Fyne Pioneer, Loch Fyne

Site Name: Port Napier - Skye


The 9600 ton Port Napier was still under construction for the Port Line at the outbreak of World War Two. The ship was of 960 tons gross and measured 152m in length by 20.7m in beam and 12.7m depth to the main deck. The brand new twin screw diesel ship was built for the meat trade with New Zealand when she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and converted for defensive minelaying.


Conversion for minelaying comprised the fitting of mine rails along the main deck, with further mines being stored beneath planks in the holds. Two inch thick armour plating was added to her sides, and she was armed with two four inch guns on her forecastle, together with various anti aircraft weapons. Magazines were fitted, and the necessary hoists and winches installed to load and launch the six hundred mines that she could now carry. ​ The converted minelayers were designed to block the passage between Iceland and Shetland with huge minefields in order to protect Allied shipping in the Atlantic against the threat of the surface raiders Tirpitz and Bismark. She was launched on 23rd April 1940, commissioned on 12th June, and proceeded to join the 1st Minelaying Squadron, based at the Kyle of Loch Alsh. By 1941 they were hard at work mining the vast gap to the north of Shetland.


She loaded her cargo of 550 mines and 60,000 rounds of ammunition for her ten anti-aircraft guns at the Kyle of Lochalsh railhead on 27 November 1940, in order to sail that night with the rest of her squadron. It was common practice to insert the detonator into the mine whilst still in harbour, as it was often very difficult to do so on the deck of a heaving ship in heavy weather. By late evening the port Napier had fully armed most of her six hundred mines, and since they were due to sail shortly everything should have been perfectly safe. As luck would have it however, a fierce gale blew up and funnelled down the Loch catching the Port Napier unprepared, and she started to drag her anchors. An eleven thousand ton ship filled with mines dragging her anchors in a howling gale is no easy thing to manoeuvre, especially in a confined space. Very quickly the Port Napier was careering completely out of control, and soon she smashed into an anchored collier who’s anchor chain fouled her propellers. With both engines stopped the Port Napier and the hapless collier continued to drag right across the Loch towards the Isle of Skye, where finally their combined anchors got a grip and brought them up safely in a shallow bay close to the shore. 


The next morning the Port Napier started the job of clearing her propellers and it was decided that they might as well complete her refuelling while they were at it. Halfway through the refuelling a fire started in the engine room and within minutes it was completely out of control. Whilst the rest of the crew abandoned ship, the mine party, with almost unbelievable courage, went back to the mine decks and started to remove the detonators. After about twenty minutes the lower mine deck became white hot and it became obvious that the ship could not be saved. The mining party was ordered off the ship, and the Port Napier was left to burn.


After a while the fire seemed to die down and once again a party of volunteers scrambled back on board to see what could be saved. Once on board however the crew found that the fire was burning just as fiercely and moreover the mine decks above the engine room were now starting to buckle in the heat. The volunteers started to throw mines down the stern chutes, but soon the heat and smoke became to much for them to endure and so they had to abandon ship once again.


Fearing that her deadly cargo of mines would flatten the town of Kyle she was taken in tow and towed towards Skye. On the way the fire got worse and eventually the tow was abandoned and she drifted freely. The ship made it out into the loch just before an explosion flung parts of her superstructure a quarter of a mile onto the shore and hills of Skye; debris can still be seen on the nearby shoreline. She rolled over onto her starboard side and sank in water shallower than her beam so that her uppermost port side stands clear of the water at most states of the tide. Surprisingly, none of the mines exploded and have since been removed by the naval salvage team of HMS Barglow, who removed 526 mines in 1955/6 and detonated the remaining 16 in situ, however a few are missing and believed still to be on the wreck. 4000 unexploded shells are also said to have been recovered.



Dive Site Info

The Port Napier now rests in 21 metres on her starboard side on a sandy bottom, with the port side projecting clear of the surface at all but high water. Even deep inside the wreck, shafts of daylight enter from above through the many openings cut in the hull; visibility averages 9 metres. Because it is such a big wreck it easily has scope for two or more dives if possible.  


Apart from the lost plating, the wreck (including the wooden decking) is substantially intact. The bow of this ship is amazing as it is completely intact with the starboard side still held well clear of the bottom, so you can swim right underneath it. Further back towards midships you can enter the wreck and swam down a great iron tunnel, probably one of the mine chutes, and come out of a hatch in the forecastle onto the main deck. The second four inch gun is right on the surface covered in so much kelp that it is easily overlookeds. The prop shafts are still visible at the stern, as is the opening where the mines were discharged overboard. Looking into these chutes you can see right up through the decks through the misty green light. It is possible to swim right along the mine chute, then down into some huge machinery spaces, where there are large pieces of machinery jumbled up with broken pipes and smashed up metal, all covered with a deep layer of silt.


The fittings recognisable forward include anchor cables, a pair of 4-inch guns on the foredeck, mast and hatches. Most of the superstructure remains intact but the funnel has collapsed forward. A capstan and possible further gun mounting survive aft, while a pile of mine sinkers survives off the starboard side. The rich assemblage of marine life includes sugar kelp along the sunlit port side, white tube anemones, and tunicates. Scallops are abundant on the seabed, and shoals of other fish festoon this wreck whilst seals play around it.


A vertical spar with triangular topmark marks the position. The propellers have been removed by an unauthorised salvor. Other items which have been reported to the Receiver of Wreck includes brass plaques, shellcases, portholes, brass taps, cones, buttons, mug fragments, a plug, beer bottles, a brass plaque and a tile.


She is the perfect beginner's first wreck dive but also holds a lot of interest for the most hardened wreck diver. It is the combination of sheltered location, unusual purpose, shallow depth and salvage history that makes the Port Napier such a magnificent dive.

When to dive

This wreck can be dived at any state of the tide.

Port Napier - Skye - Fyne Pioneer

Part of the visible remains of the Port Napier, 2010. Image licensed for reuse under CC-BYSA 4.0.