The sinking of HMS Scylla (F71)

She was launched in August 1968 in Plymouth (Devonport) and finished her days sailing for the last time from the same port to be scuttled in Whitsand Bay in March 2004, to form a new artificial reef as a diving attraction. Before the scuttle much of the superstructure was removed to avoid a navigational hazard and she was cleaned, removing all oils. It was also planned to cut openings to allow divers easy access to explore. Today she lies in 24m of water, upright and with a slight list, at a position 50°19.655'N; 04°15.162'W.

I have always felt it to be a privilege working for BBC News. I'm a engineering manager who plans many of their outside broadcasts. I'm also a diver and just occasionally the job takes on a whole new life and is great fun!

It was a Tuesday, I was sitting at my desk when my producer (Richard Critchlow) lent back in his chair and said “Nige, what do you know about having a “live” camera on a sinking ship?” The word “live” means it continues to transmit pictures as the sea envelopes it and the ship plummets to the bottom. “Can I phone a friend?” I asked.

One of the big advantages of working in the BBC is we can call on many experts. One such area of expertise is the Special Camera section, formally owned by the BBC and now owned by SiS Live. These are the guys that put the cameras int0 cricket stumps, on Formula 1 cars and into the pockets of snooker tables.

Ginger (he’s got red hair) said “Yep, we’ve got an old “bullet” camera we can make waterproof, only we think you’re mad, we don’t think the camera will survive so you'll have to buy it from us – that’s £600”! In a similar vein, but this time from the Communication Section, my mate Chris Cobb found the oldest set of analogue radio link transmitters they possessed, with little expectation of seeing them returned either.

The Navy put me in touch with Andy Kerr from a company called QinetiQ (pronounced Kinetic). Andy has a communications buoy, a big battery and means of remotely switching on the power using telephone tones over a radio!

So, with a heavily laden van full of kit I travelled to Plymouth to meet up with Andy and another BBC engineer called Nigel Sampson. We then spent 6 hours fitting the transmitters into the buoy; mounting the aerials on top and hauling the whole lot up to the funnel area of the Scylla.

Richard (producer) wanted the shot from the Bridge Wing with a view looking towards the bows and into the Bridge. He wanted the Titanic shot of the sea breaching the bow and flooding into the Bridge and the epic ride to the bottom! No problem.....

The plan was thus:

The buoy was placed into a convenient hatch where it would easily float off. The camera was G-clamped to a handrail on the Bridge Wing looking in through the window. We used CAT5 cable to supply power to the camera and to carry the signal back to the communications buoy. This cable was loosely tie-wrapped up a rope to allow for stretch and in turn the rope was tied off to the Comms Buoy and the Ship to form an anchor.

The principle was simple – the ship sinks, the buoy floats off extending the rope and the cable. On the surface the buoy transmits and we receive the picture on our satellite van parked on the cliffs of Whitsand Bay. Viola, live pictures all the way down.

The Canadian demolition guys were keen to meet us and find out more about the technology we were using. Unfortunately they were somewhat disappointed when they learnt it was the oldest kit we owned!

 

The next morning the ship was towed out to Whitsand bay early in the morning. We set up a live presentation for BBC Breakfast News overlooking The Sound and Drake's Island. Our first pictures off Scylla were as she left the harbour and rounded the island. Once out of site we packed quickly and caught the ferry to Whitsands bay and set up for the big show.

To cover such an event you need more than just one camera. In total we used 5 cameras:-

  • Presenter interview camera on the cliffs
  • Long lens camera on the cliffs looking to Scylla
  • Camera on fishing boat looking back
  • Helicopter camera
  • Scylla bullet camera

By this time many pleasure boats had arrived at sea and formed a circle around the sinking area. All was set and the bullet camera was working. What happened next was incredible.

Scylla is anchored in position. We’ve got guests to interview, my radio link receivers are working, we have pictures from the bullet camera, the helicopter and the fishing boat. We are good to go!

The Candian demolition guys make their final checks and jump to a boat to get clear. On the radio we listened to the countdown, 4..3..2..1 and the guy calls fire, and nothing happened. We were all listening on VHF Ch16 while fire control was on Ch74. Cock Up! Next a jet skier rides straight through the site and gets chased off by the Navy. All sorted ….3, 2, 1, BANG!!!!

 

The bullet camera goes to black with the shock and then recovers with the explosive fireballs.

Debris cascades down, the ship lists to starboard and water starts to wash down the decks. The bridge floods, my buoy gets stuck because the ship is listing and the bullet camera picture goes to black again. A second later it pops out like a cork and back comes the picture.

Scylla settles and and ever so slowly slips underwater and we take our ride. We see bubbles and debris everywhere. When she hits the bottom the debris abuptly changes direction. Everything settles and finally, out of the gloom, appears the bridge again. Two minutes later and pop - the camera died.

The end tally – we got the money shot (a term used apparently in some film circles) – we killed a camera and one aerial by filling them with water. Just another boring day working for the BBC.

What a day!

Now go to our Video Library and watch the rushes from three camera angles.