Book review: Expedition Britannic

Story of a present-day visit to touch a piece of history

Author: Pat
22nd October 2021

Expedition Britannic by Rick AyrtonIf RMS Titanic is the gold standard shipwreck, her sister Britannic is in silver position. A new book from Dived Up Publications tells the story of a recent visit to this tragic liner’s remains.

Expedition Britannic tells the story of a thoroughly modern adventure, action-packed with mixed gas rebreathers, scooters and filming equipment designed to operate at bowel-clenching depths of 110 metres.

The abundance of stunning images in the book is testament to the author’s skill and years of experience

We should start with what this book isn’t: it’s not the warts-and-all history of Britannic, nor is it a voyage of discovery in the sense of going where no man has gone before. Instead, this impressive new tome gives the reader a real sense of what it’s like to conceive of, plan for and take part in an expedition to one of the biggest, most iconic and most challenging wreck dives on the planet.

HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic struck a mine and sank of the Greek island of Kea in November 1916. The arc of her relatively short life, from construction at Harland and Wolff in Belfast to her sinking in the Kea channel during WW1, is recounted in little more than two pages here. Suffice to say she sank in about an hour with 30 casualties, before coming to rest on her starboard side largely intact. Other than Cousteau in the 1970s she was largely forgotten until the 1990s when technology had advanced enough to bring her into the tech diving realm. If it’s a glossy pictorial about one of the legendary White Star liners you’re after, look elsewhere. Expedition Britannic was written by a diver, about diving, for divers.

Expedition Britannic by Rick Ayrton

And that writer is Rick Ayrton, who will be familiar to many UK divers for his exploits documented in Scuba Magazine, 990, Sport Diver and others. You can think of this book as a ‘high stakes’ trip report, akin to those you might read in your BSAC club newsletter – albeit if your club members had spent the weekend decompressing above Britannic instead of visiting a coal hulk off Portland.

As well as a deep water wreck diver Rick is also an accomplished underwater photographer and filmmaker, which placed a huge burden on him to document and record the wreck properly when he finally visited it. At the start of the book the scene is set with having the idea to dive the Britannic (many divers have the idea, few have a credible plan for doing it), and one by one the challenges are dealt with. How do you get a tonne of rebreathers, scooters, cylinders etc to a Greek island? Answer: you load a van and drive it there overland. How do you get permission to dive the wreck? Answer: paperwork, lots. How do you prepare to dive a massive wreck in more than 10 atmospheres of water? Answer: warm-up dives on other wrecks nearby.

Expedition Britannic by Rick Ayrton

The latter is included as part of the narrative, with dives to the SS Burdigala described in some detail by the author. This large vessel was only discovered in 2008 lying close by, and luckily is protected by Greek maritime law meaning nothing has been disturbed since her sinking. Rick and his team of fellow divers – who are pooled from the UK and around the world, as this is an expensive undertaking and not everyone can commit to such an expedition – are clearly bowled over by the condition of the Burdigala and Rick wastes no time by practising deep water photography, checking out lights, scooter and rebreather configuration ready for the big one.

Finally the buddy pairs are ready and take the trip to see Britannic for themselves. Nothing to say here, other than you can tell from their descriptions just what an emotional and awe-inspiring sight this was each time over the course of the expedition.

It’s important to call out Rick’s skills as a photographer. As anyone who has tried taking pictures underwater can attest, shooting in such a difficult environment can be very hit and miss. Visibility can be poor, light levels are almost always low, animals don’t sit still, housings can flood… and when you remember how deep Britannic is each one of these problems must be compounded tenfold. The author had to attend to his dive plan as well as document the wreck and the abundance of stunning images in the book is testament to his skill and years of experience in this area. True, there’s a blueish feel to many of the wide-angles and much use of black and white, but all parts of the Britannic from bow to stern are well-represented. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a shot of all three propellers in position before either, which the author admits he was asked to take beforehand and involved clever positioning of a video light to get right. That’s at 110m on the seabed, so let that sink in…

I said at the outset that this isn’t a story of discovery, so much as a story of documentation – but there is one surprise waiting for the dive team before they depart Britannic for the surface. Penetrating the wreck may no longer be allowed, but clearly not quite everything has been discovered after all and the old girl still has some secrets left to reveal to future visitors.

Expedition Britannic by Rick Ayrton

Expedition Britannic will appeal to recreational divers who look up (or rather, down) in awe at our technical cousins; it will appeal to technical divers wishing to see how it was done; and it will certainly appeal to White Star line aficionados who want a fresh look at how Britannic appears today.

Expedition Britannic by Rick Ayrton is published by Dived Up Publications, priced £25 RRP. ISBN 978-1-909455-41-2

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