Californian Wreck

The Californian was an American steamship built in 1900, which sank in the Gulf of Biscay, off the coast of France, in 1918, during a WWI convoy. Pascal Henaff has the story.

Diver on Californian wreck
Hardware covered with corynactis, which decorates the entire wreck of the Californian

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USS Californian was a steamer built by Union Iron Works in San Francisco and launched on 12 May 1900 for the American-Hawaiian Steamship Co. It measured 125.88m in length, 15.54m in width and had a draft of 6.71m, with a tonnage of 5,658 tons, and a speed of 10 knots. Four boilers fed its triple-expansion engine.

The ship we are dealing with in this article is not the Californian that did not respond to the Titanic’s distress calls in April 1912, but a different ship, which sank in the Gulf of Biscay in 1918.

On 13 May 1918, the Californian was requisitioned and placed under the control of the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS). She was commanded by Captain D. Mulman. Loaded with coal, oil and military equipment (such as truck chassis and spare parts, wheels, radiators and a lot of ammunition) for American troops in France it joined an offshore convoy departing from New York, which was about to cross the Atlantic that month.

On 22 June 1918 at 5:05 p.m., the “HB” convoy sailed southeast in the Gulf of Biscay, at a cruising speed of 9.5 knots. In four columns of two ships each, escorted by four American yachts and two gunboats, the convoy proceeded under a light northwestern breeze and clear skies. The captain of La Belliqueuse at the end of the convoy noticed that one of the carriers was nosing down. He ordered the lifeboats to be lowered. The whole crew was transferred aboard the Corsair, a 91m-long, 1,600-ton frigate fitted with four 75mm cannons. The commanding officer was Captain T.A. Kittinger.

At 5:32 a.m., a group of sailors returned on board for 23 minutes in an attempt to start the engine. Between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m., there was hope that the vessel could be towed, but this failed too. The Californian sank, prow first. At 9:03 a.m., its stern vanished and went down 46m below. The convoy then proceeded towards La Pallice.

La Belliqueuse tried, with no avail, to spot a possible submarine. So, it was thought that the Californian had hit a mine. But there had been no sign of an explosion—no sound was heard, nor was a plume of water seen.

The Californian’s bearing is 46° 14’ 112 N / 02° 12’ 098 W, located 23.6 nautical miles southwest of Les Sables-d’Olonne France, in the Gulf of Biscay. The average depth of the wreck is 44m.

Diving the wreck

This large wreck is spread over a large area, with lots of nooks, corners and a varied cargo to explore. It is impossible to go all around it in just one dive.

Let’s now take a tour of the wreck from stern to bow. The poop deck on the port side, though destroyed, can be identified thanks to the quadrant, rudder stock and tiller. The helm is buried in the sand, as is the propeller. A few metres away, the perfectly aligned blades of a safety propeller can be found.

In order not to get lost, let’s swim along the hull on the port side, which is nearly undamaged. At a height of 3m, it towers over the sandy bottom. Next to the poop deck, the blades of the safety propeller are arranged head to toe, parallel to each other, ready to be bolted, if needed.

For adventurous divers, the cargo can be explored while heading for the engine. The propeller shaft hidden under a heap of supplies is hardly visible. There are davits, winches, three huge gear wheels, a condenser, and a thousand mortar shells. One should avoid disturbing these shells, as some may still contain “trinitrotoluol.” The captain of La Belliqueuse warned us that it was probably TNT, explosives or even dangerous gas.

The engine lies on the starboard side, and the cylinder heads can easily be seen. On its base, slightly to port, rests a condenser showing its cooling tubes. The four boilers, disposed in pairs, have their furnaces facing forward for the two at the front, and backward for the two at the back, but they are not easy to spot, being hindered by scrap. An auxiliary boiler, which is small in comparison, rests at the foot of an impressive piece of the ship’s deck, standing upright on the bottom. The polychromatic whole of the ship is covered with cliona and corynactis.

As we proceed with our visit, we come across deck frames, hold entrances, gear wheels, davits on the starboard side, crates of shells, tyres and lorry radiators. Two huge winches break the monotony of that mess of metal scrap. This is where the steps to the cargo boom is. The seven- or eight-metre boom lies on the starboard side, away from the wreck.

From there, one can swim under the deck for 20m in the direction of the stern, among sea bass, tacaud (pouting) and pollack, and then get out before the boiler zone. Somewhere in that mess described above, it is still possible, in two specific places, to discover heaps of small lead slugs, which have already been partly plundered.

We eventually get to the vessel’s bow. That is the part not to be missed; it is nearly detached, and it has fallen portside. The whole section is no longer on the axis of the wreck. At the moment the Californian struck the bottom, under the strain, it probably was oriented portside. On the deck, anchor chains spill out of the hawseholes. Lots of light come through the gaping holes of the hull, making it easy to penetrate inside. To gain a full picture of such a wreck, several dives are necessary.

See the video of the Gulf of Biscaye’s wrecks off Les Sables-d’Olonne by Pascal Henaff on YouTube, with video of the Californian at:

Pascal Henaff has been a diver since 1975 and an underwater photographer since 1989. He has written articles for dive magazines since 1995. Today, he specialises more on wreck reportage. Visit his website at:

Hervé Marsaud has been a diver since 1990. He is a retired professor of applied arts in a technical high school, as well as a maritime history buff. Visit his website at:

Marsaud and Henaff’s book, 60 épaves en Vendée et Charente-Maritime, is still available on

Diver and wreck lover LoĂŻck Penhoat, who translated the text, is a retired teacher who has worked abroad.