Navy duo unlocks stories of shipwrecks along Australian east coast

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Sarah West (author), ABMT Tom Gower (photographer)

Location(s): Bermagui, NSW

Topic(s): Naval Heritage and History

SBLT Ruslan Pnevski (background) and John Wooden (non-Defence) light up the stern of the SS Coastal Farmer at a depth of 125 metres. (photo: ABMT Tom Gower)
SBLT Ruslan Pnevski (background) and John Wooden (non-Defence) light up the stern of the SS Coastal Farmer at a depth of 125 metres.

There are some incredible people in the Royal Australian Navy, doing some incredible things. An officer and a sailor are helping to map shipwrecks along the Australian east coast, diving to significant depths to document vessels sunk in both war and peace.

Sub Lieutenant Ruslan Pnevski and Able Seaman Tom Gower are part of a civilian diving group called the ‘Sydney Project’, which has a mission to “find, film and document the wrecks of lost ships, solving mysteries of unfinished voyages and writing their untold stories.”

In mid-June, the Navy pair and their Sydney Project teammates conducted two dives on ships sunk during the Second World War.

The first dive was on the wreck of the SS William Dawes, which lays at a depth of 135 metres – making her the third deepest diveable wreck in Australia and the 17th deepest in the world.

Due to the depth, the team only had 15 minutes on the bottom to inspect the wreck, and then had to spend three hours decompressing while floating near the surface.

The SS William Dawes was a United States ‘liberty’ ship on wartime convoy duty. She was destined for the Pacific theatre and perhaps New Caledonia and was operating alone off the coast of Tathra, New South Wales, when she was struck by torpedos fired from a Japanese Imperial Navy submarine.

Five lives were lost when she sunk.

The second dive conducted by the Sydney Project team on the same weekend was on a wreck now thought to be the SS Coast Farmer – a United States cargo ship that was also sunk by a Japanese submarine during the Second World War.

The wreck, which sits in 125 metres of water, approximately eight miles off the coast of the New South Wales town of Bermagui, was originally thought to be the ship Iron Knight, however evidence collected by the Sydney Project during a series of dives suggests the wreck is in fact that of the Coast Farmer.

The Coast Farmer is the 24th deepest diveable shipwreck in the world and the fourth deepest in Australia.

Sub Lieutenant Pnevski, a Maritime Warfare Officer Trainee undertaking the Junior Warfare Application Course at HMAS Watson, said the equipment used to conduct the dives far exceeded the normal and conventional techniques used in recreational diving.

“This included using closed circuit rebreathers, exotic gas mixes with small amounts of oxygen and high amounts of helium, scooters, floating decompression stations and support teams,” he said.

“It was amazing to finally see months of preparation pay off with a successful dive, with absolutely breathtaking conditions, visibility of up to 40 metres and no current – conditions rarely experienced off the coast of Bermagui.

“Dropping over these wrecks and seeing them 40 metres below me, looking down as I descended to the bottom and being able to see the entirety of the wrecks and all the divers already on the bottom, is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Sub Lieutenant Pnevski said.

Able Seaman Gower, a Marine Technician posted to HMAS Hobart, said the dives left him with a significant sense of achievement.

“This has been on my bucket list for about five years, because it’s really pushing the limits of deep diving and is a huge achievement.

“It was also really meaningful because naval history for non-naval wrecks really interests me,” he said.

Both divers hold the highest civilian diving qualifications and have been diving together for a number of years, with experience ranging from cave diving in Mount Gambier to deep wrecks in Bass Strait and off the coast of Sydney.

The deepest scuba dive ever conducted by a human being was to an astonishing depth of 332.2 metres, with the record set by 41-year old Egyptian Ahmed Gabr 2014.