Donegal, Derry divers mark Laurentic centenary at exhibition

The Laurentic exhibition opened in the Tower Museum in Derry.

Sheephaven SAC


Sheephaven SAC


Donegal, Derry divers mark Laurentic

Ray Cossum and Sheephaven SAC's Dearn McClintock at the Laurentic exhibition at the Tower Museum in Derry.

On the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Laurentic, Derry City and Strabane District Council hosted the opening of the Laurentic exhibition in the Tower Museum in Derry.

The story of the sinking of the Laurentic at the mouth of Lough Swilly on a savagely cold winter's night in 1917 is well documented, which includes the loss of 43 tonnes of gold bullion; the experimental nature of the ship; the greatest known single loss of life in Donegal waters and the stoic heroism of the crew and especially Captain Norton, who made sure he was the last man off the ship before it sank.

The subsequent salvage of all but 22 bars of gold is also well known, but this account of the Laurentic is fundamentally about divers and two divers in particular.

The first was Augustus Dent, who was on the Laurentic on the night it sank, attached to the ship's company as a diver, while the second is about Ray Cossum, who eventually came to own the wreck as she is today.

Their story is further intertwined because Ray Cossum interviewed and recorded Augustus Dent in later years and Dent's voice can be heard in the exhibition explaining how he took command of the lifeboat he was on and then kept his crew working and alive until they were rescued the next morning, despite the air temperature being 13 degrees below freezing.

After the sinking Dent was approached by Commander Demant to dive on the Laurentic, because it was known that Dent knew where to find the gold. In Dent’s interview he relates how they blew their way into the wreck, found the gold and began bringing it to the surface.

The bravely of Dent to return to the Laurentic and search the wreck after witnessing the death of his comrades has to be admired, but diving is much about a state of mind so maybe it was just part of the job to him.

For the attendees at the Tower Museum on the centenary night it was an opportunity for the diving community and family members of the lost sailors to meet Ray Cossum, another remarkable diver.

Ray described how he came to buy the Laurentic, his forlorn search for the missing gold and his interview with Dent and also a Donegal man, Paddy Murphy who helped pack the gold for onward transit when it came ashore in Donegal.

The story of how Ray’s dive colleagues found the Laurentic bridge bell also explained the damage to the bell, caused by a sailor beating it with spanner to rouse the ships company to their peril and abandon ship.

Wednesday night’s attendees were told that when Ray first went to dive the Laurentic it was only found because the Browns of Inch knew the landmark transits and where able to place him directly on the wreck - no GPS coordinates back in those days.

In that initial dive the fish life was so abundant that they blocked his descent, while on the wreck it had all the brass portholes and other salvageable metals still in-situ. Sadly, neither of these situations remain today.

Ray at 86 is a perfect gentleman blessed with a sharp mind and clear memory. He last dived the Laurentic at the age of 74. In his younger days Ray swam the English Channel in both directions, served in submarines and dived both in the Royal Navy and commercially all over the world, but undoubtedly his pride and joy is talking about the Laurentic.

As Ray told his story, other divers at the event also related their memories of both Ray and diving the Laurentic. Don McGlinchey from Derry City SAC and Steward Taylor from Antrim SAC had many stories to tell.

Family members of the fallen from Britain and Canada were present and they also kindly shared their stories. One particular story was that the gold, which was destined for America to pay for war munitions, was originally French and eventually made it to its original destination, to be finally held in the vaults of JP Morgan Bank, New York.

With Ray’s consent Sheephaven SAC has dived the Laurentic for many years and he graciously acknowledged the achievements of the club members and in particular Kevin McShane in raising, restoring and displaying the ships gun that is currently in place at Downings pier, a reminder to all of the perils of the sea.

The club wishes Ray and his family the very best and thank him for allowing club members access to this most iconic of shipwrecks around our shores.

Sheephaven diving activities continued over the last week, with club divers on holiday in Lanzarote, a very exciting drift dive on Saturday morning and both followed on Sunday with a dive and snorkel in Portnablagh.

The Saturday morning divers commenced their dive at Knox’s Hole in Mulroy Bay and caught an 8 knot tidal current that took them quickly past Dunloan lights. On Sunday morning there was a large turnout of the club members at Portnablagh, where Noel Brennan led all present in a snorkel for the majority and a dive for the few practicing with the Search and Recovery Full Face Masks.

Weather conditions were near perfect for late January, with a crisp cold morning producing a settled sea, where in-water temperatures were 7 degrees Celsius, which is just about as chilly as it gets for any extended diving activities.