Advertisement

The big gun of shipwrecks is found

American salvagers say they have discovered the long-sought wreck of HMS Victory, the mightiest and most technologically advanced warship of its time, which sank during a violent storm in the English Channel in 1744.

Armed with as many as 110 massive bronze cannons and carrying a crew of 900 men and 100 supernumeraries, the Victory was lost with all hands and reportedly with a treasure of gold bullion whose value is estimated at $1 billion.

In a news conference Monday in London, Greg Stemm, chief executive of Odyssey Marine Exploration in Tampa, Fla., said the company found the remains in 330 feet of water more than 60 miles from where the vessel was thought to have sunk -- exonerating the captain, Sir John Balchin, from the widespread accusation that he had let it run aground through faulty navigation.

“This is the naval equivalent of the Titanic, perhaps even more important than the Titanic,” said marine archaeologist Sean Kingsley, director of Wreck Watch International, who consulted with Odyssey on the find. “It’s the only intact collection of bronze guns from a Royal Navy warship in the world.”

Advertisement

The ship, he added in a telephone interview, “was the equivalent in its day of an aircraft carrier armed with nuclear weapons. . . . When it disappeared off the face of the Earth, there was a collective gasp in the establishment and the general public.”

Like the Titanic, the Victory had flaws that rendered it vulnerable to its fate: Its three-deck design was unusually top-heavy, making it susceptible to excessive rolling, and its timbers were not aged properly, leading to premature rot.

Those flaws were corrected when its successor, the sixth and last British warship named Victory, was designed and built three decades later for Admiral Lord Nelson.

By that time as well, the massive bronze cannons had given way to lighter, cheaper cannons made of steel, marking the end of an era.

Advertisement

Odyssey Marine Exploration, which finds sunken ships and sells the artifacts, has made other notable discoveries.

In May 2007, it announced that it had recovered 17 tons of silver and gold coins from a Spanish wreck in the Atlantic, off the coast of Portugal.

The company is now in court with the Spanish government, which claims ownership of the treasure.

The company has been criticized by experts who say it has inflated the value of treasure to procure financial backing. Kingsley and Stemm both noted that the team had so far seen no sign of cargo on the Victory.

Advertisement

Odyssey’s shares, which have fallen sharply since September, rose 25 cents, or 6.3%, on Monday to close at $4.20 on Nasdaq.

The Victory search will be profiled this Thursday night in a documentary on the Discovery Channel.

Odyssey has also been criticized for its emphasis on finding wrecks carrying valuable cargo.

“I don’t approve of treasure hunting,” said marine archaeologist George Bass of Texas A&M; University.

Advertisement

“I would like to think that historic shipwrecks would be treated like historic monuments on land, not broken down and sold for profit,” he said.

Stemm said Odyssey was negotiating with the British Defense Ministry over what salvage rights it will have.

The Victory site was discovered in May during Odyssey’s extensive surveying of the English Channel area with ships carrying sensitive magnetometers and other instruments. The location has been kept a closely guarded secret ever since.

Researchers used the company’s 8-ton remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Zeus to explore and photograph the site.

Advertisement

The ROV “almost immediately landed on a bronze cannon, which are extremely rare,” Kingsley said.

The cannons “were littered across the seabed, so you knew you had something incredible.”

The ROV also found a large copper caldron used for cooking, iron ballast that was placed in the keel for maneuverability, a 21-foot-long anchor -- and, then, the “piece de resistance, the royal arms of King George on the tops of the guns,” Kingsley said.

Using a specially designed ruler attached to the ROV’s camera, the researchers measured the mouths of the cannons and found that many were 7 inches in diameter -- meaning they were 42-pounders, the most deadly weapon of the time, firing 42-pound cannonballs.

Advertisement

This much led the team to conclude that it had found a so-called first-rate warship, meaning it had three decks and more than 100 cannons. Only four first-rate warships were lost in the 18th century, and only one in the English Channel: the Victory.

“But really, finding a 42-pounder bronze cannon was as good as finding a bell with a name on it,” Kingsley said.

The Victory, which was built in Portsmouth between 1726 and 1737, was nearly 175 feet long, with a beam of 50 1/2 feet and a weight of 1,921 tons.

During her seven-year career, she was used primarily in noncombat operations to mount a show of force as a deterrent.

Advertisement

Her last master was Balchin, who spent nearly 60 years of his life serving the Royal Navy.

Balchin was called out of retirement in the summer of 1744 to helm the Victory on a mission to rescue a Mediterranean convoy blockaded by the French Brest fleet in the Tagus River in Lisbon.

After chasing the French away, Balchin headed home with his 26 ships. It was reported that the Victory took on a consignment of 400,000 pounds sterling for Dutch merchants.

A violent storm struck the channel on Oct. 5, scattering the fleet. All the ships made it home except the Victory.

Advertisement

History recorded that the ship was lost on the Casquets, a group of rocky islets northwest of Alderney and renowned as the “graveyard of the English Channel.” The lighthouse keeper at Alderney was court-martialed for failing to keep the lights on during the period in question.

Because of the prevailing winds and currents at the time, however, the researchers dismiss the possibility that the Victory ran aground. Instead, it sank at sea through no one’s fault.

“This is the most astonishing news,” Sir Robert Balchin, a descendant of the admiral, said in a statement released by Odyssey. “For generations, my family has wondered about the fate of Sir John and the Victory,” he said.

So far, Odyssey has retrieved only two bricks, which were used to register the site with U.S. officials; a 12-pounder cannon featuring the royal arms of George II; and a 4-ton, 42-pounder bearing the crest of George I.

Advertisement

The large cannon, Kingsley said, is the only known example of a gun of that size and type in existence on dry land.

The company is working with the Defense Ministry to plan the recovery of more artifacts. Kingsley said it was crucial to retrieve them as soon as possible to prevent further damage.

The site, he noted, is frequented by fishing trawlers whose nets “plow up the seabed.”

“All the wrecks in the area have massive plow marks through their middles,” Kingsley said.

Advertisement

The wreck is also at a depth that can be reached by diving, he said, and no provision has been made by the British government, which owns the ship, to protect it.

--

thomas.maugh@latimes.com


Advertisement