Cayman Islands

Sink and swim

Divers examine the wreck of the Kittiwake

By Jeremy Taylor - FT

Standing on the bridge of the USS Kittiwake, I turn the helmsman’s wheel, check the navigator’s compass and imagine I’m steering a course across the ocean. But the crew has long since jumped ship and the engines are dead.

Earlier this month, the Kittiwake sank close to the coast of the Cayman Islands, not as a result of a storm or an accident, but in a controlled, deliberate operation masterminded by the islands’ tourism authorities.

They had spotted the growth in popularity in scuba diving on wrecks, such as those from the second world war at Scotland’s Scapa Flow and Truk Lagoon off Micronesia, and set about luring a new wreck to their warm, clear waters.

Launched in 1945, the 251ft, 2,200-ton Kittiwake was originally built to rescue sailors from downed submarines. During 50 years of service, she took part in countless missions around the world.

They included recovering the black box from the Challenger space shuttle disaster, as well as saving the lives of many in peril on the sea.

This is the first time the US navy has donated a decommissioned ship to a foreign country for wreck diving and tourism officials behind the plan soon discovered it was a process wrapped up in enough red tape to sink a battleship.

“Our original plan was to sink five ships at different locations around Grand Cayman and call it Shipwreck City,” explained Nancy Easterbrook, who first came up with the idea of sinking a ship in the Cayman Islands and spent seven years bringing the project to fruition.

A member of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, she also runs Divetech, one of the island’s biggest diving companies.