Diving the James Barrie wreck
The James Barrie is a Grimsby fishing trawler that sank off Hoxa Head after running aground.
A dive on the James Barrie makes a refreshing break from the staunch stoicism of diving the main wrecks of the German fleet and offers a bit of light relief amongst the weapons of war. When setting off from Stromness, she lies about 2 hours away in the mouth of Hoxa Sound and so requires a longer steam than the usual mornings’ routine. The Barrie, as she is colloquially known, is far smaller than her German neighbours, weighing in at lesser 666 tons. She rests at 43 meters - relatively deep in diving terms, but the depth is offset by the superb clarity of the water at the mouth of the Flow, so it feels like a far shallower dive. Although small, she is somehow the perfect size for the depth: big enough to be interesting and hold a challenge but small enough to see her entirely during the dive whilst also keeping an element of curiosity to go back.
The wreck itself sits on a flat rocky seabed in 43m. She lies on her starboard side with her bows pointing South East. Unlike the main body of the Scapa Flow wrecks, the Barrie lies in tidal water and so is a slack water dive. The timings of slack water are unusual off Hoxa Head and seem to be longer in bigger spring tides. On a good day, there will be a respectable 40 minute dive window, on other days the buoys never break the surface.
She sank within recent memory in 1969, so there are many folk who still know and recall the events of her sinking. It was especially poignant coming so soon after the Longhope Lifeboat disaster where eight of the crew lost their lives. The Barrie is a relatively modern fishing boat built with the grace and lines that modern rules and regulations preclude from today’s slab-sided, powerful trawlers. She is very characteristic of her era with a distinctive row of windows in the front of her curved wheelhouse.
Starting at the bow, the whaleback forms a distinctive bulk at the front of the hull. A solitary anchor winch sits in the middle of the top deck and still all the hand rails circle the edge of the hull. The anchor itself is still housed on the outside of the hull, and the mast lies at a 45deg angle and now rests on the seabed.
Behind the whaleback, a row of doorways allows access to the store rooms and the remains of the ship’s chandlery still lie stowed in position. Shackles and pulleys are still stowed on the walls, mixed in with ropes and wires as if ready for use.
Some of the deck plates and the hatches have fallen free from the coamings allowing access to the fish holds. The hold would have been partitioned off by vertical columns between which boards would have been built up to form temporary holding spaces keeping their contents safe from the continuous motion of the ship whilst at sea. Leaving port, these would have been full of ice which would have gradually melted and used to pack the fish as the trip progressed. The boards, know as pound boards, still litter the bottom of the hold today almost as if some benevolent hand has let the fish go free again.
The space aft of the fish hold is dominated by the bulk of the main winch. The two wire drums are still loaded with the wires stowed after use and adds to the distinctive view of the Barrie that sticks in the mind’s eye.
The top corner of the wheelhouse is starting to crumble with the effects of time and seawater but there is still something very evocative about the distinctive shape formed by the row of wheelhouse windows that is reminiscent of its day.
The wheelhouse follows through into the skipper’s cabin and then to the main funnel. It is possible to peer into the windows and see the cabins as they once were.
Where the funnel used to emerge from the top of the accommodation is now marked by an oval hole as the lighter metal has corroded away. The skylights over the engine room have fallen open so the top of the triple expansion engine itself is visible through the openings. Much of the pipework, pumps and auxiliary machinery can still be made out in the gloom.
Moving aft to the stern, the two pairs of davits on the accommodation roof hang free, their boats long gone. The stern itself is closed in and relatively petite compared to the rest of the ship.
The James Barrie makes a welcome diversion from the Scapa Flow routine. She heralds from an era when fishing boats were made to fit the rules of the sea and not the rules of legislators with sleek and graceful curved lines that remain distinctive to this day.
The James Barrie lies on a relatively flat seabed characterised by sharp-edged stones and boulders. Being deeper means she is below the level sunlight reaches, so there is little in the way of seaweed growing on her but the strong tide brings food for a broad range of fauna. Most obvious is the Hornwrack, an animal that at first glance resembles a compact brown seaweed but is actually a bryozoan. Tall strands of tough hydroids clump in areas about the wreck whilst the hull itself is a haven for the shoals of fish that have made it their home. Hoxa Sound is the southern mouth of Scapa Flow and opens into the strong tidal streams of the Pentland Firth that ensures the Barrie lives a life in a completely different underwater regime to the rest of the ships of the Flow. Sea urchins feed amongst the feather stars while dead man's fingers add their eerie presence to the shipwreck.