HMS Victory: The English Channel's 'abandoned shipwreck'
By Rob Byrne BBC News Online"It was the wreck that every wreck-finder wanted to find," says diver Richard Keen, who began searching in 1973 for Victory, the predecessor of Admiral Lord Nelson's more famous namesake ship.
The professional diver, from Guernsey, grouped together with five others to scour the seabed for two months near Les Casquets, a group of islands eight miles (13km) west of Alderney, the northernmost Channel Island.
The group did manage to locate the wreck of passenger steamer Stella, which sank in 1899 claiming 105 lives, but HMS Victory remained elusive.
The 100-gun ship was launched in 1737, and seven years later it was the flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchen as he successfully led a force to relieve a British convoy trapped by a French blockade of the River Tagus, in Portugal.
But on the return journey, Victory was separated from the fleet and sank with all hands on 5 October 1744.
Its exact location in the English Channel would remain a mystery for more than 250 years.
Search efforts initially focused on the infamous Casquets - where the ship was thought to have been wrecked due to poor navigation.
But in 2009, Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration announced it had discovered Victory, 62 miles (100km) away from those rocks, suggesting a fierce storm rather than a navigational error had been behind the sinking.
As with the Mary Rose, the Tudor warship which was raised in 1982, there was great public interest in the find.
Built during a period of British naval ascendancy, Victory and its more famous successor were two of the most expensive and grandest ships of the period.
"It would be hard to overstate how important they [both ships] are, I think."
The wreck of the Mary Rose would go on to yield 19,000 artefacts of great historical significance but of no private commercial value, because of laws governing sovereign naval property.
But bringing Victory's treasures to the surface would be a costly exercise - one companies like Odyssey would usually fund through the sale of artefacts.
Despite the majority of the wreck lying some 75m below the surface, two of Victory's bronze guns, a giant 42-pounder and a 12-pounder, have been brought up from the deep with the permission of the government.
The discovery of the larger gun - only carried on a first-rate vessel of Victory's size during the first half of the 18th Century - enabled archaeologists to identify the wreck.
As the only first-rate warship with an intact collection of bronze cannon, Victory's guns provide a unique snapshot: soon after such weapons would be made of iron, and naval tactics would shift.
In addition to the cannon, rigging, glass bottle fragments and remains of the hull and anchors also form part of the wreck.
A massive gold hoard rumoured to be aboard Victory has, however, not been found and its presence on the ship in the first place has been disputed by historians.
There is still more to be learned from the ship, Mr Sheldon says, but the question remains - should that be done through surveying the site underwater, or should Victory rise again?
HMS Victory: A timeline
- 1726 - Construction of Victory begins in Portsmouth
- 1737 - Victory is launched, later becoming the flagship of the Channel Fleet under Sir John Norris
- 1740 - War of the Austrian Succession breaks out, with Britain siding with Austria's Habsburg alliance against a number of countries, including France and Prussia
- 1744 - Victory relieves a British convoy, trapped by a French blockade in Portugal - on its return, the ship becomes separated from the fleet and sinks on 5 October
- 1765 - HMS Victory, Lord Nelson's flagship and successor to the vessel, is floated out of dock at Chatham
- 1805 - Victory fights at the Battle of Trafalgar, which ends Napoleon's plans to invade Britain but also sees the death of Nelson
- 2009 - Odyssey announces it has found Victory, later suggesting it sank due to a violent storm coupled with the ship's top-heavy design, gun-crowded upper decks and possibly rotten timbers
One man who is convinced Victory's artefacts are best taken out of "harm's way" is Dr Sean Kingsley, a marine archaeologist for the Maritime Heritage Foundation (MHF), which was gifted the wreck site in 2012.
He would like to see artefacts brought up and displayed in a UK museum.
"The government believes this unique wreck can be managed untouched, 80km offshore, in one of the world's busiest sea lanes."An irreplaceable piece of British history ends up abandoned, out of sight and mind, with the government's stamp of approval."
Not only that, the site is at risk of damage from fishing trawlers, erosion and illegal salvage, something noted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2014, he explains.
While the extent of threat to the wreck from fishing and looting is disputed, Dr Kingsley is concerned a 2018 decision to put the foundation's initial 2014 "research and rescue" application on hold will mean the site could be further threatened.
While there is a consensus on the historical importance of the wreck, not everyone in the archaeological world agrees with the Maritime Heritage Foundation's plans for the site.
"This is basically a grave - this is the last resting place of 1,100 British sailors and it should not be disturbed lightly," says Robert Yorke, chairman of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee.
"You don't go into a local churchyard and start digging them up hoping you're going to find some gold underneath the bodies."
So, it would seem this is likely to continue for a bit, with both sides making cogent arguments for their case. We'll keep an eye out for more, should it develop.
And, as a matter of interest, Maritime Maunder is approaching 90,000 readers! Again, an astounding (to us) number!
Until next time,