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A Baltic Elegy: Åland Islands and the Wreck of Nederland

Our wandering Italian poet turned tech instructor Andrea Murdoch Alpini—or is it the other way around?— weaves a tale of a return voyage to the wreck of the river barge Nederland near the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. He’s there to gather clues to help him reconstruct the lyrical story of the riverboat that sank more than a century ago, and he shares the adventure on video. Cosa deve fare un sub naufrago?

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Text, video and photos: Andrea Murdock Alpini. Translation: Marianna Morè. Header Image: Flavio Cavalli lighting the starboard side of the Nederland’s wreck

To read this story in Italian, please click here: Un’elegia Baltica: le isole Åland e il relitto di “Nederland”

I believed that it had been a dozen years since my last trip to the Baltic Sea. But, when I  count them, I realize just how many years have passed—more than a handful. 

It was the summer fourteen years ago. Back then, as an architecture student, I organized a trip to Denmark and Sweden in search of those Scandinavian compositions that, due to their intertwinement with the landscape, seem to have come from the pencil of an ancient Greek.

I studied and researched the built environment and landscape. I never parted from my notebook, the notes I prepared for my travels, but above all my reflex camera. I voraciously took black and white, 400 ASA photographs, and sometimes I would shoot at 600 or even 800 ASA. I liked to see the film grain once the photo was printed. I never appreciated smooth surfaces, environments, or people—I always preferred the roughness of the world.

A few months ago, I left Stockholm, Sweden. There, again, the ship awaited me. This time, it would lead me to Mariehamn, the largest city in the Åland islands. When I disembarked on the Finnish islands, my long-awaited return to the Baltic Sea would finally be realized. I left almost fifteen years ago, and since then I have never forgotten it.

This time it wouldn’t be enough to just tip my toes into the water—I wanted to dive as far and as deep as the wind and sea would allow. Despite autumn knocking at the door, and the timing being all wrong, it didn’t matter. I was returning as a wreck student, ready to greet the rust and mist. And I already knew that I would return again.

After all, wrecks are nothing more than graves of crews, tales of the sea, marvels of engineering and naval manufacturing preserved by the sea.

The harbor of Mariehamn at Åland  

As I reached the boarding site of the Viking, the ship that would bring me to the Åland Islands, the sky became clearer. The sun rose and the light dissolved the shadows, but the temperature remained the same. Once on board, I climbed to the tenth deck—called the Sun Deck—and a vista, looking even moodier than usual, stared back at me. The sky was black, and in the distance, layers of clouds reflected their mood on the canals of Stockholm.

At 7:45 am, the ropes slid on the bitts (paired wooden posts). The Viking casted off the moorings: navigation began.

Two and a half hours later, we arrived at the point where the Baltic Sea meets Lake Mälaren. The view finally opened, the horizon widened, and with it the silver surface of the sea for which everyone here has a different name.

Among us Mediterranean people, the Eastern sea bears the Greek name of Βαλτική Θάλασσα or Baltiké Thálassa. But, its ancestral people call it Ostsee in German, Östersjön in Swedish, Østersjøen by the Royals of Oslo, Itämeri in Alvar Aalto’s native Finnish, Østersøen by the Danes, and Morze Bałtyckie by the Poles.

To all these people, the Baltic is the Sea of the East. Estonians, for whom it represents the Western Sea, call it Läänemeri. The Russians call it Балтийское море, the Lithuanians Baltijos Jūra, and the Latvians—who define it not unlike their neighbors—Baltijas Jūra.

Ready to dive on the wreck of Nederland in a light stormy day

Shakespeare was right: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This slightly salty sea—black as tar, shallow and inhabited by osteichthyes—hides great stories of trade and tragic wrecks caused by storms or one of the thousands of emerging islands and islets.

The Baltic Sea preserves the memory of long battles, bloody Tsar revolutions, independence movements, and Russian submarines.

The Baltic is a book with endless pages yet to be written. Its depths conceal wrecks and preserve the remains of civilian or military sailors, of passengers, but also of bygone cultures informing rich national histories. 

“Before the revolutionaries arrive, before the Bolsheviks arrive!”

This might have been the rallying cry of the commander of the Dutch river barge that raised anchor in December 18, 1917 from Hanko, a Finnish edge of a remote Russian land. The Nederland barge had dropped its moorings with holds full of cobblestones headed to the polder kingdom, then ruled by the House of Orange-Nassau.

Even a hundred years after the barge sank off the islet of Marhällan on the Åland Islands, no one can explain why a flat-hulled, engine-less, sailing river barge had traversed the Baltic Sea for hundreds of miles to reach the land of ice. What is certain is that the crew escaped the Великая русская революция—the Bolshevik Revolution—in yet another Russian Winter, not unlike Napoleon’s invasion just over a hundred years before.

So you said”, one day in December, while a rock in the Baltic opened a leak in the hull of your barge, that was built in 1897 in Veendam in the Netherlands. As Fabrizio de Andrè sang:

“And it was winter 

and like the others towards hell

you leave sad like those who have to

the wind spits snow on your face”.

Slowly, the nameless barge—now bearing the name Nederland—sank into its grave in less than 22 m/72 ft deep, nestled in between the sediment of the sea and some den of halibut or cod.

The crew survived, finding refuge on the same islet that pierced the ship’s hull: Marhällan.

Thirty hours later, the SS Mira Ship would rescue the castaways, who would tell their shipwreck story, but never the reason for their journey. No naval archive or registry contains any trace of this ship heading to the Tsars’ land in search of cobblestones.

Today, the wreck sinks under its own weight on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

The holds barely emerge from the seabed. While crawling, you can slide under them, letting your belly rub against the century-old cobblestones squared by the frost-bitten hands of vodka-soaked laborers—the elixir aimed to fight the faint, white boredom of winter, and certainly wasn’t sipped for its taste.

The bow of the Nederland resembles its stern, like nearly all other river barges. A huge anchor keeps watch at the bow. On the starboard side, centrally-located on the main deck, hangs the mighty winch. A skylight arises where a little stairway leads below deck. I tried to penetrate there, but the mud covered everything—viscous molasses concealing all the ship’s stories, which will remain forever buried inside.

Close to the stern, the powerful rudder blade lays on the seabed. Where the hull ends, two elliptical plaques adorn the ship. The one on the starboard side bears the inscription, “Nederland,” the barge’s land of origin. The plaque on the left with the true name of the ship, leaves adventuring divers without any answer. Even if the layer of mussels twere removed, the name has disappeared, eroded by time.

Ready to dive on the wreck of Nederland in a light stormy day

The day I dived this wreck, I looked for some details that could help me reconstruct the story of this river boat. After an hour at depth, filming and searching for information about the barge, I resurfaced like my predecessors between the green, dark, and black waters of the Baltic Sea with a question: “What’s its name?”

A meter and a half-long wave obscured the lighthouse from my view, and the current pushed me away from the semi-emerging rock that births voluptuous waves of white foam. Botticelli would have painted a different Venus if he had been here, I am sure. 

The Baltic is cathartic: “You want it darker / We kill the flame,” sang Leonard Cohen.🎶🎶

Yet again, I’m leaving, already feeling the need to return.

Andrea Murdock Alpini setting up for a Baltic’c dive

My work on this wreck is not finished yet. I have to come back; at this point it is no longer a choice, but a necessity. I will come back and tell stories of other ships and other crews, of their travels and hopes that ended at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The separation is always a delicate moment. You have to leave, or you want to leave, but when you ruminate upon your decision, a veil of melancholy returns what had been. Intoned Cohen:

“Now so long, Mariehamn, it’s time that we began…” 

In these Canadian assonances, I find the right words to describe my departure from the Finnish but Swedish-speaking islands. Tomorrow will be boarding time among the waves of goodbye: 

“Here comes the morning boat / Here comes the evening flight / There goes Mariehamn now / To wave goodbye again.”

Dive Deeper

Other InDepth articles by Andrea Murdoch Alpini:

InDepth: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria

InDepth: No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure

InDepth: My Love Affair with the MV Viminale, the Italian Titanic

InDepth: Isverna Cave, Diving An Underground Dacia


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of Phy Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.

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Getting to the Bottom of the HMS Regent Mystery

Italian shipwreck explorer Fabio Bisciotti and his team have reportedly solved the mystery of the HMS Regent, one of four Rainbow-class submarines built for the Royal Navy, that was lost at sea during WWII and discovered 50 years later near the Puglia region of Italy. Au contraire! Bisciotti et al, have now identified the wreck as that of the Italian sub Giovanni Bausan, and subsequently located what appears to be the remains of the Regent near the port of Brindisi. InDEPTH managing editor Ashley Stewart reached out to Biscotti to get the deets.

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By Ashley Stewart. Images courtesy of Fabio Bisciotti and Michele Favaron.

The HMS Regent, one of four Rainbow-class submarines built for the Royal Navy, patrolled during World War II until she was lost at sea sometime in April 1943. 

There would be no news of the submarine for more than 50 years, until a research team proclaimed to have found the wreck in the Apulia region of Italy. But the Regent was lost once more when the site was declared by another team, including Italian explorer Fabio Giuseppe Bisciotti, to be instead a former Italian submarine once called the Giovanni Bausan.

Now, Bisciotti believes his team has solved the mystery of the HMS Regent once and for all, discovering a wreck with similar characteristics near the port of Brindisi. InDEPTH spoke with Bisciotti about the discovery and why he believes he’s found the wreck of the HMS Regent. Bisciotti previously spoke to InDEPTH about finding a sunken German WWII aircraft in the South Adriatic Sea. Edited for length and clarity.


Bisciotti’s report: English, Italian (Original)


How did your search for the HMS Regent begin?

We know during the war many submarines from the United Kingdom were lost here in the Adriatic Sea. From some combat diaries about some skirmishes in this area, we know we have various wrecks including submarines and one of them is the HMS Regent. We started this research with a unique objective to know the truth about this wreck.

Many years ago, a research team believed they found the HMS Regent. But after our research, we discovered it was an error. The previous research team believed they found the Regent in an area much farther north in the Apulia region in the Barleta area. The wreck in this area is not the HMS Regent but a former Italian submarine called the Giovanni Bausan. It was used after the arrival of allies in the south of Italy as an oil depot, renamed GR 251, without a conning tower or propellers, transformed into a big warehouse. We have documents from the National Archives in London that show American allies sunk this wreck in the same region.

How did you discover the wreck you now believe is the Regent?

We started developing some research and arrived in the real area where we believed the Regent was lost, quite south near the port of Brindisi. Thanks to the fisherman of the area and old witnesses, we discovered a story. 

Here, in the late afternoon on the 18th of April of 1943 — the exact day when the Regent was lost — in front of the seashore, it was heard a very big explosion. The next day, some oil and fuel formed four or five miles out in the open sea where it was believed a submarine hit a mine. By the reports of the Italian Coast Guard of that time, the bodies of four sailors were found in the days after the accident. The first was found in an area nearby Brindisi. A second body was found in the Missipezza area south or Brindisi, and two other bodies were found in the Otranto and Castro Marina areas. The bodies were found between eight and 25 days after the accident. You can imagine the condition of these poor guys, but it is believed one was a non-commissioned officer and the other three were simple sailors. They were surely submariners due to their uniforms, which were blue as British submariners.

After much time, we narrowed down the area thanks to the local fisherman, and found a very object in the water around 80 meters down. The area is quite dangerous due to quite strong drift, and the direction of the wind from the area would create the correct route to where the bodies were found.

Why do you believe this wreck is, in fact, the HMS Regent?

We found some particular points unique to British submarines. First of all, the hull of the wreck had the particular dimension and measurement that pointed to British design. Then, we arrived at the bow. The bow is of course upside down, but we found the area where the torpedo tubes were located. We found three on each side. Everybody knows, or at least wreck divers know, the bow section of a British submarine is unique in its class. A British submarine has a total of six torp tubes, instead of four like a German U-boat or Italian submarine. 

But, in the center of the wreck, it’s gutted and open. We are sure there were two explosions. The first explosion by a mine, on the left side, and a second explosion probably detonated by the ammunition store. Of the wreck’s 87 meters in length, the visible part is about 65 meters and the rest is under the mud. We were not lucky with the visibility and extensive damage, so we have small proofs but enough to say for sure this is a British R-Class submarine.

Tell us about the dive itself.

The diving operation was with two boats and the dive team, Michele Favaron, Stefania Bellesso, both of Acquelibere Sub Padova, and myself, with research from Giuseppe Iacomino, in partnership with the Italian Naval League. We arrived on the point  in the very early morning with my personal boat with Garmin. We already knew the wreck was there by previous scan. We set a lazy line on the seabed to mark the position. We prepared our equipment and cameras. The current was very, very, very strong. It’s not an easy dive, it’s very hard. It was hard to stay on the line but when we arrived on the wreck, the conditions were better and visibility was good. The wreck lies in about 75 meters/245 ft on the seabed, but the shallower part is at 57 meters186 ft. The dive was on open-circuit with 18-45 trimix as back gas, and 50% and 100% deco gasses. About 25 minutes bottom time and 45 minutes deco.

What’s next for your team?

We are involved with the Pentagon in the finding of some U.S. bombers ditched in the Adriatic sea and the finding of still-missing submarines nearby. We are also working with a university on the study and the maintenance of present wrecks and future projects. 

Fabio and his team published an extensive report about the discovery with the help of the Italian Naval League, which provided logistical support. Here’s an excerpt describing the dive:

“Operation N 41 has finally come to an end, the scout ENDURANCE sailed from Manfredonia on 20/05/2022 at 9.30 am to Villanova arrives on site at 15.00. The team, made up of Fabio Giuseppe Bisciotti and Giuseppe Iacomino immediately returned to the sea towards the REGENT point, thus ensuring the planned dive point for the following day. The diving team, composed of Michele Favaron, Stefania Bellesso and Fabio Giuseppe Bisciotti reached the diving point at 7.15 UTC +1. At the moment of the descent there is immediately a very strong cross current such as to force the team to use the treadmill line in order not to lose energy.

Touchdown of the wreck at an altitude of -60 meters where it was found that the body appears to be overturned by 180 with the rostrum cutting cables along the entire keel clearly visible.

The protuberance noted and photographed undoubtedly has the function of a cable-cutting rostrum. The design is typically English of R-CLASS  as the height of this rostrum is 11.5 inches, or 30 cm appropriately calculated with line. The entire body of the wreck has been shaped and the total length is 87 meters, which is the length of a R-CLASS submarine. The remaining models such as classes P, T, S, and U do not possess such dimensions (P) or design (T, S, U) such that they can be traced back to the rostrum studied. The photo taken at the stern shows exactly the rostrum and is completely identical to the drawing of the construction plans. Please note that only the R-CLASS possesses these characteristics. At the height of the gutted point, the rostrum appears strongly deformed due to the violent explosion of the mine.

The ovals shown in the photo do not belong to the turret as you might think but refer to the lower ventral band of the hull in the area between the waste oil recovery and batteries n. 2 and n. 3, exactly below the engine pistons. By looking in the construction plans they are easily identifiable and have been found exactly in the same area. As a first impression the HMS REGENT struck a mine on the left side which undoubtedly initiated a second detonation below the casemate of the 122 mm gun. The explosion did not disable the submarine but literally gutted it.

Currently, the possibility of penetration inside the wreck is excluded due to the structural impossibility of ensuring easy entry and exit. Further studies will be started later for the safety of the wreck itself.”

DIVE DEEPER

Operation Regent-Bausan Report by Fabio Bisciotti

Rapporto Regent-Bausan (Italian) by Fabio Bisciotti

InDEPTH: Surveying and Identifying a Sunken JU 88a German WWII Aircraft (2019) by Fabio Biscotti


InDepth Managing Editor Ashley Stewart is a Seattle-based journalist and tech diver. Ashley started diving with Global Underwater Explorers and writing for InDepth in 2021. She is a GUE Tech 2 and CCR1 diver and on her way to becoming an instructor. In her day job, Ashley is an investigative journalist reporting on technology companies. She can be reached at: ashley@gue.com

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