Saluting memory of shipwreck dead

When the passenger liner MV Dara sank 50 years ago, hundreds of souls perished in a tragedy that made headlines across the world. Since then, the wreck has become better-known as a diving spot. Yesterday 60 divers paid tribute to those lost at sea.

Ajman, April 8, 2011 - Jane Taylor (L) swims by as Craig Dunn (R) holds a Union Jack Red Ensign flag eight meters above the wreckage of the MV Dara, a British merchant ship that sunk in 21 meters of water off the coast of Ajman with 819 people on board with 238 killed on April 8, 1961. Divers from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah participated in securing the flag to the ship as a memorial on April 8, 2011. (Courtesy of Jane Taylor)
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UMM AL QAIWAIN // Half a century ago today, the UAE witnessed the Gulf's worst peacetime maritime disaster as an explosion tore through the MV Dara, killing at least 236 people.

Two days later, the ship sank off the shores of Umm al Qaiwain, where it remains to this day, 20 metres below the surface.

The story of the MV Dara made headlines around the world at the time, but today, few are aware of the accident.

Yesterday, divers from the British Sub Aqua Clubs in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi paid a dignified tribute to those lost in the sinking.

Dropping to a depth of 11 metres, they dodged the underwater currents, for which the area is renowned, and erected the Red Ensign, the flag of the merchant naval fleet, at the stern of the shipwreck.

The gesture of respect was the idea of Ian Hussey, a Sharjah-based civil engineer and honorary chairman of the Sharjah Wanderers Dive Club.

Mr Hussey said he had dived the site more times than he could remember. The abundance of fish can make some visitors forget the wreck's sombre history.

"It is a very nice dive," he said. "You tend to forget that aspect of it."

Determined to remind the diving community about the history, Mr Hussley contacted fellow divers from his club as well as divers from Dubai and the capital. About 60 people dived the site yesterday.

It was up to four of them to attach the 1.5-by-2.4-metre flag to the wreck. One was Dr Steven Winstanley, the diving officer at the Abu Dhabi Sub Aqua Club.

"The Dara is quite a difficult wreck to do because of the strong current," he said. "When you add the challenge of putting the flag up, it starts to make it a more advanced dive."

It took less than 20 minutes underwater to do the job. The flag flapped about due to the currents in the same way it would if it were tied to a pole on a windy day. The addition to the wreck attracted a school of barracuda, which circled around it, reminding everybody that nature carries on, oblivious to the suffering. After 50 years underwater, the MV Dara is starting to break up, providing swim-throughs for the more adventurous divers.

The bow of the 5,030-tonne steel ship and two of its hulls remain relatively intact with the rest of the debris rusting into the seabed.

Recreational divers have been criticised for visitings shipwrecks where people have lost their lives, but Dr Winstanley said often divers are the people who pass on the history of the wrecks.

"Diving is about many things but sometimes it is about learning the history of a wreck and finding out why it was there," he said.

"What we are doing here now is people are suddenly realising the history behind the Dara. People get to treat the wreck with more resect."

"Having the access allows us to remember the people who lost their lives," he said. "Sometimes it is left up to the diving community to keep these stories alive."

Sometimes, dive sites assume a history of their own. Jim Darbyshire, 59, is a construction manager and the chairman of the Desert Sands Diving Club in Dubai. The Dara, he said, was still a favourite diving spot.

"I have dived here with my children. I have dived here with my wife and with all of my friends," said Mr Darbyshire, who has lived in the UAE since 1984.