Tragic WW2 wreck located at 153m off Hydra

View of the bow, timber decking missing (Kostas Thoktarides)

Tragic WW2 wreck located at 153m off Hydra

The underwater research team led by Kostas Thoctarides, Greece’s prolific wreck-hunter, has located the upright wreck of a pre-WW1 British whaler, which became a Greek Navy minesweeper during WW2. The wreck was found 153 meters deep north-east of the Aegean island of Hydra.

On May 2, 1945, the overloaded boat capsized and sank suddenly, only five days before the official end of the war in Europe. The sinking resulted in the loss of a hundred people, many of whom were servicemen and their families.

Originally named Noble Nora, the ship was constructed as a 32-meter whaling ship in 1912 at Smith’s Dockyard in Middlesbrough, UK. In June 1917, the Royal Navy repurposed it for use as a patrol boat during WW1.

The sonar image (Kostas Thoktarides)
The sonar image (Kostas Thoktarides)

In April 1941, Noble Nora was designated FY 189 as a minesweeper. In September 1943, it was handed over to the Greek Navy, which converted it into a fleet auxiliary vessel named Sperchios.

The team initially detected the wreck using sonar, followed by capturing video footage with an ROV. Thoctarides noted that the 20mm gun-mount, which was carried before the boat’s conversion from a minesweeper, was visible. The starboard anchor-chain was in place, but the port chain was missing. A small vertical tear was visible on the port side.

Port mid-roof superstructure open door, about midships, with a cylindrical vent (Kostas Thoktarides)
Port mid-roof superstructure open door, about midships, with a cylindrical vent (Kostas Thoktarides)

The only open door was on the port side in the middle of the superstructure. On the lower part of the stern, a net could be seen draped over the propeller and rudder.

Heading home for Easter

The team was able to positively identify the wreck as the Sperchios based on its dimensions and location. Due to a shortage of passenger ships at the time, the vessel was being used to ferry military personnel, many accompanied by their young families, home to celebrate Easter as the hostilities were winding down.

Sperchios had departed from the port of Piraeus, bound for the Aegean islands of Syros, Samos, Chios, and Lesvos, but it was grossly overloaded. Although there should have been a limit of 40 passengers, the port authority had registered 75, and it was suspected that there were many more onboard, with large amounts of luggage piled on the stern deck.

Research by Thoctarides and his team has now suggested that the boat departed with 138 passengers and crew on board.

Wreck-hunter Kostas Thoktarides
Wreck-hunter Kostas Thoktarides

The weather was good and the sea calm, but three hours out, as night fell, it started to rain. At this point, passengers in exposed areas ignored the crew’s advice and moved en masse to the covered areas on the port side. The vessel had already been listing to that side before departure.

The captain, who was not on the bridge, saw that the ship was being dragged close to an offshore minefield and turned the rudder hard to starboard. The vessel capsized to port, throwing many people straight into the sea.

With no time to raise the alarm and no vessels in the vicinity, those who managed to stay at the surface struggled for hours without life jackets. Twenty people clung to a barrel for many hours, but 13 of them became too cold and exhausted to hang on and did not survive.

A passing oil tanker, Agios Spyridon, picked up 37 people in the early hours of May 3 and took them back to Piraeus. Greek Navy torpedo boats found one last survivor, a woman named Maria Rousi, at 4 PM on the rocky coast of Cape Zourva, a lighthouse on Hydra’s easternmost point.

“The first thing I did when I was in the sea was to get rid of my dress, then I marked out my objective, Cape Zourva,” she later explained. “At first, I heard desperate voices all around me, but they slowly faded away. My hope of reaching the shore was huge, and I lasted nine hours at sea. It took another six hours of waiting on the deserted beach for me to recuperate.”

Captain Neofytos, the commander of Greek naval schools, lost his daughter and two nieces in the sinking. “In my opinion, the wreck of Sperchios was not due to overloading, and neither could the turning of the helm have overturned the ship, for technical reasons,” he told the court investigating the tragedy. “I believe an improper inspection was carried out.”

The Piraeus Naval Court sentenced Sperchios’s captain to six months in jail with a three-year suspension, but charges were dropped against five other defendants, including the Piraeus Naval Base commander and port authority officials.

Kostas Thoctarides runs the Dive Planet Blue dive center in Lavrio, Attica, on the Greek mainland.

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