SCUBA divers have launched the North East’s first underwater dive trail, in a move hailed a welcome boost to the region’s charter boat industry – as a new UK-wide Save Our Skippers campaign gathers momentum.

Scuba divers from the British Sub-Aqua Club’s (BSAC) Gateshead-based club Tyneside 114 have joined forces with Seahouses-based charter boat skipper William Shiel, to officially launch the historic Gun Rocks dive trail.

It means divers from around the globe can now explore the marked Gun Rocks route, guiding them around 13 cannon dating back to the late 17th or early 18th centuries, submerged ten metres deep off the Northumberland coast.

The Gun Rocks project was led by BSAC Wreck Champion and Tyneside 114 Diving Officer Nicola Faulks from Chester le Street, and fellow members of her club, who have spent years researching the site, and previously won BSAC’s prestigious Wreck Award.

The BSAC team secured almost £9,000 in grants and donations from the Heritage Lottery fund, Jubilee Trust and a public crowd funding campaign, to enable the trail to be laid.

The project would not have been possible without the expert local knowledge, support and experience of the charter boat crew of the Glad Tidings VII charter boat, operated by skipper William Shiel, said Nicola.

It comes as BSAC, which is the UK governing body for scuba and snorkel, and has Prince William as its President, has launched a UK-wide Save Our Skippers (SoS) campaign to support the charter boat industry, after reports some are struggling for bookings.

Now Nic and the Tyneside 114 scuba divers are backing BSAC’s SoS campaign. The goal is to encourage divers to ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to the vital services charter boats provide.

William’s boat the Glad Tidings VII has been regularly used by Nic and others from BSAC Tyneside. His fleet Billy Shiel’s based at Seahouses is this year marking its centenary.

Skipper William, whose father Billy and grandfather Jack ran the company before him, said now the dive trail offers the potential for new long term business to roll in for the charter boats which serve the Farne Islands and surrounding waters.

He said in just a few weeks since the dive trail opened he has already received group bookings for more than a year in advance from divers wanting to explore Gun Rocks in 2019.

He said: “Word has spread among the diving fraternity about these amazing cannon.

“They’ve heard on the internet, and via the BSAC grapevine about the opportunity to dive the site by following this new trail.

“All credit must go to Nic and the tenacious BSAC team. For some years now, Nic has been aiming to attract more scuba diving tourists to the area to help unlock the secrets of the sunken cargo. The dive trail’s launch will definitely help do that and there are already early signs that it is succeeding.

“Even recent dive parties we’ve taken out for other projects – to see the seals, explore the sea-life and watch the famous Farne Islands puffins – have been asking about the new Gun Rocks trail and planning return visits to go there.”

Nic, 42, an ecological consultant who grew up in Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, is thrilled that more sub-aqua enthusiasts are at last taking the bait.

She said: “The benefits are twofold. It’s good from a historical point of view to find out as much as we can about the Gun Rocks wreck and discover how these cannon wound up off our beautiful Northumberland coastline.

“Plus dive trails like this are a great way of keeping Britain’s valuable charter boat industry afloat.

“What has been achieved at Gun Rocks is a prime example of the way experienced skippers like those at Billy Shiel’s and our own dive teams can work together towards a common goal.

“This new dive trail is a boon for all those businesses which depend on visitors coming to the Farne Islands.”

BSAC is the UK National body for snorkel and scuba, it is made up of 120 dive centres and 900-plus family and sociable clubs, run by volunteers up and down the country and abroad. The Duke of Cambridge is the club’s President.

It represents more than 28,000 scuba divers and snorkellers and welcomes new members from complete beginners upwards including those who have trained with other agencies.

The launch of the dive trail was welcomed by BSAC chief executive Mary Tetley who also explained why BSAC is rallying behind the charter boat community.

She said: “Several charter boat operators have raised concerns with us that the industry is struggling due to low booking numbers.

“We are launching the SoS Save Our Skippers campaign to raise awareness of this plight, and encourage more divers to use charter boat services.

“The skills and expertise of experienced skippers and crew are crucial when it comes to many mission-focused expeditions run by some of our more experienced divers. It also keeps costs down as you don’t have to maintain the boat year round.

“Charter boats are also a great way to organise a fun club day trip, helping you to keep the focus on safe and sociable diving, rather than running the boat.

“We are keen to do all we can to minimise the risk of losing this vital resource from UK waters, so we are encouraging BSAC divers to support the charter boat industry by using them whenever appropriate.

“We are also pledging to celebrate collaborations between charter boat companies and BSAC divers, by sharing some of these stories publicly, and in the process also highlighting the best and most exciting diving the UK has to offer.”

Nic said the officially approved trail has made the ancient artillery trove more easily accessible to less experienced divers. They can now follow the easy to detect luminous ropes as they swim around the cannon lying six to ten metres down on the seabed.

The islands are accessed from the harbour town of Seahouses and consist of 32 islands, islets or rocks, split into the inner Farnes and outer Farnes, owned and administered by the National Trust.

Gun Rocks lies south west of the outer Farnes and can only be reached by boat. It is now marked with a white buoy and can be dived on a slack or flood tide.

Billy Shiel’s fleet is one of only a small number of vessels licensed to take groups there.

The Gun Rocks site features twenty Swedish and British cannon, which have been found at two locations on the seabed, along with cannonballs encrusted in the rock. There is no boat wreckage as it is believed this must have rotted away, but the cannon are thought to be from a centuries old Dutch vessel.

The Gun Rocks dive trail was installed on the shallower of the two sites, with thirteen cannon, using a luminous blue rope which it is expected will eventually fade to white. It starts at a pile of three cannon then spiders out in three directions. Divers are advised to use the rope as a way of maintaining their bearings and to always return back to the main pile before heading out to each of the different legs.

Supported by her dive partner Simon Smith Nic secured £8,000 of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to finance the roped trail.

The project was also awarded £1,000 from the Jubilee Trust and Nic raised an additional £600 by crowdfunding.

To find out more about the Gun Rocks project visit:

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