets.

Today’s divers are well aware of how strong the tides are in the area. Those old hard-hat divers were swept about all over the place. A report of the time says: “Owing to the amount of debris on her deck and the chaotic state of things below, it was difficult and, in many places, impossible for the men to work upright. They had to crawl on hands and knees, squeeze through hatchway, and overcome all sorts of obstacles in their progress through the wreck.”

The operation took only 10 days, and there are indications that all the gold and silver was recovered, though one report does say (probably optimistically) that £3,000-worth was never found. Common sense tells you that if the salvage divers were prepared to work through all states of the tide then it is hardly likely that they would have left behind a fortune after only 10 days’ work.

Today’s divers will, of course, wait for slack. This sometimes only lasts for 30 minutes on the wreck, of which no superstructure remains. The boilers, standing 6m proud, are the most prominent feature. All around the boilers is a tangled mass of wreckage of masts, timber decking, and winches. Visibility after a long spell of calm weather can reach 14m. The sandy sea bed is liable to encroach on the wreckage, which appears to be in the middle of an area of shifting sands