IN THE LATE 1970S, DIVERS WERE REAL MEN. There were no ABLJs, BCs, SMBs, DSMBs, or any other of the abbreviations that have infected diving today. The sea was a supermarket - lobsters lived under every nook and cranny, and divers were expected to take one or two home for tea. For details about the Hazardous Prize course, contact Wittering Divers, 01243 672 031, www.witteringdivers.co.uk
Buster Geary and George Arnold, two members of the Sussex-based Sub-Aqua Association Branch 308, were out one summer night doing just that, but they found something distinctly different. As they swam over the shallow sandy seabed not far off the beach at Bracklesham, they noticed something standing proud. It turned out to be the end of a cannon.
The year is 1703. The mighty English warship HMS Warspite (or Warspight, as it was sometimes spelt), along with HMS Orford and several other vessels, sighted the French privateer Hazardeaux.
The Warspite, constructed in 1666, had been rebuilt in Rotherham the year before and was in top-flight condition. It brought its 64 guns to bear on the lone Frenchman. The Orford, although ageing, was also a formidable vessel.
The French captain offered stiff resistance, however, firing salvo after salvo. The Hazardeaux's gun decks were noisy enough to blow your eardrums out. Cannon fired, men shouted and rounds as big as melons crashed through the timbers. Anti-personnel grapeshot sent razor-sharp pieces of metal flying at all angles. It must have been terrifying.
Hazardeaux's 50 guns kept the British at bay for several hours, but eventually the French ship was overpowered. She ended up a complete wreck, but in those days of wooden sailing craft, enemy vessels weren't sunk but captured.
Hazardeaux had been loaned by the French Navy to a nobleman to help harass France's foes. Now she was towed
into Portsmouth as a prize of the Royal Navy.
The Warspite would be rebuilt in 1716 and renamed Edinburgh. The Orford's first and only rebuild came in 1713 and she enjoyed a long career, eventually sinking after strikinga reef in the Gulf of Mexico in 1745.
It took several months for shipwrights and carpenters to render the Hazardeaux serviceable again. She was commissioned into Queen Anne's Navy as HMS Hazardous Prize on 27 March, 1704. Designated a 4th Rate vessel fielding 54 guns, she was big for that rating at 137ft and displacing 875 tons. But her crew had shrunk to 320 from the original 350 Frenchmen.
For two years she served without incident, mostly escorting convoys across the Atlantic from the New World colonies. Then, in early November 1706, she encountered a terrible storm that was causing havoc to shipping in southern England.
HMS Hazardous Prize was approaching the English Channel after failing to keep a convoy together on the Atlantic crossing. To make matters worse, as the western approaches were sighted her commander, Captain Brown, passed away in his bunk.
The vessel came under the command of Lt John Hare, who in turn was commanded by Captain John Lowen from a smaller vessel, HMS Advice. To get out of the ferocious south-westerly, Lowen ordered both vessels to come about at St Helens Roads, off Bembridge, Isle of Wight.
Lowen ordered Hare to the safe anchorage there, but conditions proved too difficult for the crew. The vessel missed anchoring twice before grounding on Hounds Reef in Bracklesham Bay.
Over the howling wind and crunching of the hull, Hare shouted to his men to dump what they could to lighten the ship. Cannon and ammunition were cast overboard, but the crew must have been overwhelmingly task-loaded.
Hazardous Prize was dashed against the shore in Bracklesham Bay, close to the Witterings, pinned down on the sandy beach and battered by the surf. Hare requested lighters and men from Portsmouth, but in the end the order was given to abandon ship.
When the storm subsided, efforts were made at salvage, but the Channel doesn't stay calm for long in November and the vessel was soon abandoned. Waves smashed the wooden hull into the sand, and before long the Hazardous Prize story was forgotten.
Erosion is eating away this section of southern England. In the past 300 years, the shoreline has receded by almost a kilometre in places. When Buster and George (who has since passed away) found the vessel, she was 600m off the shoreline. Although they realised that they had found something significant, there was no knowing what it was.
They and members of their club started to investigate. They dug away at the sand covering and found many more cannon, concreted lumps full of artefacts - cannonballs, swords, musket balls, plates, cutlery and brass navigation instruments - and timbers and ballast stones.
Virtually all the divers' free time went on surveys, excavation, recovery, conservation and research. The man-hours involved were huge, yet the support was virtually zero.
In almost 30 years of working the site, the project has received only £130 - for a new buoy!
In 1986, the site was placed under the Protection of Wrecks Act, yet no official funding was forthcoming for the archaeological work. These men were left to use their own finances to work this important and historic site.
Had they been amateur land archaeologists, a grant would surely have found its way to them, but marine archaeology is barely recognised by mainstream scientists. Yet ancient wrecks often open more doors to the past than land digs, where most sites are abandoned long before they are covered, and artefacts picked clean over the centuries.
Under water, on the other hand, whatever happens to be on a ship when it sinks often stays there - as was graphically demonstrated in the rich concretions brought up by the Hazardous Prize team. Where else would you find such a concentration of interesting relics?
Ordinarily, such a site would be off-limits to divers like you and me, yet thanks to a collaboration between the Hazardous Prize team and Wittering Divers, ordinary Joes and Jos can see an ancient wreck site for themselves.
However, it's not a case of turning up and doing the dive. A group has to be granted a visitor's licence by English Heritage, and to qualify you must book onto one of the special courses run by Wittering Divers in summer.
These are infrequent because of the weather and tides, and places are sought after, so booking ahead is essential.
The day-long course starts with a lecture by the wreck licensee, Iain Grant, who details the vessel's history and discovery. His animated talk is laced with ripe facts that get your interest-saliva running.
Wittering Divers' Tony Dobinson then details the marine life to be seen on and around the site. He brings all those unobtrusive, slightly drab little organisms to life. It gives you a whole new perspective on English Channel wreck-diving when you can name all the growths that colonise the structures.
With a grasp of what you'll see, and armed with a waterproof guide-book, you are taken out to the wreck site, where an underwater trail has been set up.
Each of the 10 numbered stations along the trail corresponds with a page in the book. It may be a pile of cannon (Station 1), the bow (4) or perhaps the southern, deteriorating end of the vessel (7), but each one gives you the wreck and marine-life details you need. You are not allowed to swim inside the perimeter, which is a little disappointing, but then, a careless fin-kick could obliterate work that has taken weeks to uncover.
After 300 years in this exposed location, the Hazardous Prize is not in the best of health. Don't expect to see shining cannon, jutting timbers or neatly stacked piles of cannonballs. The area is silty and prone to bad weather, so the artefacts are covered in a fine layer of sediment, and fused and covered with encrusting growth.
Anything standing upright is colonised and coated with the lifeless-looking growth that in fact forms a vital part of the UK's marine ecosystem. It is as much part of the wreck as the piles of fused cannonballs.
To the untrained eye this site is a pile of drab rocks sticking out of a featureless seabed. But the guide-book helps to bring the wreck and the project surrounding it to life.
John Hare was not blamed for losing his ship. John Lowen of HMS Advice, the senior ship, was found guilty of negligence and not living up to his ship's name.
An inquiry found that Lowen gave poor orders to Hazardous Prize, resulting in the loss of the vessel. He was stripped of his command and hounded out of the Navy.
I would like to thank him for leaving me a goldmine of experiences that few others will get to share - the chance to dive a 17th century shipwreck.
A section of the wreck, coated in marine life
Tape measuring a section of wreck next to a cannon
a dimly seen archaeologist at work on the Hazardous Prize site
the end of an encrusted cannon