By Patrick Voorma
Images by Roger Horrocks
The Istar or USS Nahma, as she was originally named, led a fascinating life. Now in her watery grave, she is no less captivating – a favourite among technical divers. Delve into her thrilling past and find out what it took to identify her more than 80 years after her sinking.
The hunt was on. I had been doing some research into the wrecks to be found off Durban and had met a number of times with Vanessa Maitland, a Marine Archaeologist who had extensively researched ships that had sunk off Durban. I was lucky enough to join her on a dive in Durban Harbour’s mouth when it was being dredged in preparation for being widened. They had discovered a shipwreck in the mouth and we went down to investigate. The wreck was almost unrecognisable but Vanessa managed to put the pieces together and identify her as the SS Karin. On that day when I asked her about solving the mystery of wrecks, she said that in searching for wrecks it is not the destination, but the voyage that counts. And that has become my mantra in the search for possible wreck sites.
It was mid-January 2014 and I was doing just that, enjoying the voyage. The weather that day was just perfect. I loaded up a cooler box with snacks and cool drinks, smeared on plenty of sun screen, put on my lucky hat and took the boat out into the Durban basin. I had planned to spend the next six hours patrolling an area 13km southeast of the Durban Harbour in search of wrecks. I had plotted out the area that I wanted to search on a chart the previous evening and began navigating up and down in a 3km by 3km grid in search of a possible wreck. This is the not-so-glamourous part of the whole voyage. I set the sonar to record and cruised at a leisurely 2 knots up and down the grid.
The sea was almost perfect: flat, no wind and no current – optimal conditions for the sonar to give the best results. I had been patrolling for just over an hour when I saw an anomaly on the sonar. My heart skipped a beat. Excitedly, I marked the spot with the “man overboard” button and then started to steer the boat up and down over this area. After 20 minutes I was convinced that I had found a wreck.
I headed back to shore to start planning the dives to go and identify my new find. I posted on Facebook that I had just found a new possible wreck and Karl Kruger, a Welshman living in Swansea contacted me. (I know, with a name like Kruger, what is he doing in Wales?) We had met the previous year on a technical diving expedition to the Red Sea. Over the next few days Karl and I arranged that he would come out to South Africa mid-February with a couple of divers to be part of the team that discovered the new wreck. The voyage continued.
Flights were booked, gasses ordered, boats prepped and finally the Welsh contingent arrived. The dive team was made up of Karl Kruger and Tristen Griffiths from Wales and Allan Maclean, Vinayak Maharaj, Justin Jennings and myself from South Africa. We also had a great support crew to assist us.
The first day’s 30m dive was to check equipment, and practise our skills and drills diving as a team. We then did a 60m dive to another possible wreck site but came up empty-handed. However, we were once again able to practise team drills, safety procedures and emergency drills and I was confident that the team was ready to tackle the new wreck at 75m.
We headed out to the mark on 13 February 2014. We dropped the anchor line overboard and I felt the reassuring tug as it hooked onto the side of the wreck. We kitted up and backward rolled, met at 5m to do a bubble check and then began our voyage to 75m below the surface.
The anchor line went down into the darkness, and as a team we pulled ourselves along this line, our only contact with the wreck below. The visibility was about 5m. Suddenly, there she was, right in front of us. Our voyage had come to an end; we had reached our destination. Or so I thought.
We spent the next 20 minutes exploring as much of the wreck as possible. She was impressive. She stood upright on the sand with a maximum depth of 75m and rising 15m from the bottom. From the twisted metal and damage I could see on that first dive, she had definitely endured an explosion. From what we could see though, she looked magnificent.
We left the bottom after 25 minutes and spent the remaining decompression time reminiscing on the brief moments we had been with the wreck. With much whooping and high fives all round, we headed back to shore to celebrate our international team’s latest discovery.
The next day was Valentine’s Day so we planned to spend the day with the ones we loved… so, naturally, we headed out to the newly-discovered wreck, the love of our lives, to dive her again. This time we got much better footage of her and could get some idea of her size. She was close to 100m long and 15m high with three levels. She had a sweeping aft and her twin propellers were missing. And so, our voyage started again. We had to try to identify her.
I am often asked how we go about identifying the wrecks we have found. This is indeed the longest and toughest part of the voyage. There are so many variables that go into the process. This is the story of how we identified this wreck.
Roger Horrocks had come down to Durban to take some video of the wrecks we had found. The two of us started to document the wrecks, Roger filming and me acting as the model. The plan was to spend the next 10 days diving the wrecks I had discovered so far with the final two dives planned for the HMS Otus at 105m below the surface.
It was from Rogers’s footage that we were able to see the ship in her entirety and notice some very unique features. We have a Facebook chat group of approximately 15 people who have dived the wrecks or acted as support divers. We were now all busy watching Rogers’s video and downloading images of ships that had sunk off Durban trying to match the features. It was then that we were sent a newspaper clipping of the Istar ship that had been sunk off Durban in 1932.
Included in this article were some images of her in dry dock after she had run aground and it was being decided if she could be repaired. Excitedly, we began debating online as to whether this was indeed the Istar or USS Nahma, as she was originally named.
How our process works is that the person who thinks that they have identified the wreck has to prove to the group that it is the wreck whilst the rest of the group try to prove that is not the wreck. Luckily with this one, the evidence was overwhelming and it did not take us that long to decide that she was indeed the Istar.
Using these images and Roger’s images, we were able to conclude that she was indeed the Istar. Two doors at the back of the ship and a distinctive curve where the cabin joined the deck were the first notable identifying features. Next we measured and noted the shape of the hawser hole. This matched perfectly. The final conclusive proof was the twin propellers that had been removed.
The Istar had led a really interesting life. She was built in 1898 for a very wealthy New York property tycoon. She was said to be one of the most expensive private ships ever built at the time. The Goelet family sailed the world in her. She was even at the eruption of Mt Vesuvius whilst the guests watched the show and probably sipped cocktails.
When the First World War started the family donated her to the United States Navy for the sum of $1. She was refitted to serve as a submarine chaser in the Mediterranean Sea.
On the next page is an excerpt from the memoirs of one of the men who served on her. She was returned to the Goelet family at the end of the war but after she was refurbished they sold her. In the 1920s, during Prohibition, she was one of the most notorious rum-runners along the eastern seaboard of the United States.
She then came to South Africa, where she served as the floating factory shop of a shark fishing venture. In 1929, she was serving fourteen boats, each with ten nets, and was capable of processing 500 sharks per day. In March 1931, after she had run aground off Madagascar, she was refloated and returned to the Durban Dry Docks to assess the damage to her. She was deemed to be too expensive to repair. She was bought for scrap and her bronze propellers were removed.
Thousands of spectators lined the beachfront to bid farewell to the Istar as she was towed by the tugs Sir John Robinson and Sir William Hoy. The vessel was taken 7km from the entrance to Durban Harbour and scuttled.
The press contingent that were aboard the tug that towed her out to sea wrote: “And so this was the final voyage of the ship that would not sink.”
But in finding her again we have risen her from the depths and once more she can continue with her voyage through history.