Diving the HMCS Yukon wreck

Since it was sunk a year ago, the HMCS Yukon of San Diego, California has become one of the most popular wreck dives on the West Coast of the USA. Still intact, she offers excellent opportunities for wreck dive, deep dive, nitrox and re-breather training. The Yukon is perfect for experienced certified cold water divers looking to develop their skills and knowledge of wreck diving and penetration. To date an estimated 10,000 dives have already been made on her.

1. History/background

The Yukon was a Canadian Navy Destroyer commissioned in May 1963 and the first ship of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) to be named the Yukon. Her travels took her far and wide to over 30 different countries cruising almost 800,000 nautical miles. To briefly summarize her history, amongst her career highlights and duties she acted as escort to Queen Elizabeth on the HMY Britannia to Quebec City in late 1964. She survived skirmishes with the Spanish Canary Islands shore patrol in the summer of 1964 and sailed the Panama Canal in 1965. While visiting Kobe, Sasebo and Osaka, Japan in 1970 she participated in naval exercises in the Pacific with units of the Australian, New Zealand, Japanese and US navies and endured 2 re-fits in 1975 and 1984. In 1975 she became a permanent member of Training Group Pacific instructing officers and was one of three RCN ships to participate in the RCN’s 75th Anniversary celebrations in Australia in 1986.

2. The sinking, how, when & where

After being decommissioned in the mid-90’s, she was scheduled for the scrapyard, the Yukon was then targeted by the San Diego Oceans Foundation to create an artificial reef off Mission Beach and to become the premier wreck of San Diego, California’s famed Wreck Alley. With the participation of dive operators a massive local effort was launched to clean, gut and prepare the Yukon for safe diving. In preparation for her sinking, over a hundred holes were cut into her hull and superstructure and oils, chemicals and toxins were safely removed. Additionally, she was rigged with explosives both forward and aft designed so that when exploded, she would settle upright on her keel on the sandy bottom. The day before the sinking she was towed 1.8 miles out to Mission Bay to her final resting place. All was going according to plan until the ocean decided on its own plan for the Yukon’s ultimate demise. During the night the ocean swells picked up and water began to flood the holes cut low to the waterline, overwhelming the Yukon. Just before midnight the bow slipped below the waves, the great ship rolled to her port side, the stern stubbornly stuck up into the night sky before breathing her last gasp of air and silently gliding to the bottom, 100 ft below. The hype and publicity surrounding her sinking was cut short and the following days’ schedule of events were scuttled prematurely. As a result the HMCS Yukon is classified as having floundered and technically she is a true wreck and not an artificial reef.

3. Dive Site and Wreck details

The Yukon is 366ft long with a beam of 42ft and a height of 70ft. With a complement of 210 crewman she has 8 decks and displaced 2380 tons. Her top speed was 28 knots producing 30,000 shp powered by 2 English electric geared turbines and 2 massive Babcock & Wilcox water tube boilers. The Yukon’s powerful arsenal consisted of two Vickers 3in 70Mk 6 canons, two FMC 3in 50Mk mounted guns, six 324 mm Mk 32 and three Honeywell Mk 46 torpedoes, ESM counter measures and anti-submarine search and attack sonar warfare.

Because of her premature floundering, she sits on the bottom at 105ft and lists to port at a 70-80 degree angle. Silt and sand has encroached her port sides’ numerous entries and exits resulting in permanently blocking them off.

Detailed dive maps of the ship layout are readily available at local dive shops and through the San Diego Oceans Foundation. Additionally, on the wreck itself maps are located at entry and exit points marked with ‘You are here’ signs.

4. Dive details

Top local dive operator Blue Escape Diving (the only dive op in San Diego to own its own boats) takes only 10 minutes from Mission Bay harbour to reach the dive site. Owner, Captain Matt Silva ensures dive briefings are thorough and precise with extra special attention focused on pairing inexperienced divers with experienced. No two novices will dive together (a novice on this wreck is considered a certified diver with a minimum of 20 dives) and no solo diving is permitted. Constant reminders are mentioned with regard to safety considerations and dive plans and routes are carefully outlined. Safety equipment, such as compasses, reels with line and underwater dive lights with back-ups are mandatory for penetrations. During the ships preparation for sinking all potential hazards such as wires and overhangs were removed. With 8 decks to investigate this makes for a particularly challenging exploration. It will take over a dozen dives to explore her completely. Over the year the Yukon has settled into the sand and now has an actual depth of 105-107 ft. Highlights include visits to the crews quarters, winding narrow corridors (some stretching as far as 50 ft from the nearest exit), the galley, rows of toilets in the restrooms, the bridge and the very impressive engine room. In some of the lower sections of the wreck silting can be a problem, so extra care must be taken with your fin kick. Two imposing training props incases in housings protrude the stern at 75-100 ft and the mounted cannon guns (although not the originals but replicas) both stern and aft at 85 ft depth inspire the imagination. Light penetration throughout the wreck is extensive due to the many holes cut into her but because of the Yukon’s extreme list to port its quite easy to become disorientated. Port holes are now in the ceilings and fish swim at what appear to be strange orientations. You almost have to re-orientate your position and swim at right angles to normal. There are however innumerable spots where pitch blackness prevails and days when poor visibility allows only for weak light penetration. You are advised to keep your dive lights on at all times and to follow your dive plan to the last detail. In general visibility ranges from 15 to 40 ft and water temperature from 70 degrees at the surface to 50 degrees at depth. Also, local currents prevail and can on some days be quite strong so always remain in contact with mooring lines during ascents and descents.

For the novice diver, the exterior of the wreck offers a great dive. The shallower parts of the Yukon superstructure are accessible at 45 ft and the starboard hull is at 55ft and the gun turrets at 85 ft. It’s a great eye opener for the first-time wreck diver and will no doubt inspire him to pursue wreck dive training more intensely.

Marine life has started to make the Yukon a welcome home, as was the original plan. The famous California giant kelp is slowly taking hold and a few small colonies of anemones are flourishing. Colourful nudibranchs are abundant, starfish and brittle stars are everywhere. Lurking within Rockfish, Sheepshead Wrasse, Sandbass and the occasional 100 lb Black Seabass can be found in various nooks and crannies.

5. Links to operator and Wreck Alleys’ other wrecks

The San Diego Oceans Foundation who organized the sinking of the Yukon maintain a very informative website with useful tips and general information at

http://www.cawreckdivers.org/Wrecks/Yukon.htm

Local Dive operators offering dives on the Yukon

Blue Escape – (619) 223-DIVE

DiveQuest – (800) 303-3483

Lois Ann – (619) 450-4478

Dive Connection, Inc. – (888) 420-3047

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