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The Salcombe Wrecks

The series 'Diving Into History' will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
See Radio for details

The South Devon coast around Salcombe is rich in shipwrecks. Whilst investigating three of them for a Radio 4 series on wrecks, John Nightingale soon discovered what a diverse range of activities the term wreck diving covers.

From the classic archaeological investigation on the Salcombe Gold Wreck, to the head in a hole excavations for the scattered remains of the Ramillies to the joys of penetrating deep into the holds of the Maine - its all 'wreck diving', but its three very different types of diver on three very different types of wreck

The Maine

This is the classic Devon wreck dive, enjoyed by hundreds of divers each year. The Maine was a 375 foot steel cargo ship that was torpedoed by a German U boat in March 1917, as she headed for America. She now lies around two and a half miles out from Salcombe in 37 meters of water.

Her captain, Bill Johnston, described her as going down "gracefully, upright and on an even keel" and that is exactly how she lies today, 84 years later. If you get the visibility, it is just possible to see the length of her in one dive, but there is in fact a huge amount to explore.

It is necessary to get the timing just right to dive the Maine, as there is a fierce tidal stream that pulls through here. Three hours before or after high water gives you a half hour window on springs and two hours after high will give you two hours slack on neaps, and often very good visibility to go with it.

It was extraordinarily clear the day in 1961 when Derek Cockbill and a group from Torbay BSAC, the first ones ever to dive her, decided to check out something the local fishermen called the Railway wreck. As they dropped down through the water they were amazed to see the whole ship spread out beneath their fins. Torbay BSAC went on to buy the wreck for 100 and then salvaged the huge bronze propeller, selling it back to the original founders for over 800.

This idea of amateurs taking on such a salvage operation was ground breaking at that time, but things were simpler then. A one-day explosives course, followed by a quick phone call to ICI, resulted in a cardboard box stuffed full of submarine blasting gelatine and cortex rattling its way down to them on the train.

Today the side plates and deck are rusting away, which gives ample scope for penetrating into the holds, though all the rather odd cargo of chalk, fenugreek seeds and horsehair is long gone. The triple expansion boilers are easy to find and a bit further on one can clearly see where UC 17's torpedo smashed into her sides.

There is plenty of fish life here, with shoals of pollack and bib as well as cuckoo wrasse and congers. The whole vessel is heavily encrusted with marine growths and the spreads of plumose anemones on ladders and ribs look quite spectacular.

The Ramillies

The second wreck we were featuring, the Ramillies, was a great deal older, and a very different challenge.

What remains of the wreckage lies in shallow water, never more than 8 meters deep, in a series of gullies at the base of Bolt Tail cliffs near Hope Cove

The Ramillies, a 90 gun Man of war, had left Plymouth in February 1760 and sailed straight into a massive South Westerly gale. For 9 days she was blown all around the Channel and finally, leaking badly, she stepped in to see where she was and spotted an island. Assuming this to be Looe Island, all they had to do was round the next headland and they'd be back in the safety of Plymouth.

In fact it was Burgh Island and the headland they tried to weather was Bolt Tail, the start of miles of totally unforgiving two hundred foot high cliffs. In a matter of minutes she was smashed to matchwood and only 26 out of the 730 men aboard survived.

Today there is little that immediately meets the eye. There are a quite a few huge canon, including one in the cave into which Ramillies' stern was driven, and the whole area is littered with musket and pistol shot. Amazingly there is still part of what was probably the keel, almost 350 years since she was originally built, partially covered in lead sheathing. Further out, one of her massive anchors still lies on the bottom.

The Ramillies has never been designated a historic wreck site due to the nature of such a shallow water wreck. Constant pounding by big seas and rock falls from above has scattered and buried everything, making an orthodox archaeological excavation impossible.

Nonetheless sites such as these can grip the imagination when you consider all the different stuff that went down with her. Peter McBride, with his two sons David and Godfrey, and Bob and Gill Michaels have all devoted years to this wreck, spending hundreds of hours underwater digging into the seabed, shifting massive boulders and chiselling through the concretion. They have raised some fascinating things, including dozens of pewter and silver buckles, flintlocks and coins.

An intact wooden draw-front with its brass handle, almost certainly Captain Wittewronge Taylor's personal drawer, revealed gold coins, a gold watch, two beautiful gold seals and a set of brass dividers behind it. It is the careful preservation of the artefacts raised, and the extensive research into them, that has made this site so archaeologically important. Most of these artefacts are now on display at Charlestown Wreck Museum in Cornwall.

It makes an interesting shallow second dive, particularly for those who like poking around the seabed, though by high summer there is a lot of kelp. Almost joining the Ramillies site to the East lies the remains of The Jebba, which sunk in 1907 on her way back from Africa, when she festooned the cliffs with parrots and chimpanzees and left local beaches littered with pineapples and bananas. Towering cliffs, with the gaping seventy-foot high Ramillies cave at their base, makes this spot a dramatic dive location.

The Salcombe Gold Wreck

The third wreck we recorded on had what every wreck diver dreams of finding - treasure in abundance

Six years ago some members of the Southwest Maritime Archaeological Group were blown off their Erme Estuary site and decided to investigate 'a boring old canon site'. One of the divers, Ron Howell, surfaced and asked to be helped back into the boat, to be met with that robust Anglo-Saxon response reserved for such feeble requests. Finally managing to persuade the others that he couldn't use his hands, he was hauled in. As he peeled off his gloves, a stream of gold coins fell out.

This was a highly significant find and the group managed to keep it quiet for over three years. Anybody who asked why they were repeatedly diving the same site was quickly put off with tedious explanations about bits of pottery.

Restraining gold fever in favour of good archaeological practice, they first set up a datum and rope grids to measure from. Their subsequent dives slowly unearthed over four hundred gold coins from Morocco, along with piles of gold jewellery, many of the pieces cut in half, and gold ingots. Other artefacts included Dutch pottery, a merchants seal, a highly ornate clay pipe and an apothecary's pot complete with pills.

With wrecks like the Maine and the Ramillies you have a wealth of historical archives that will give you information about your ship and how she sunk. With this type of wreck, the picture of what the vessel was and who was sailing it has to be built entirely from what you find under the water.

While some of the artefacts clearly came from Holland, suggesting it could be a Dutch trader, the gold and jewellery pointed towards Morocco. The most recent coins dated it to the 1630s, a time of intense Barbary pirate activity around the South West coast. The canons appear to have been positioned up forward as bow chasers and most of the canon balls found were bar shot, designed to destroy your quarry's rigging. Add in the cut up jewellery, suggesting a division of spoils, and it begins to look very plausible that it was a pirate ship.

Once again we were on a wreck site, but a very different one, with a different temperament of diver using very different skills. Extreme care and great accuracy were the bywords here with everything measured and recorded.

The first thing you notice, as you drop the 18 meters to the bottom, are the lines spreading out from the central point, with tags carefully positioned along their length. As well as allowing the divers to pinpoint each find it is also a huge help in navigating around what is quite a dark and silty site, particularly when excavation is going on.

The main group of 5 canon, each nearly eight feet long and capable of firing a 4lb ball, are an impressive sight and were backed up by two swivel guns that were also found.

There are a further 6 canon on the site and also two separate iron anchors, both broken, which suggests that they were probably used for ballast. It takes a skilful eye to identify these heavily concreted artefacts lying on the bottom.

At one point the team discovered an astrolabe buried deep in the silt. After much careful work it was finally lifted free and gingerly brought up into the boat to be carefully examined. At that point someone pointed to the wires jutting out of the side and expressed surprise that seventeenth century pirates had electricity. Dozens of diving hours had gone into carefully retrieving this cooker hotplate.

What is clear is that so far they have only found part of the wreck, and that there will certainly be some astonishing finds yet to come. Whether those confirm the existing theories, go on to raise more questions or finally solve what ship she really was, remains to be seen.

As a designated historic wreck site, special permission is needed to dive this site.

While the Maine is still a magnificent dive, a huge amount of stuff has been taken off her, which is a loss to all subsequent divers and quite pointless, since the great majority of it is probably rotting in back gardens or already binned.

With a wreck like the Ramillies it is different, since you know that the divers are battling to save these historical artefacts before time and the sea obliterates them completely. Despite the difficulties of a site like this, it was carefully surveyed before work began and a huge amount of research has gone into the ship, it's sinking and the artefacts recovered. They are then displayed so that we can all learn from and enjoy them.

The Salcombe Gold Wreck is a model archaeological site with huge care going into the excavation and conservation of the artefacts found, and a lot of careful research into that period, which is actually serving to bring to light forgotten parts of our history.



With thanks to Diventure Salcombe, Salcombe Scuba, The Southwest Maritime Archaeological Group and Torbay BSAC for their assistance in exploring just some of the numerous wrecks off Salcombe

The series 'Diving Into History' will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 3.30pm on Saturday January 12th, 19th and 26th

See Radio