The question of a wrecks identity is often very difficult to establish unless you are lucky enough to stumble across the ship’s bell or some other object that can be used to positively identify the ship. With all the sources of information available to the modem wreck researcher, wreck identification should be relatively easy, but all too often you end up with conflicting stories which just serve to further confuse the issue. A good example of this type of wreck now lies near the eastern end of the Plymouth Breakwater. Some say that it is the remains of H.M.S. Abelard, a converted steam trawler, whilst others maintain that it is the wreck of the steam tug Emilia. The wreck is prominently marked on the Admiralty charts, and each year scores of divers visit the site. So who is right?
The Abelard’s claim is based solely on the records of the wreck section of the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic Department, which states that this wreck is the remains of the Abelard. Further research into the Abelard reveals that she was a converted steam trawler built in 1909 by the Smith’s Dock Company of North Shields, for a firm in Milford. She was requisitioned by the Navy during the Great War, and used as a general duties and mine- sweeping vessel. Official War Records state that on Christmas Eve 1916 H.M.S. Abelard was wrecked off the Breakwater, and although the precise circumstances of her loss are unknown, it is presumed that she struck a mine.
The case for the steam tug Emilia is well documented, and at first seems fairly substantial. It is mainly based on local lifeboat records, and a photograph of the Emilia high and dry on the Breakwater. The Emilia is also listed in the B.SA.C. Wreck Register, and referred to in various shipwreck books as being wrecked on the Plymouth Breakwater whilst en route from Plymouth to Malta. Unfortunately this story does not stand up to close examination, and whilst it is true that the Emilia stranded on the Breakwater, research now proves that reports of her loss are completely unfounded. So with the Emilia’s case disposed off, H.M.S. Abelard is the only ship left with a reasonable claim to the wreck-site, and until the discovery of any evidence to the contrary, she must surely be given the benefit of the doubt.
Today the wreck of the Abelard lies in about 30 feet of water just off the huge boulders that make up part of the Breakwater. The bottom here is sand, and the wreck lies with its bows facing away from the Breakwater surrounded by fairly low rocky outcrops. Although fairly well broken up the Abelard is not widely scattered, and her component parts are still fairly easy to recognise. The most immediate feature is the boiler which stands about 15 feet high. It is still possible to swim carefully inside and meet the myriad of small fish that live in there, but because the boiler is also full of broken pieces of metal, there is not too much room. Just behind the boiler lies part of the engine room, various large pipes, and the Abelard’s huge iron propeller now almost buried in the sand.
Leaving the boiler and swimming towards the bows, you can quite easily follow the line of the hull. Most of the side plates have been smashed off, but the rest of the hull is firmly embedded in the sand. The ribs are plain to see, and scattered all about are the remains of winches, bollards, large deck cleats, and broken derricks. The best time to see the wreck is in the spring, just before the kelp starts to grow more thickly and hides some of the more interesting pieces. However, in the summer the wreck is alive with fish of all sorts, and the kelp covered bow section becomes home to some of the largest and most colourful wrasse that I have ever seen. Summer or winter, the Abelard provides a very good dive, and with its shallow depth there is plenty of time to fully explore all the nooks and crannies. But remember, when you dive on the Abelard that vital clue that will identify her once and for all, may well be only inches from your hand. So keep your eyes wide open, and if you find it, tell me.
Update May 2014 With all the storms we have had in the last two years, it is not surprising that the wreck of the Abelard had broken up quite condiderably from when I first wrote about it all those years ago. Even so it is still a pleasant dive, especially in the winter when the weed is at its lowest. The boiler is still almost intact and there is plenty to poke around in the rock sand surrounding the wreckage. With the wide availability of U/W digital cameras more and more people are takeing to photography and this is an ideal learning wreck.