A single breath

Words by Marcus Greatwood

We could see the rear hatch through the gin-clear waters, still left open from when John Capes had escaped 78 years ago.

On the 6th December 1941, after a distinguished service career, the British submarine HMS Perseus was cruising at the surface recharging her batteries, when with no warning, there was a devastating explosion. She had hit an Italian mine and plummeted to the seabed two miles south of the Greek island of Kefalonia.

There were 59 crew members and two passengers aboard, of which only one survived. John Capes, who was hitching a lift to Alexandria, wrote in letters (now preserved at the Gosport Royal Navy Submarine Museum) that the boat twisted, plunged, and hit the bottom with a “nerve-shattering jolt”. The door was forced shut by the pressure of water on the other side. “It was creaking under the great pressure. Jets and trickles from the rubber joint were seeping through.”

According to his account, Capes dragged three injured crew members to the escape hatch in the engine room where he was sleeping before fitting all of them with escape apparatus, which consisted of a rubber life jacket with an oxygen bottle. He then pushed his injured companions up through the hatch before taking a last swig of rum and exiting himself, the buoyancy of the jacket lifting him quickly to the surface. He arrived at the surface in the pitch dark, alone.

After a few moments of despair, he started the eight-hour swim towards the faintly visible cliffs of Kefalonia. It took 18 months to get him off the island before the dangerous 400mile journey back to the submarine service in Alexandria. John Capes spent the next 40 years defending his incredible story, despite a general disbelief by service personnel as well as the public.

In 1997, 12 years after Capes died, his story was finally verified by Kostas Thoctarides, who discovered the wreck exactly as he had described, including his empty torpedo tube bunk as well as his blitz bottle from which he had taken his final swig of rum.

The road to HMS Perseus

I had heard of the HMS Perseus along with seeing some grainy photographs of her towards the end of 2018, when Arnaud and I decided we were going to attempt to freedive her as soon as possible. In early 2019  read an amazing article about her, showing how intact she was, which helped us garner support for our expedition. We needed equipment, money – but more important – the right freedivers.

Sitting at -52m, the depth was not particularly tough; repeating the dive in less than perfect conditions would be more challenging, but still not beyond many of our members. The real difficulties would be locating the wreck and creating a stable platform to dive from, especially difficult in the open sea. Even anchoring at this depth is quite a technical trial.

Our yacht, Lito, was professionally manned by Panos and Elias, who had worked out the intricacies of anchoring in deep water whilst using the wind to align us with dive sites. They had recently acquired a Furuno echo sounder specifically for locating dive sites, which paid dividends on this trip. We had set a September expedition date and started to work through technical details when fortune shone on us again. On June 8th a group of rebreather divers from BlueCycle and ALS Marine Consultants set about removing ghost nets from HMS Perseus. This would not only make our visit considerably more visually attractive but also significantly safer.

We visited the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and the HMS Alliance in Gosport as well as the escape tower used to train submariners how to escape a sunken vessel after such disasters as the Perseus. HMS Alliance was built shortly after the Perseus and is slightly longer at 85m (as opposed to 70m), but it gave us a good idea of the scale of the wreck.

HMS Perseus freedive submarine wreck freediving bottom
HMS Perseus freedive submarine wreck freediving
Preparing to dive

We employed the services of a local dive guide, one of only two who take people to the HMS Perseus wreck. He suggested a 10kg shot line next to the wreck. His knowledge of the site its orientation and location were invaluable – although his ideas of freediving were a little sketchy. The 10kg was not enough to keep a small bouy in place, let alone the dingy we were planning on using as a platform, equally well unless we kept the rope very slack, it moved with every small wave. Although these would not be issues when scuba diving with around 30 minutes of bottom time, using a sled on a slack line and arriving 10 metres away from the wreck was not only disappointing, but dangerous. We did see HMS Perseus but aborted the dive after a couple of dives each.

By this time we had been on Kefalonia for six of our eight days. The weather had allowed us only one days dive on the south of the island and our window of opportunity had all but closed after our ill-fated Shot Line Dive. We had clocked up some nice cave dives and worked on our sled setup – so the week was not a total loss, but we wanted to see HMS Perseus close up and personal.

The final day was approaching when the guide, sensing our near desperation, suggested that we sail to the site early on Saturday morning, just in case the weather changed. The forecast was not good but a bumpy dive was possible, if not probable. The die was cast as we set sail from our safe harbour at 6am, as we had all but given up sailing halfway back towards Sami where we would be disembarking.

We all know that forecasts can be wrong and thankfully, that day they were spectacularly wrong! The two prevailing winds actually cancelled each other out and for two hours the water was inscrutably flat with visibility of 30 metres. Had we waited in harbour to check the weather before leaving, we would have missed our window.

HMS Perseus freedive submarine wreck freediving line
HMS Perseus freedive submarine wreck freediving descent
The descent

We were onsite at 8:30am, Elias and Panos anchored to the North East, allowing the wind to blow Lito’s aft towards the wreck. Using our 3 GPS locations of the wreck, checked on the previous dive, we were able to float the tender directly over the Perseus and hold steady by the divers waiting their turn and directed by dingy master Panos using Navionics on his phone.

The accuracy was splendid, and the dives were sublime. Using the platform mean the divers were able to relax and the sled could be released accurately by the dingy master. We diving in pairs to share the experiences, which meant we could actually discuss the dives and the set up accurately – it is amazing how much we don’t notice or misinterpret when in situations of information overload.

Having all hung on the sled either next to or right over the conning tower at least once, the dive was almost finished. My fellow freediver Matt and I had been on the first sighting dive. We couldn’t get too close on that occasion, but it allowed us to update our positioning for the other dives.

So we dived again, Matt driving the sled, and me with camera my hand. Bingo. We hit the bottom of the line above the rear of the massive submarine, approximately 10 metres aft of the conning tower. Matt swam off towards the open hatch on the top of the tower as I filmed, unable to believe I was actually there – hanging effortlessly above the HMS Perseus. We could see the rear hatch through the gin-clear waters, still left open from when John Capes had escaped 78 years ago.

We pulled anchor and left the site, a four-hour journey ahead of us to get us back to port, during which we would recount our memories of the amazing, behemoth of a wreck sitting upright at the bottom of the ocean, just two miles south of Kefalonia.

Not only had we become the first people to freedive HMS Perseus, we had managed to film the event as well – all on a single breath.


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