Thursday, October 29, 2020

Rescue of the Saint Malo ferry

The Channel Islands at the very south of the English Channel and only a few miles north of the French coast have for hundreds of years been a stopping point for ships transiting the area and providing a safe haven for those sheltering from storms before continuing their journey. But the countless shipwrecks surrounding these small islands leave the sailor in no doubt that these are also dangerous waters, with hidden rocks tempting the ships to come closer and claim them for their own.

As the modern day has been given way from the sailing age, the Channel Islands have claimed less ships, a motorised vessel being able to steer clear of the hazards and the Admiralty charts giving clear indications of obstructions, wrecks and other dangers to navigation.

But on the morning of Monday 17th April 1995, during the busy Easter holidays, the island of Jersey was host to a rescue operation that had not been seen in this scale for decades as the catamaran ferry Saint Malo almost became a victim of the rugged shores.

The twin hulled hydrofoil ferry was operated by Channiland, a French company that delivered hundreds of passengers at a time from the port of St Helier, the Jersey capital, over to the smaller but nearby islands of Alderney and Sark. Only two years old, the ship was 136 feet long with a beam of 36 feet, 585 gross tons and could carry around 300 people.

That day she sailed from Jersey at around 0945 and headed off towards Sark, the smallest of the Channel Islands. Her captain, Captain Philippe Peneau, was taking her past Cobiere Point at around 37 mph when he suddenly realised that the ship was off course. In an attempt to get the vessel back on track, he did not slow down and just 15 minutes after setting sail the vessel struck rocks and began to take on water.

With 307 people on board, they had a standard time of 30 minutes to evacuate the Saint Malo, liferafts were deployed and a distress call was sent. Ships in the area raced to the scene as the ferry started listing dangerously to port as one half was now completely filled with water, threatening to sink the rest of the vessel.

It didn’t take long for a nearby ferry to head to the site and with helicopters inbound the rescue operation was now in full swing. Many of the passengers were now jumping straight from the side of the ship onto the inflatable life raft and 55 people received injuries doing this. Some of the passengers caught the evacuation on camera and it was flashed on the news bulletins that day.

After 77 minutes the ship had been abandoned save for the captain and a few crew members, but this had taken over double the time it should have taken. The ferry was taken in tow and beached nearby, the tide exposing the damage caused by the rocks.

An investigation later blamed Captain Peneau for “recklessly endangered the lives” of his passengers, although no charges were brought in relation to this.

The Saint Malo was later repaired and put back into service, being renamed Condor France in 1996, Acacia in 1998, Spirit I in 2008 and finally she is still operating today as the Lovely I under the flag of St Kitts in the Caribbean (left).

In 1997 a sculpture of two clasped hands was placed on the cliffs above the area where the rescue of the Saint Malo passengers took place, a hundred people there to unveil the plaque and to commemorate the day that could have ended in disaster, it being described as a miracle and a testament to those who risked their own lives to save others.

Monday, October 26, 2020

An Interview with a Shipwreck Hunter (Part 2) - Neil Cunningham Dobson

The second interview I have conducted is with Neil Cunningham Dobson, deep water marine archaeologist and salvor. He became famous during the many shipwreck hunts that Odyssey Marine Exploration conducted where he was the expert that they turned to in order to identify and give a deep insight into the wrecks that the team had found. The searches made headline news and were a popular TV series Treasure Quest which astounded the viewer with the incredible finds and fantastic images of some of the more famous wrecks by the use of the ROV Zeus and the research vessel Odyssey Explorer.

Neil agreed to answer some questions about the world of shipwrecks from his personal perspective.  

Could you explain what drove you to pursue a career that involved shipwrecks?

Gosh, a long story as I am old and have 47 years working at sea.  I wanted to be a history teacher, but I also wanted to see the world. I have always been interested in ships and the sea.  My career route is not a normal one. It certainly helped that I had a career at sea, I understand the sea and ships and combined with my passion for shipwrecks, I have the best of both worlds.  I love to see how present offshore technology can be used and developed to find and investigate shipwrecks. Every shipwreck is different. Shipwrecks are events that are not supposed to happen. Shipwrecks are in some ways like crime scenes. You need to look at the clues and what you find on the seabed to try and piece together what happened to the ship and the people onboard. I am really an underwater detective.

As I live by the sea and I learned to sail I decided at 17 to join the merchant navy and I got a cadetship with Ben Line Steamers Ltd, affectionally known as the Scottish navy. I completed my cadetship but there was a decline in the UK merchant navy, so I ended up in 1979 going out to the North Sea on oil rigs as a stability officer. During my time offshore I learned to sport dive with the Sub Aqua Association (became DO of a local club I started) and was interested in shipwrecks and their history. I then started a successful a career as an offshore survival instructor/examiner for RGIT Ltd at their survival school base at Dundee docks. During my time ashore I did more diving and gained my HSE part III Commercial Diving qualification. I was approached by the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies where I got involved with marine archaeology. After joining the Nautical Archaeology Society, I became a tutor with them. I then made the decision to become a marine archaeologist and did a Masters course at St Andrews University. Working with St Andrews university on various maritime projects included a Cromwellian wreck off Duart Castle, Isle of Mull. My contract with the university ended and they closed the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies and I found myself out of work and very few marine archaeology jobs about. I decided to combine my 16 years in the offshore industry with my marine archaeology and I completed a one-month ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) course at the Underwater Centre in Fort William. In 2001 I became self-employed and started my own archaeology and exploration company Rovarch. I was approached by Odyssey Marine Exploration, Tampa, Florida where for 19 years I researched, looked for, discovered and excavated many interesting and high-profile shipwrecks. For the last three years I have been involved with more ship salvage work than marine archaeology. The recovery of valuable cargoes using ROV and a suite of salvage tools for various clients.

What has been your most “wow moment” in your career?

This is a hard question. So many “wow moments”. For me being the first to see the shipwreck since it sunk is great. Visually, many wrecks are amazing. Some that stick out for me are the discovery of the American sidewheel steamer SS Republic off the coast of Georgia, USA. The sight of a sandy mound where there were broken kegs of gold and silver coins was amazing. Finding the final resting place of the WWII British cargo ship SS Gairsoppa at almost 5,000m deep, sitting intact and upright on the seabed was wonderful. My late father served on similar ships as a radio officer during WWII. Being one of the first few people to see many large bronze cannon lying in clusters on the seabed from the wreck of HMS Victory (1744) and finding undiscovered German WWII U-boats are all a “wow moments”.

How many shipwrecks have you investigated and/or dealt with?

I have never counted them but its in the hundreds. Everything from 1st century Roman amphora wrecks, 17th century pirate ships, 19th century sidewheel paddle steamers, 1744 HMS Victory, German U-boats, a few aircraft, and many WWI and WWII merchant ships and passenger liners.

What, in your opinion, would you say was your most important discovery either at sea or in the archives and why?

Finding HMS Victory (1744, the one before Nelson’s) was the most important discovery for me. It was found almost 100 miles west from where it was believed to be. This ship was the “death star” of its day.  The bronze cannon spread on the seabed is amazing. It is a highly significant shipwreck that should be investigated and excavated. Sadly, the wreck lies unprotected in international waters and under threat.  There are for sure amazing and wonderful discoveries to be found just under the seabed on this site.  The archives always turn up important and significant discoveries. Good research is key in finding a shipwreck. (The image above shows Neil documenting one of Victory's recovered cannon)

Do you still get speechless when making new discoveries today?

Shipwrecks never fail to amaze me and there are always new discoveries to be found. Yes, I get speechless quite often. I have seen some weird and amazing things on shipwrecks and ocean floors.

What was your last project and what did you achieve?

My last project was a WWII cargo passenger ship in the North Atlantic. I cannot divulge details of this most recent project as it is ongoing.

What are your hopes for your future discoveries?

My hopes are that through good research I will find more targets and be successful in making more exciting discoveries and recoveries. I enjoy being able to share these through publications and TV shows.

Is there anything else you would like to share that would interest the reader?

The world of marine archaeology is a colourful one and full of many characters.

Working in commercial archaeology is difficult.  Personally, I conduct archaeology to a high standard and within the guidelines of my profession. Sadly, there are many who do not value my work or fully understand the use of ROV systems. Marine archaeology is rife with differing opinions and egos, sometimes obstructing facts and accuracy. However, I will never give up as I follow my dreams and continue being a pioneering deep -water marine archaeologist working with ROVs, deep water survey/salvage and seabed intervention systems making new and exciting discoveries and sharing those with the public.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Friendly Fire Tragedy – Imber 1942

Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire is the largest military training ground in the United Kingdom and plays host to exercises with all members of the worlds armed forces, but this is not just something that came about recently. During the Second World War this whole area was vital to the military as it prepared for D-Day invasions and the later Victory in Europe.

During this testing time, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was to see a demonstration of military power and amongst the planned displays was a fleet of 12 aircraft that would attack a collection of vehicles and dummies in a series of manoeuvres that would install both pride and confidence in the might of the British fighting force.

On 13th April 1942 a dress rehearsal began in weather that was pretty hazy but not bad enough to cancel the flying. People from all over had come out to see this, including a few members of the Home Guard and they were excited at the thought of seeing real training action up close.

Six Hawker Hurricanes from the RAF’s 175 Squadron and another six Supermarine Spitfires from 234 Squadron swooped over the village and did their demonstration, first the Spitfires, which made their pass without firing, then they were closely followed by the Hurricanes.

But the final Hurricane in the line was flown by a 20 year old pilot of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Sergeant William McLachlan. He got into position and lined his aircraft up with the dummies as planned and raked them with machine gun fire. Confident that he had put on a successful display he carried on the routine until the job had finished.

What he didn’t know was that he had accidentally opened fire on the crowd of spectators and the result was devastating. The death toll that day was 23, another two succumbing to their injuries over the next few days with another 71 injured. Five of the dead were members of the Home Guard.

A court of inquiry was set up and the pilot was cleared of any wrongdoing, the official blame being placed on the weather at the time and also that of McLachlan’s error of judgement due to him losing the rest of the other aircraft in the hazy conditions and believing he had genuinely found the correct target to fire upon.

A later inquest returned a verdict of misadventure and recorded the deaths as being attributed to gunshot wounds. Again the pilot was called forward to give evidence and he confirmed that he had mistaken the people on the ground for the dummies.

As with any wartime situation there are never any real winners and tragically on 28 June 1942, just 1 ½ months after the Imber incident, McLachlan was once again at the controls of his Hurricane on a mission over France and was shot down and remains missing to this day, presumed dead.

After the deaths of the 25 spectators at Imber it became apparent that having a bunch of civilians smack bang in the middle of a military training ground was both dangerous and reckless. As the houses were owned by the military, plans were drawn up to have the rest of the area requisitioned. On 1st November 1943 the entire village was called to gather in the schoolroom for a public meeting where they were told the devastating news that they had just 47 days to vacate the village.

Today Imber is a shell of its former self, open for visitors in controlled numbers in guided tours that can take a small number of people to the church and the village centre just a few times a year.

The victims are today remembered in a plaque that was unveiled on the 70th anniversary of the disaster at St Giles Church in Warminster after a campaign by the Wiltshire Historical Military Society. Recently former MP Michael Portillo featured the village in his series Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain with a book of the same name. A fascinating yet tragic chapter in English history.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Helicopter Crash at the Clutha Bar

It is inevitable that aircraft will crash from time to time, many have simple problems that can be rectified and prevent a reoccurrence but other times the cause of such a crash may need a lot of work to investigate what happened in order to find a cause. One such incident is the tragic crash of a police helicopter in 2013.

The Scottish city of Glasgow is one of the busiest places in the United Kingdom and third most densely populated and one of the things that attracts people is the nightlife and the range of old style pubs that seem to be on every corner. At the edge of the River Clyde at the Gorbels Street Bridge is a bar that looks from a distance to have had its top floor sheered off and a temporary roof in its place, entry into the pub confirms that this did indeed have further floors in its heyday with a set of stairs leading to nothing. This had been the result of a fire in the 1960s and the building having several storeys removed, but this particular venue now would become infamous for what happened this one particular night.

On the evening of Friday 29th November 2013 a police helicopter was scanning the streets of the city looking for evidence of earlier reports of a trespasser before being retasked to Dalkeith. After completing its mission the pilot and his two police officers on board were given clearance to land at Glasgow City Heliport and this is where the aircraft was heading.

Meanwhile in the Clutha bar a band was playing to the crowd as is normal for a Friday night here, normality is live music on the stage and everybody generally having a good time, regulars mixing with those that have just come in for a quick pint. Then in an instant, all hell broke loose. The time was 2222 hours and Glasgow was about to make national headlines for the wrong reasons.

The roof of the Clutha collapsed on top of the customers and smoke filled the rooms, masonry and brickwork flying everywhere as people became trapped under rubble, injured people struggling to get out in the suddenness of what was happening. At this point nobody knew, but the police helicopter flying overheard and dropped like a stone above the pub and plunged through the flat roof into the crowded bar.

Glasgow emergency services were immediately on scene, fleets of ambulances turning up and taking stunned and injured to hospital, so many more needed recovering from the rubble, the fire teams working into the night, but by now it was obvious that all three had died in the helicopter and there were several more dead within the bar.

The following morning the daylight showed the extent of the damage, the helicopter sticking out of the roof at a crazy angle and dozens of people waiting nearby for news of their friends, some of whom were still missing. When the rescue operation turned into a recovery, they found that seven of the pubgoers had been killed.

An investigation revealed that a low fuel warning had been ignored and that the engines had been starved of the little fuel remaining after the fuel transfer switch had been deactivated for some unknown reason.

The Clutha pub reopened and is today still frequented by drinkers and the live music continues. There is no plaque to the ten people who died that night, but for those whose lived were affected by this tragic event, it will be a long time before this disaster fades from the memory of the Glaswegians. The bar itself shows no evidence that anything on such a scale ever happened, but for those who were there that night, the name Clutha will forever live in the hearts of those who lost loved ones on that Friday night in the winter of 2013. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Mysterious loss of the trawler Pescado

On 5th March 1991 the Coastguard station at Falmouth received a report that a locally based fishing vessel called Pescado had failed to return to port with her six crew. She had sailed on 25th February and had been expected to go anywhere off the south-west coast and possibly into the Irish Sea, but with no exact location and no radio response for three days, people were starting to get worried.

A search and rescue operation was launched and this was continued for several days until wreckage was located on 7th March that was confirmed to belong to the missing trawler, there was no sign of her crew and no indication of what had happened to them.

The Pescado started her life as a side trawler when she was built in Holland in 1956. At 72 feet long and just under 56 gross tons, she went through a variety of owners in her lifetime and had run aground in 1981 where she was declared a constructive total loss. The wreck was bought and repaired but it would be several years before she was fit for sea and once again working as a fishing vessel.

A company known as Guideday Ltd found Pescado for sale in 1990 where she had laid in Plymouth without an engine for 18 months and once again the vessel was restored back to working order and was later fitted out as a scallop dredger. Various trials were conducted but she had a lot of defective parts and several incidents caused concern for those that knew the trawler by now.

The day after the wreckage was found and it was confirmed that it belonged to the Pescado, a body of one of the crew members was located. As more wreckage was found over the next few weeks a sea-angling vessel reported that they had located a wreck on the seabed 13 miles south of Dodman Point, a team from the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch launched an expedition and confirmed that the wreck was that of the missing trawler.

After another body was found it became apparent that there were no survivors and the reasoning behind the sinking was very much a mystery. The cause had to be found and so, over two years after the sinking, an operation was put in place to salvage the wreck. On 20th September 1993 the Pescado finally broke the surface, covered in rust and looking battered after spending so long on the seabed. The wreck was taken to Devonport dockyard and placed in a dry dock for inspections.

At this point the owner Alan Ayres and managing agent Joseph O’Connor were now throwing the accusations that the Royal Navy had sunk the Pescado during one of their many exercises that they do off the Plymouth coast. Whether it was a submarine that had snagged the nets (which had happened before in 1990 with the Antares being dragged under by HMS Trenchant) or that a collision with another ship had suddenly sent her to the bottom.

When the wreck was examined the fishing equipment showed no sign of damage that a submarine would have caused by snagging, nor did the wreck itself show any sign of collision damage from either a surface or sub-surface object. Instead the investigation began to focus on the safety of the trawler itself and for the owners it was not looking good.

The two men were put on trial accused of the manslaughter of her crew and breaches of safety, however the judge ordered a not guilty verdict. A further charge was found guilty but then later overturned. In the meantime the MAIB did a full investigation and their final report in 1998 stated the loss of the Pescado as having her nets snagging on the seabed which dragged her down. They highlighted the safety shortcomings, the instability of the vessel, inexperience of the crew, no emergency beacon and a liferaft that was strapped down so that it couldn’t float free when the vessel sank.

Despite the evidence, Ayres insists that the Pescado was sunk by the military and that the Royal Navy initiated a cover up. The fact that all the warships and submarines were accounted for elsewhere was rejected by him and he continues to attempt to overturn the reasons for the loss of the Pescado and her six crew and direct the blame away from himself. With no evidence to say that she was ever even involved in a collision of any kind, the sinking of Pescado remains a tragic accident and one that should be taken as a valuable lesson for any owners or operators who try and cut corners with safety at sea. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

There be treasure on that beach! – The wreck of the MSC Napoli

The South-West coast of England once had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous places ever for ships to transit, not just because of the sharp rocks and unpredictable seas but because there had always been rumours of the locals on shore setting up lights in order to confuse the ships and ground them on purpose, taking the spoils of the shipwrecks for themselves and gaining the reputation as what we now know were nicknamed “The Wreckers.”

But in the modern day we don’t see Wreckers any more, but in 2007 an incident occurred that brought back to light the long held reputation of ships grounding and the cargoes being taken away by those on the land. This is the story of the container vessel MSC Napoli.

Built in South Korea and launched in 1991, she had gone through several name changes before being renamed MSC Napoli and travelled around the world carrying thousands of huge containers at any one time. At 53,000 gross tons, she was 904 feet long and carried a crew of just 26 people.

On 18th January 2007 she was on a voyage from Belgium to Portugal when the vessel encountered a storm in the English Channel and started getting into difficulty. 50 miles from Cornwall she developed damage to the hull and so it was decided that the ship had to be abandoned and a distress call was sent.

Royal Navy helicopters rescued all her crew from the lifeboat and the ship was taken in tow and beached at Branscombe Bay to prevent her sinking and taking her 2318 containers with her. With the ship safely on the bottom it was thought that a successful salvage operation could now be conducted, but the weather had other ideas.

Her containers were now unstable as the ship was listing from taking on water and before long several fell from her decks and floated around in the sea. Some had already run aground in France as the ship had been taking on water but being so close to land now they were coming straight onto the beach.

This is where the scavenging began. As each container washed ashore, people flocked to the beaches nearby and broke open those that weren’t already damaged. Inside they found dozens of BMW motorbikes, shoes and entire household removals amongst the thousands of valuable items that were quickly taken away.

By law the finder of such items has to declare it to the Receiver of Wreck and they will find the owner and offer a reward for recovery. If no owner is found then after 366 days the finder is offered the item. But this was clearly not happening here as more and more cargo washed ashore and very little was being declared.

The police were called to patrol the area and the beaches ended up being closed off as the front pages of the national newspapers showed people rolling the BMW motorbikes from the beach and taking them away. Without declaring these items, these finds were technically being stolen. One family who had packed their entire house in one of these containers had to watch it on TV being taken apart from another country, helpless to do anything about it.

With the looters now held back and the visitors no longer clogging the roads up, a salvage operation started once the weather was good enough and for the next two years the remaining containers were carefully extracted from the wreck until finally the ship was empty of cargo and pollutants. After it was found that the MSC Napoli was in no fit state to be salvaged intact, the ships stern was blown off with explosives and scrapped on site, the bow being towed to Belfast to be scrapped there.

The anchor from the MSC Napoli remained at Branscombe with a commemorative plaque as a monument to the drama that took place here and a reminder that despite all efforts, shipwrecks still happen on this coast.