The secrets of shipwrecks

Chris Menon

After days of searching through the freezing, rough North Sea, Britain’s famous flagship HMS Hood   finally chased down the German battleship Bismarck, shortly after 6am on May 24, 1941

During the brief engagement that followed, the veteran Royal Navy battlecruiser was hit three times by shells from the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. The final salvo set off two catastrophic explosions on board HMS Hood, causing it to sink in less than a minute.

Ted Briggs, an 18-year-old Ordinary Signalman was one of only three survivors along with Midshipman William Dundas, aged 17, and Able Seaman Bob Tilburn, 20.

Ted Briggs later described this historic tragedy in his memoir Flagship Hood: “I turned and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years. Both gun barrels of B turret were slumped hard over to port and disappearing fast beneath the waves. My experience of suction seconds before forced me to turn in sheer terror and swim as fast and as far as I could away from the last sight of the ship that had formulated my early years.”

Sixty years later the final resting place of HMS Hood was discovered by shipwreck detective David Mearns, permitting Ted Briggs to place a memorial plaque on the sunken vessel.

Ted Briggs

In his latest book, The Shipwreck Hunter, David Mearns explains how it felt to discover this wreck: “It was such an emotional and sad moment for me, I didn’t feel like celebrating in any way. With other shipwrecks, I avoided connecting my emotions to the objective of the search, but Hood was different. In part it was because I had grown so close to the veterans and families, and, of course, to Ted.”

In total, Mearns has led the research and discovery of 24 major shipwrecks over the past 30 years. These ranged from the merchant vessel Lucona, which was deliberately sunk by a bomb in 1977 as part of an insurance fraud, to those lost during the Second World War (HMS Hood, HMAS Sydney), as well as one of  Vasco Da Gama’s armada, the Esmeralda, sunk in 1503.

Still, it’s the human dimension that really drives him. “Having been involved in so many shipwreck discoveries over the years my inspiration now comes from the human stories behind the loss of a ship. I am constantly inspired by the stories of the people who survived and the relatives who are still searching for loved ones.”

 

Despite the vastness of the oceans,

technological advances in sonar and remotely operated vehicles have made the present era a golden one for discovering shipwrecks—an era that famously began with the discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard in September 1985.

The loss of HMS Hood was well documented, so with skilful research Mearns knew its rough location and the detailed circumstances behind its tragic loss. However, that isn’t the case with most shipwrecks. Unesco estimates that there are around 3 million shipwrecks yet we only know the location of a small fraction and even fewer have been explored.

David Mearns discussing HMS Hood’s bell with HRH The Princess

According to Serena Cant, Marine Information Officer at Historic England there are around 45,000 documented wrecks for England alone, but only 7,000 are actual archaeological sites that have been found. She estimates that, given the numbers lost in prehistoric and pre-literate days, the actual number of wrecks that have ever happened is probably unquantifiable.

Of these, only 53 wreck sites (see map) around the UK have protected status under law due to their historic, archaeological or artistic importance. “It’s important we protect them to ensure their incredible heritage 
value is preserved for us and for future generations,” says Alison James, Maritime Archaeologist at Historic England.

"Personal possessions always remind us that people in the past were the same as us"

What such time capsules can reveal is remarkable. For example, James reveals that two separate Bronze Age wreck sites (at Langdon Bay and Moor Sands) have changed our knowledge of our trade with the continent at that time. As the weapons and other artefacts that were discovered are believed to have come from France,  it indicates that 3,000 years ago trade with the continent was already of some importance to this island.

Divers on Roman Galley in the Black Sea Royal

 

In Summer 2017

James was involved with her most interesting wreck to date, a Dutch East India Company vessel the Rooswijk, that sunk in UK waters in 1740 while heading for Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) laden with trade goods. Items recovered provided fascinating insights, as she reveals: “One of the things that we have revealed this summer has been about the smuggled money on board the Rooswijk. Sailors were trying to make their personal fortunes by taking silver to the Dutch East Indies where they could sell it at vastly inflated prices. This really brings home the fact that the people on board these vessels were individuals living their lives as well as a part of the bigger story. Personal possessions always remind us that people in the past were the same as us—they had the same needs and family lives.”

 

The state of preservation 

of a wreck generally depends on the local topography and environmental conditions. Fortunately, a maritime archeology project centred on the Black Sea that began in 2015 has discovered 60 well-preserved ships going back 2,500 years.

Professor Jon Adams, founding director of the University of Southampton’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology and Principle Investigator on the Black Sea Maritime Archeology Project comments: “For the first time ever we found complete Greek and Roman merchant ships, even their masts and rigging was in place. They were astonishingly well preserved due to the anoxic conditions (absence of oxygen) of the Black Sea below 500ft.” Previously, such complete ships had only been seen on vase paintings and mosaics.

The wrecks have so far only been recorded though it’s possible they may do more intrusive excavation in the future that will increase our knowledge of ancient trade relations, shipbuilding technology, and the lives of those on board.

Adams was also Deputy Director of the Mary Rose Project and objects retrieved from this wreck have enabled insights into Tudor life, as he explains: “Many items were the same as those that would have been found ashore: clothing, musical instruments, books, sun dials, knives, fishing equipment and even rosaries. It’s precisely because so many of these humble, personal objects no longer survive elsewhere that the Mary Rose collection is so important in providing us with an unparalleled view of Tudor life. It’s in the timbers, navigation instruments, weapons and the rig of Mary Rose that we can see a key stage in the development of the ocean-going ships that were about to become so important in an increasingly global world.”

Alongside the many underwater and marine archeologists, who are trying to detect and understand the significance of shipwrecks, are commercial marine exploration companies that supply the technical expertise to find wrecks, recover artefacts and, on occasion, gold and silver bullion. At times it’s difficult steering a course between the two rocks of profit and archaeology without coming to grief.

Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME) navigates these treacherous waters and in 2008 discovered the long-sought shipwreck of HMS Victory, which sank during a ferocious storm in 1744. Back then, the loss of the flagship of the British Navy, and forerunner of Nelson’s Victory, was a profound shock to Britain. Its discovery in the Western English Channel enabled some archeological exploration, which found that the main reasons for the Victory’s loss were almost certainly poor ship design, top-heavy weight, instability caused by heavy guns and possibly rotting timbers.

Unfortunately, the vessel has been extensively damaged by natural erosion and trawlers dredging for fish, while a Dutch salvage company looted one cannon. Moreover, as the wreck is outside UK territorial waters, it cannot be protected by Historic England.

 

However, the Maritime Heritage Foundation

is keen to selectively excavate and retrieve items of archaeological importance with the help of OME. Dr Sean Kingsley, lead archaeologist on the Victory Shipwreck Project for the Maritime Heritage Foundation, says: “By carrying out select archaeological recoveries and putting the finds in a national museum, we hope to share with the world the wonders of the greatest warship from the early Georgian age of sail. Leaving the wreck unprotected 50 miles offshore, in the middle of nowhere, is a fool’s paradise; playing Russian roulette with major British history.”

There has been concern that artefacts from the Victory might be sold off to cover costs but Sean Kingsley denies this and states: “Not one artefact from the 270 English Channel wrecks found by OME has been sold.”

Moreover, Kingsley believes there is still much to discover: “The Victory was a floating fortress manned by a crew of 1,100 ranging from aristocrats to sea dogs. This makes her the perfect maritime upstairs-downstairs story. The finds from the wreck should reflect this social diversity if and when the ship can be excavated.” Many famous wrecks and untold riches remain to be discovered beneath the sea. Those include a Greek trireme, as used at the battle of Salamis when the Greeks defeated the Persians, any ship from the Minoan civilisation; the Merchant Royal lost off Land’s End in 1641 carrying gold and silver bullion, the Flor de la Mar, which sunk off the coast of Sumatra in 1512 carrying treasure looted from Malacca back to Lisbon.

For David Mearns the wreck he yearns to find and excavate is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s polar yacht Endurance.

"Leaving the wreck unprotected is like playing Russian roulette with major British history"

He’s described it as the ultimate challenge, the “K2 of shipwrecks” because of the challenge of negotiating thousands of tons of ice in the frozen wasteland of the Weddell Sea where it lies. “Initially it was because I saw it as the greatest challenge for a shipwreck hunter like me. But now I want to find it for the Shackleton family, especially his grand-daughter Alexandra Shackleton who is my biggest supporter and has becomes a very close friend.”