The S.S. Woodburn was a small coastal steamer belonging to the Kelly Line of Belfast which regularly transported coal from Cumberland to Northern Ireland.
She foundered in a bad storm 18th February 1923 with the loss of all hands. The masts of the wreck were still visible at low water next day, however within a week it had totally broken up and disappeared from sight all but forgotten until she was rediscovered by our club in April 2010.
The wreck lies just south of Stein Head near to the Isle of Whithorn in only 10 metres of water. It is close into shore and protected from the tidal stream in Wigtown bay by the underwater reef at Stein Head. This means that it can be dived at any state of the tide. Its sheltered location also means that it is diveable with the wind blowing from any direction other than N.E. through S.E.
As can be seen from the diagram the Woodburn is very much broken up with huge boulders actually sitting on top of wreckage in some places. This is as a result of it’s shallow depth and it’s exposure to ninety years of winter storms. Around where the wreck lies are numerous rocky reefs and outcrops, but fortunately most of the wreckage lies in an open cobbled area making it easy to explore.
During recent winters the wreck has been pounded by heavy seas which have redistributed many pieces of wreckage and badly damaged the boiler which, in 2011 was intact, but is now only a tangle of broken boiler tubes and plates sitting on the bottom. Only the two fire boxes themselves are now recognizible.
Probably the best place to start the tour is the remains of the boiler (3) which used to be the most prominent piece of wreckage. This once lay upright, with its two stoke holes facing to the north which gives us an idea as to how the ship lies since the stoke holes were usually located at the forward end of the boiler. The boiler itself was a Glasgow type around 3 metres in diameter and filled with heavy gauge pipes. It was open on the port side where it once rubbed against the cliff face giving a good view of the interior. Kelp had also grown on the top most surfaces giving the boiler the appearance of a large rock from a distance.
As has been pointed out this boiler has now been smashed to pieces with only the fire boxes still intact. This goes to show how wrecks, which we take for granted, are is a state of continual decay and need to be recorded before they completely disintegrate.
Moving northwards from this area into the shallowest part you cross various pieces of riveted plating and girders (which reveal the age of the vessel) until you come to what looks like a capstan or winch assembly lying just next to the cliff face (4). Nearby are pieces of grating and two mooring bollards as well as what looks like the hawser hole faring. It is in this area that letters from the ship’s name were found among the cobbles and encrusted anchor chain. These were slopping in shape showing that they came from the bow. Many more artefacts will no doubt lie beneath these cobbles which have piled up since the vessel sank.
Just along the cliff face from the capstan is a crevice (6). If you swim through this narrow gap you emerge into an open area with a very scenic wall to your right. In front of you you will often find large numbers of Pollack stationary in the water. Keeping the rocky wall to your right swim clockwise around this outcrop and you will return to the site of the wreckage.
Moving southeast follow the line of wreckage until you come to a small section of the keel with the ship’s ribs attached. This is heavily covered in marine growth. Just off to your left you can find a piece of plating which has been folded around a prominent rock outcrop showing the power of the winter storms. If you go on past this folded plate you can head into a maze of underwater canyons where small pieces of wreckage have been deposited. This is a good area to explore as a separate scenic dive.
Returning to the section of keel with attached ribs to your right lies a long shaft which may have formed the base of the mast or was an auxiliary drive shaft from the engine to power pumps etc. Ahead of you are large sections of hull plating with ribs attached which lead you to a curiously shaped piece of heavy steel lying under two long girders. This may have been a strengthening girder from the stern of the vessel which helped support the rudder. Here you come to the beginning of the rock outcrops and reefs, but in the gap in front of you is an oval shaped plate which seems to have been one of the stoke hole doors and a little further ahead is a heavy structure with hinges which seems to be what remains of the rudder post (5).
Turning to your right here and moving out from the rocks you come to the large two cylinder steam engine (2). This is close up against a rock face with kelp growing on top of it. However it is easy to see inside the framework where the cranks and camshaft as well as the gearing and drive shaft protrude. Just behind the engine is another section of drive shaft with what looks like the boss of the propeller attached to it. Only one partial blade of the propeller still remains.
From the engine swim south over the kelp, keeping the rock face on your right, and gradually turn right into what seems to be a dark dead end. You will soon realize that this is a cave entrance (1). The cave is easily large enough for three divers and is illuminated through a crack in the ceiling. The walls are covered in a variety of sponges and other short animal turf and at certain times of the year large numbers of Compass Jellyfish become marooned there. This is safe and photogenic place to practise diving in confined spaces. To return to the main wreck exit the cave keeping the wall to left and bear round until you see the engine again.
This covers the main area and the largest pieces of the wreck, however scattered all over the site are many small fragments of wreckage and many more must lie under the cobbles waiting to be discovered. It is pretty obvious from the brass items lying on the sea bed that the wreck has never been dived, however there is one puzzling thing which is noticeably absent. Coal! On the wreck of the Kelvinside which is a far more exposed location the site is littered with huge lumps of furnace coal. However on the site of the Woodburn so far not a trace of her cargo of coal has been found.
To find out more about this wreck, have a look at it’s wreck history page.