Tuesday, 25 February 2020

ronmick1In April 1994 we were itching to get back to our ‘Protected Wreck’ site in the Erme Estuary, it had seemed ages since we had dived the area, in fact it had been almost a year. Whilst the technical boys in the guise of ‘Sonadyne’ had been mapping the Estuary underwater we had done a bit of work on the ‘Gossamer’ a sister ship of the ‘Cutty Sark’ lost off Prawle Point, and had been fairly successful in our efforts, finding plenty of nice artefacts which are now housed in the local Salcombe Maritime Museum. However there was a lot of work to catch up on in the Erme and a few targets to have a look at.

As in the previous year, the early months of 1995 consisted of gales and heavy rain, and heavy rain is bad news if you wish to dive the Erme, the underwater visibility can go down to nil due to rainwater washing down mud and silt from nearby Dartmoor, however the weekend of the 29th of April 1995 looked favourable even though the West Country had a lot of rain the previous week, but not enough to spoil the anticipation of the first dive of the year. The forecast looked good and the Devon moles informed us in land locked Northampton that the underwater visibility was gin clear, so myself, Mick Kightley, Mick Palmer, Jim Tyson and big Mick Evans set out on what was to turn out to be a life changing weekend.

 As usual we stayed at our second home, Burleigh Farm, the home of Doris Baker who looked after us for well over three years, always assured of a warm welcome, a cup of tea at all hours with a home made cake thrown in, as well as Doris her daughter Alison and husband Barry took care of the other half of the team when they were down at their lovely bungalow just up the narrow road that leads down to Hope Cove. We could not wished for a better set up.

 We arrived early enough that memorable weekend to have a pint or two, or three, after the long journey from Northampton at ‘The New Inn’ in the village of Marlbourgh situated between the towns of Kingsbridge and Salcombe. Well into the beer and garlic mushrooms we were joined by local team members Dave Illingworth and his wife Sue, and Neville Oldham, both ex. East Cheshire BSAC members who had relocated to South Devon. Neville and Dave had worked together on local wrecks, especially pursuing Neville’s dream, trying to find the remains of an Armada vessel lost off Hope Cove.

 Our plan, discussed as usual in the pub was to launch at Hope Cove and visit the Erme Estuary, dive the reef and do a bit of surveying and digging in the many gullies off the main gully. The following day we were due a visit from ‘Rangemaster’ the Sonardyne trials vessel, they would re-locate the magnetometer targets for us to dive on, and we were helpless without those marks. And so after kicking out time at the New Inn it was back to the farm house for a good nights sleep.

 Saturday morning arrived, the weather was dull and overcast but with little wind. We decided it was a go for the Erme and we headed off to Hope Cove to put the RIB in the water. As usual we were the only ones at the slip and we noticed that there was a heavy ground swell, but as it was high water we had no problem launching the boat from the top of the slipway, recovering from the beach later on would be a problem we thought collectively.

 Soon we were heading east in a fast forming sea mist, we kept Burgh Island in sight on our starboard side and hugged the coast until we approached the familiar rocks that formed the

 entrance to the Erme Estuary. It soon became apparent that we would not be diving the reef due to the heavy surf crashing over the top of the rocks, in fact unbeknown to us at the time, two

Fishermen further down the coast, were being swept to their deaths from rocks, because of this heavy swell. We therefore decided to try the Galleon site inside the reef; it had been some time that we had searched the seabed of the main site. Mick Kightley & Mick Evans were the first pair in and as they were kitting up we could see that the underwater visibility was pretty poor, however in they went, and in no time they surfaced saying it was like a “bloody coal mine” and hopeless, so it was back in the boat to discuss plan ‘B’.

 We had two options, one, to sit it out till low water and try to dive the ‘Ingot Site’ in the shelter of the Reef, and two, travel some 20 km to see what the conditions were like on the ‘Gossamer Site’. We chose the latter as we could not gamble that the underwater vis. would be any better at low water, so we took the long ride back to Hope Cove to drop off a diver to take the truck and boat trailer to Salcombe as the fuel tanks would not last the return journey. As we neared Hope Cove we could see that we would have a problem dropping a diver off due to the heavy surf crashing upon the beach, myself and Mick Kightley had some years previously been turned over in heavy surf and were not eager to repeat the experience. So we turned about and headed off to Salcombe. Once there a diver caught a taxi to Hope Cove to recover the truck and trailer, to enable us to operate for the rest of the day out of Salcombe.

 Crossing over the Salcombe Bar that Saturday afternoon we turned to port towards distant Prawle Point, the sea was choppy but not uncomfortable, as we approached Prawle we realised that diving would also be out on the Gossamer wreck site so we opted to look at a site we had discussed in the pub the night before. Neville had told us of a “boring cannon site” that had a green plastic marker buoy tied to it, and it would be worth a look at if diving was out round the corner. As it happened the sea conditions were favourable in the area of this cannon site, so we turned round to look for the green buoy off the Gara Rock. I remember saying during discussions about this cannon site that, “no site is boring if it has cannon, and it was worth a good look around”.

 Myself and Mick Kightley were the first pair in, we agreed we would take down a distance line each, and go our separate ways from the base of the anchor line to have a general look around. I landed on the bottom at 19 metres just after Mick, the underwater visibility very good, I could see Mick’s line snaking off to the right so I went in the opposite direction down a gully, I saw plenty to get me excited and I left my line on the bottom marking several items worth looking at the next day. Back in the boat I was pleased that Mick had felt the same way, he had also marked an area. The other pair confirmed that it was worth a second look.

 At night we hit ‘The Fortesque’ at Salcombe, Mick had seen more cannon than I had and the other pair had found an anchor, so a dive plan was discussed, we were to be joined by Neville and Dave during the day in their boats, and so the stage was set for an event that was to change all of our lives and the history of NW Europe, but that was in the future.

 As usual Northampton BSAC were the only ones about having had a 0730 breakfast, the slipway was deserted as was Salcombe as we made our way down the estuary to the open sea, once over the famous Salcombe Bar we turned to port pointing our bow towards Prawle Point. Reaching some quarter of a mile from the shore off Deckler’s Cliff we tied up to the small green buoy, the ground swell rolling in but surface conditions good for diving.

 Mick Evans and myself soon kitted up, the plan of action in our heads as we descended to the sea bed.

I landed with a gentle bounce on the sea bed, silt clouding up around me, disturbed by my intrusion, a small crab turned sideways, its claw raised to fend off any attack, I looked around and up, my buddy appeared in the greeny gloom, descending upside down on the anchor line, a trail of bubbles heading for the surface marking his descent towards me. Kneeling side by side we checked our instruments and each other, I tied my safety line to the bottom of the anchor line we had just come down, the underwater visibility a good six metres. As the dive leader I did a 360 degree sweep and chose a gully to my right to explore, I tapped my buddy on his hood, I pointed out the direction I was heading and gestured to him to follow me a few metres behind. Our plan, discussed in the pub the night before, was for me to tie off my line on any interesting objects, and my buddy would then investigate them.

 I started off, pulling myself along the bottom trying to avoid kicking up the silt with my fins, a cuttle fish darted across me, disturbed at the sight of what was to him the equivalent of a Polaris Submarine. To my left the gully walls sloped steeply upwards, to my right another gully disappeared into the gloom, I will go down there later I thought, it looks interesting. A Wrasse hovered close to me; side fins beating rapidly in reverse ready to make a quick getaway, turning, he almost beckoned me to follow him into the narrow gully.

 I looked back, no sign of Mike my buddy, but a tapping noise alerted me to his presence behind me. I entered the gully and immediately my second sight trained by years of diving alerted me to a change on the sea bed, something that was out of context with its surroundings, crud I thought, concretion formed by man made materials coming into contact with the chemicals in the seawater, I resisted taking a look at it and formed a loop with my line around the object so Mike could investigate it, I carried on down the gully the Wrasse still observing me from a distance. I had gone some 10 metres into this gully, one of five I could have gone down at the start of the dive, when I was alerted once again by my inner alarm bell, I literally jumped and stopped, what was that I thought, I looked around me, looked at the slate like sea bed, and could not see anything obvious. I saw something, I know I did, I told myself, so I went backwards to retrace my steps so to speak, gently fanning the thin layer of sand covering the rock with my hand, then I saw it, and I immediately knew why my body alerted by my inner alarm had stopped so suddenly.

 Our team over the years have found almost every type of metal and material from shipwreck, we have even found diamonds, so we tend to form a mental picture in our mind of the colour that certain objects have underwater, crud or concretion a rusty colour, bronze and brass a green colour, silver and pewter, black, so spotting anything will trigger off signal of excitement, I was just about to experience that in abundance.

 Gold holds its colour even if it has been on the seabed for thousands of years; unless it is close to, or touching another metal, then it will be tainted. So what was peeping at me in a deep fissure of the slate like rock was yellow, I knew it was gold, I had found gold coins before, but this was not a gold coin, my heart started to race. A probing finger from my very worn and holey glove failed to dislodge it, so I reached down to my lower right leg to unsheathe my knife. The rock was very fragile and split very easily, my now shaking hand placed the knife blade deep into

 the crack and pressure applied upwards, the object popped out in a cloud of silt and broken rock splinters. Looking downwards the cloudy disturbed fine silt gradually dispersed, and revealed lying on its side a bright finger of gold. My guide and new found friend the Wrasse darted in and

grabbed a lug worm that had been living its days in a golden palace, but I was in no fit state to admire the antics of a fish, my adrenalin was reaching dangerous levels in my excitement.

 I picked it up and looked at it, “bloody hell” I thought, gold, trying to come to terms with the obvious, but what is it. My inner self told me, put it in your glove, your very worn and holey glove and see if there is any more lying around. One wave of the hand over the wreckage of the broken rock, revealed in the ensuing cloud a thin yellow line, what the hell, I thought as I plunged excitedly towards it, my fingers teasing it out, Jesus a coin, and there was another one, my heart was in my mouth, I noted the Arabic or Islamic lettering on the coin but I had to get a grip of myself, I was 60 feet down, there was a lot to think about.

 It was April of 1995, I had been diving for twenty years and before that training with the Royal Navy, but nothing in the training manuals had prepared me for the experience I was having, and not many divers had experienced the joy of finding gold in abundance.

 I started to calm down, I put the coins with the ingot on top of a safe looking rock, we usually carry a small bag for objects that we find, but it was just my luck that I had left it behind. I looked around, probed with my knife, and again more yellow, this time it had a shape, gold jewellery, “oh bloody hell”, swearing again as I spotted two more coins, my heart started to race again as I saw a gold nugget a few inches from the coins, I then stopped, how, I do not know, but I had to, a look at my air content gauge told me I had a few minutes to get my act together.

I remember thinking that there was enough gold around to start a gold rush in Devon, nobody finds gold like this on a boring cannon site, but my main thought was fulfilling a dream I have had since boyhood reading shipwreck books, a dream that was halfway to being achieved, the other half was to crack the surface holding a fistful of gold jewellery in the air to my mates in the boat, but that was soon to come.

 “Where did I put the gold, retrieving it, I stuffed it safely in my very worn and damaged gloves, I had find my buddy who I could hear banging away oblivious to the drama unfolding in front of him. Above all calm down, I have a bloody fortune in my gloves I thought, is it safe, how am I going to manage going up the line with my hands forming a tight fists, but there is no way I am going to drop this lot, all these thoughts going on in my head.

 I swam to Mike, thumped him on his head with my fist, he jumped, startled out of his concentration on a meaningless lump of metal, I stared into his face mask, I looked down to my fists, he followed, I opened my hand, his face was a picture, his eyes told me he had seen the equivalent of Liz Hurley naked. Follow me I gestured, aware of my air getting low. Stop, you, pointing with my fist, search this area, me, pointing to my chest, I am going up, giving him the low air sign, and with that I was on my way to the surface live out my dream.

 I hooked my right arm around the anchor line aware that I had to be able to get to my air dump valve with my protruding thumb, if I couldn’t I would have hit the surface like a rocket as the air expanded in my enclosed dry suit as I got shallower, that could have killed me. I got to six metres and did a minute stop to allow the nitrogen bubbles collected in my blood to disperse, as I had gone over my safe no stop time on the bottom I had to prevent what are known as the

 Bends. I managed to control myself on the line, as I could not grip it was difficult, but no way was I going to lose any of the gold jammed in my holey gloves.

 I was watching the plankton drifting quite quickly by as I hung at 45 degrees from the anchor line by my elbow, I thought about the lads in the boat above when suddenly one of the divers flashed by waving, I tried to stop him on his way down, but his fins slowly disappeared into the depths, you cannot use sign language with hands bunched into fists.

 That left Mick Palmer in our boat, Sue Illingworth as a spectator in their boat, Mick Kightley on the bottom by himself in another area, Dave Illingworth halfway to what, and big Mick Evans hopefully digging out more gold. Not the boatload of my dreams, but at least a haven to dump the gold from my aching arms and fists.

 I cracked the surface, my arm still hooked round the anchor line, I had a four metre swim with a running current to get to the side of the boat, normally the short distance could be made in running water by pulling yourself along the line to the grab lines on the boat, but with useless hands it was going to be difficult. I could be in trouble fighting the tide run, and if was not careful I could drift off towards Prawle Point, with my fingers useless I could not operate my valves normally to give me buoyancy on the surface, but there was no way I was going to chance loosing the gold clenched in my fists, no way.

 I spat out my demand valve, screamed out to Mick on the boat for help, he looked shocked, I think he was having a few nods, I let go of the line, turned on my back and went for it, finning for all I was worth towards the boat hoping Mick would grab me to stop me overshooting, my gold laden fists across my chest.

 Once at the boat breathing hard from my violent finning I turned towards the tubes and Mick, I shouted “for f***s sake grab my fists and pull me in, I have a fortune in them”. Now we all thrive on taking the p*** out of each other, that’s what we do best, we have been doing it for years, and to Mick Palmer that day was no exception. “F*** off” he said, he had that lying b****d look on his face. “For Christ’s sake grab hold of me” I shouted desperately as I draped my arms over the tubes, peel back my gloves. He did, and out poured the gold, clattering into the bottom of the boat, his face a picture, it was a moment we will never forget, or indeed ever experience again, or that is what we thought at the time.

 Mike Evans my buddy came up ten minutes later with an equal amount of gold, including a gold nugget the size of a golf ball.

 The excitement was infectious and long lasting, when we had cooled down we thought of the problems we were going to face, we knew there was a lot more gold down there, what on earth have we discovered? How were we going to play it? We were well experienced of the effects gold and silver could and would do to people, and we knew that treasure could be trouble, however that was the future, we had the present to think about and that was to celebrate big style.

 None of us could forecast the future; it was just as well, in a few months from the gold find I was going to face devastating news, the exact opposite of the elation I had just experienced when finding the first gold. Why me, I thought when told I had a serious cancer some months later. Fortunately I survived and the gold find was just the start of an extraordinary 17 years of diving that “boring cannon site” which has now led to the discovery of potentially the oldest shipwreck in the world and more ‘golden treasure’. However that is another story.

 Ron Howell

South West Maritime Archaeological Group 2012