We are sinking! (Or are we?)

stu-121.jpg

My exploits on Filitheyo in the Maldives reminded me of a funny story about the German Coastguard misinterpreting a mayday call. Fortunately there was no one actually ‘in distress’ throughout my escapade. I would probably say extremely frustrated was a better description. The other slight difference was the fact that our boat wouldn’t sink. Werner Lau dive centre had acquired the perfect fishing boat for a new artificial reef project. Unsettled weather had caused a few problems with the delivery dates but this was the ‘chilled out’ Maldives so nobody really minded.

stu 15

The boat eventually appeared 2 weeks later so operation code named ‘we are thinking’ finally began. The task was to simply position the boat over the drop zone and sink it upright. Surely German ingenuity combined with hard working Maldivian labour could easily sort this task out? Well, think again. When does anything go as planned? In true Paparazzi style I witnessed the whole watery exclusive unfolding before me, warts and all…

Filitheyo Resort is the perfect apparition of paradise; a beautiful triangular shaped coral island complete with dreamy white sandy beaches and azure hued seas rich in marine life. There are 110 thatched roofed luxury Bungalows dotted amongst the swaying palms and a further 15 more located out on the water. Werner Lau set up the diving centre in 1999 coinciding with the opening of the resort. Regional Manager, Christian Machler, had handpicked an experienced crew to run the diving operation. They were a really friendly bunch and exuded plenty of positive vibes. In true Werner Lau style the daily boats always left on schedule. Any latecomers would be towel whipped and staked out in the sun as punishment!

stu 14

The island offered some great shore diving opportunities. Werner Lau had marked the entry/exit points of every site with a numbered post that protruded out of the water in the sandy shallows. Underwater there were buoyed and anchored guide ropes placed vertically down the reef wall indicating where divers should get in or out (and also to hold on to in strong currents). On the beach, shaded under the palms, they had placed wooden benches for de-kitting. The benches were also used as drop-off points for any empty cylinders. Dive centre staff rounded up any empties during the day and took them back to the centre for refilling. The whole set-up had been well thought out and as expected ran extremely efficiently. As a further attraction Werner Lau had sunk a fishing boat, Koimas.2, on November 30th 2009. This was to be complimented with a second fishing boat, Koimas.1, just over a year later.

stu 10stu 4Christian had liaised with the Resort Management team and the 17th December 2010 (give or take a day for any contingencies) was set as the date of sinking. I turned up on the evening of the 16th just in time to witness the fishing boats arrival. At 23 metres long with a 6.5 metre beam the boat was bigger than I had expected. Christian had specifically asked the boatyard to ‘clean’ the boat before delivery. We hopped aboard for a quick look around and there was still rubbish all over the deck, loose rotting wood, protruding nails and even some diesel fuel left in the tanks. There was no way the boat could be sunk in this condition. I started to wonder whether my 7-day trip would be a fruitless exercise.

stu 9

The idea was to follow the same game plan used for Koimas.2 just over a year ago. This meant positioning the boat at the designated drop zone (between marker posts 5 and 6), filling the boat with sand until the gunnels (sides) reached sea level and then pump in sea water until the boat finally sank. Being so heavy the boat should stay in an upright position and descend to the seabed in one piece. Christian was told that the boat had a gross tonnage of 89 tonnes. So we basically needed to shift around 89 tonnes of sand from the nearby sand bank and plonk it into the holds before adding any water. This meant there was still a lot of hard work left to do before the boat would be ready for sinking. My absolute deadline for any diving activities was the 20th December. Serious pangs of doubt began to creep into my mind.

stu 8

Local labour and resort staff were supposed to be helping from the outset but only a handful turned up for work on the 17th December. It was mainly Werner Lau staff that ended up cleaning the fishing boat ready for sand bag loading. Two days were spent filling sand bags, transporting them to the fishing boat and dumping them inside the holds and engine compartment. Even I started to help out and believe me humping heavy bags of sand in the midday sun was no easy job.

stu 18stu 11In between time I managed to take a good look around the first wreck, Koimas.2. Joint Base Leader, Astrid Poelzl, guided me around the 25 metre long fishing boat starting by the prop at 32 metres. I had to watch my positioning as there were a number of stingrays lying in the sand. A few inquisitive jacks cruised by as I took a picture of Astrid posing by the colourful blades. We finned along the hull towards the bow. The wreck was still fully intact and had become home for many species of reef fish. The crucifix shaped foredeck mast was definitely the most photogenic feature. We stopped momentarily when a shoal of around 10 devil rays passed overhead. I then followed Astrid through an open hatchway down into the cargo hold. The fishing boat only had a 2.2 metre draft so we didn’t have very far to descend. The hold interconnected with 2 more holds and came out next to the bridge. I had a quick look inside the engine compartment (without engine). This was just a huge wide open space completely open and accessible. Another shoal of jacks darted in and out of the gaps between the wooden panelling. I managed to jam myself inside the small bridge area to get a shot of Astrid looking through the doorway at a small shoal of resident glassfish. This looked quite effective against the deep blue backdrop. I had noticed the current picking up throughout the dive. After 40 minutes the rate had increased to around 3 or 4 knots and was impossible for me to swim against. Astrid started power finning for exit point no.5 but with a camera in hand and being a chubby unfit diver I much preferred to take the easy option and drift back to exit no.6 even if it did mean a longer walk back to the dive centre.

stu 2

stu 21stu 22Getting back to the sinking of Koimas.1 we finally mustered full mobilisation on the 20th December. Locals and resort staff turned up in force but in my mind this was 3 days too late. The locals collected 4 boat loads of sand (200 bags per load) and the resort staff also managed to collect 4 boat loads (150 bags per load). The bags were brought alongside and then emptied into the bow holds and into the engine compartment amidships. Christian estimated that each bag weighed approximately 30kg which meant there were 1,400 bags totalling 42,000 kg’s of sand dumped onto Koimas.1. But the boat still wouldn’t sink. Even though there was a slight list to starboard and a small leak in the engine room she was still bobbing away quite nicely above the waterline. We had humped and sweated more than 80 tonnes of sand and cement onto the damn boat.

Werner Lau paid the resort $20,000 USD for Koimas.1. This fee also accounted for the cleaning and sinking of the vessel in the agreed timescale. But the whole situation had got quite frustrating. Whether it was down to politics, mis-communication or dare I say bad management we would surely miss my deadline. Christian advised that they should start pumping in water but frustratingly ‘the powers that be’ insisted we first pile on another load of sand bags.

My last diving day had come and gone and still the boat was defiantly floating. On the 21st when I left for home the locals added another 1,400 bags so the total weight of sand was now up to 84,000 kg’s. Resort staff had also made other preparations including drilling holes in all the decking to release any air trapped below and tying 12 empty oil drums around the bridge supports to help stabilize the boat and keep it upright on the way down.

stu 24

Ironically the boat sank at 7-15pm on the 23rd of December in the dark with only a few people watching and without any pictures being taken. Werner Lau Divemaster, Ibi Didi, was conducting a night dive at the time. Even though he was just 100 metres away he didn’t hear any unusual noises underwater. On surfacing he was surprised to find that Koimas.1 had disappeared beneath the waves. A guest sitting on the beach said that the boat sunk engine room first and then the bow. From start to finish the whole performance had taken less than a minute. Over the new-year celebrations Werner Lau invited guests on a complimentary clean-up dive. More than 14 guests and 3 staff collected 100kg of loose wood, fibre glass, plastic etc lying around the wreck site.

stu 13

stu 17stu 16I decided to go back to the island 2 weeks later too finish the job I had started. Christian explained that when he dived on the new wreck for the very first time all was not as expected. First the good news: the boat had landed on the bottom upright and was lying in the correct position. Then the bad news: no one had time to slacken off the 8 mooring lines that were holding the boat in position. The lines had pulled so tight that they had ripped the bow apart and toppled the foredeck mast. In some ways this gave the wreck more character and it looked more like a real ship wreck and not just an artificial reef. I managed to wriggle in through the gap at the bow and take a picture of Christian surrounded by the refrigeration pipes once used for freezing the fish stored in the holds. A sizeable Moray hovered above my head during the whole escapade, probably wondering what all the fuss was about. The prop was the deepest point at 34 metres. I fired off a few shots of Chris next to a massive parrot fish nibbling on the steelwork, which I’m sure couldn’t have been very tasty.  It was a strange feeling to ‘fly’ around the boat and not worry about climbing stairwells or ladders to get from one level to another. Just by breathing out I could drop down into the engine compartment. 2 weeks earlier I had been throwing sand bags into this huge void. I noticed that the oil drums had been removed from the bridge area. Christian said that they had imploded on the way down and when they were untied and sent back to the surface they had expanded back to their original shape.

stu 23stu 19So operation ‘we are thinking’ had ended up as a complete success. The fishing boat eventually went down in the right spot without too much damage. The job just took a little longer than anticipated. I really enjoyed diving on both wrecks and I’m sure that Koimas.1 will be a big attraction for divers. The new wreck sits just 50 metres away from Koimas.2 and they are actually facing bow to bow. Due to the depth (and the currents) I would recommend exploring the wrecks on separate dives rather than try and rush around both wrecks on a single dive.

I was pleased to see that this battered old fishing boat had been used in such a positive way. What was once a floating wooden hulk had now been transformed into an underwater haven perfect for fish and corals. I had well and truly left my mark on Koimas.1 and would always have a bond with the wreck. I even broke a finger nail emptying out sand bags! I am really looking forward to going back in a few years time just to see how much the wreck has flourished.

Stuart Philpott

Stuart Philpott

Stuart has spent the past 26 years taking pictures and writing stories for diving magazines and other publications. In fact, this equates to more than a year of his life spent underwater. There have been plenty of exciting moments from close encounters with crocodiles and sharks to exploration of deep wrecks and more recently rebreathers. He lives in Poole, Dorset and is very much an advocate of UK diving.

scroll to top