Only when the wind changes and the sea is mirror-calm is it possible for divers to explore one of Sharm el Sheikh’s lesser-known wrecks in the Strait of Tiran. John Kean explores the wreck, its history and the story behind its identity crisis.
On Tuesday, 21 August 1984, the Zingara ship left the port of Aqaba in Jordan. She was carrying a cargo of phosphate that a few hours later would end up strewn all over the reef of Laguna in the Strait of Tiran.
Few are familiar in Sharm with the name, ‘Zingara’. The reason being that they know the wreck as the Kormoran. There is a logical explanation for this; despite several name changes during its seagoing life, the original name of this ship was indeed the Kormoran, it later became the Adamastos in 1976 and then the Zingara in 1980. So why does the oldest name survive and feature in many of the popular Red Sea guide books?
When divers found this wreck they saw a name etched onto the side of the ship near the bow area. Despite several paintings over, the raised lettering of the Kormoran remained, leaving little sign of any other name on the ship at the time of discovery.
In 1984 there was little diving in the area. The four reefs of Tiran were still the main attraction back then. So, let’s call the ship by its proper name at the time of the sinking, which was categorically the Zingara. Maybe changing the name of a ship is bad luck, but the Kormoran is not alone ; the Salem Express, one of the biggest Red Sea casualties of all time was previously known as the Al Tahera, Nuit St George and the Fed Scameroni.
The evidence of the sinking of the Zingara all points to a navigation error, which is a little embarrassing given the name of the owning organization at the time - The Compagnia Montemare di Navigazione. Today, visitors to the Strait of Tiran can easily see that the rule of the waves is to keep to the right-hand side. Thus ships from Israel and Jordan should pass through the Enterprise Passage and ships travelling in the opposing direction should use the Grafton Passage. The Zingara seems to have had a disliking for both of these as not only was it on the wrong side of the Strait; it ploughed directly into Laguna Reef adjoining Tiran Island. The extent of the damage indicates that the skipper believed he was navigating a clear patch of sea. Time of day is not noted but if early morning or late afternoon the Zingara may well have been navigating in flat water with light reflection allowing little sign of surrounding reefs. There is a lighthouse on both Jackson Reef and Laguna. Did it simply go the wrong side altogether?
The speculation continues and the wreck now rests in one of the most exposed parts of Tiran, where it suffers a near-daily bashing from the northerly wind. This is why the daily boats can only visit in relatively calm weather when waves are not pounding the reef making entries and exits difficult. That said, when conditions are favourable, this wreck is well worth a visit. The Zingara was 80m long, weighed over 1,500 tons and travelled at around 12 knots. The damage suggests it went head on into the reef at full speed and jack-knifed in several locations. The wreckage is vast and t’s difficult to see that it is a complete ship even though everything is present. It’s also one of the shallowest Red Sea wrecks with average depths of just 3m to 6m. The top part of the stern is slightly out of the water allowing boat skippers to find it with relative ease.
It is difficult to photograph anything resembling the features of an intact ship, such as a bow or bridge, but there are many fine fixtures and fittings covered in ard coral that picture well in good visibility. The stern appears to have suffered least with many intact railings surviving. The rudder and propellers are also visible and give an indication of the size and power of the ship, which had a top speed of around 12 knots. The best time to dive this wreck is at high slack with a calm surface. The reef here is also worthy of a visit in its own right. Thousands of interconnected table corals surround the wreck. Because of the high wind and wave action here on an almost daily basis there is little chance of soft coral growing successfully. Still, knowing the dates of sunken ships is an indication of the rate of hard coral growth upon them. The Zingara sinking was 26 years ago. Divers can witness the wreck being consumed by the reef and see how much hard coral exists today.
Despite modern communication methods and detailed electronic navigation facilities big ships continue to have a brush with the reef system of the Strait of Tiran. On only the 31 of December 2009 did the 55,000 tonne super container ship, the CSCL Hamburg, hit nearby Woodhouse Reef where it became stuck hard for ten days. Tug boats eventually removed the damaged ship leaving just Gordon and Jackson Reefs ‘with their own wrecks’. The Louilla and Lara respectively have long since been local landmarks perched high and dry for all to see from land and air.
Perhaps the Zingara stands alone in being the only wreck to smash head onto into a reef. Other ships seemed to have suffered glancing blows and died more gracefully. In good conditions even novice divers can visit the wreck. A popular route, following a brief current check, is to drop in 50m behind the stern, reach a depth of around 18m and then ascend up the reef to the wreck. This gives divers the chance to see the amazing coral formations and then explore the wreck in the shallows.
Written by John Kean.