A wreck diver's
dream of heaven
You know the scene: you get down to the wreck to find the portholes nicely polished, the pieces of eight neatly labelled. Then you wake up. But it doesn't have to be that way if, like David Gwyer, you visit the Isle of Wight Shipwreck Centre
THE men aboard HMS Swordfish didn't stand a chance. It was November 1940, a desperate time for Britain. The German army had overrun France and threatened to invade Britain, while German U-boats tightened their stranglehold on Allied convoys.
HMS Swordfish, a 57m S-type submarine, had been ordered to patrol the Western Approaches off Brest, western France, where she would relieve HMS Usk and attack German shipping.
But she never arrived. Just hours after slipping out of Gosport, Hampshire, she carried out a trim dive and struck a mine. An enormous explosion blew the sub in two and she went down with her 40-strong crew.
Submarines did not keep contact with the surface in those days and although the Royal Navy assumed she had been sunk by German destroyers in the Bay of Biscay, this was never confirmed. Her fate remained a mystery until she was discovered 45m down, a few miles off the Isle of Wight.
Designated an official war grave, her exact position is a closely guard-ed secret, but in 1983, 230 relatives and friends of the crew attended a memorial service at HMS Dolphin, Portsmouth.
The story of HMS Swordfish is just one of the moving maritime tales divers can hear at the Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum at Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight.
The museum was set up in 1978 by Martin Woodward, a professional diver who is fascinated by maritime history and has dedicated himself to identifying wrecks.
He discovered HMS Swordfish in 1983 while searching for a steamship. "When I dived on it the viz was very good and when I landed on the seabed I looked up and saw a massive conning tower.
"At first I thought it was a U-boat, because there is no record of a British sub being lost in this area, but it did not look the right shape to be a
U-boat so I rubbed clean a brass plate on the telegraph and saw 'Chadburn England'. I looked back in the reference books and decided she could only be the Swordfish."
The seabed around the Isle of Wight is littered with wrecks. This is partly because the island has a treacherous lee shore, partly because it lies off Portsmouth and Southampton, two of the country's oldest ports, and partly because the area was a popular hunting ground for U-boats during both world wars. But this has enabled Martin to salvage an enormous number of exhibits for his museum.
These date back to Roman times and there is enough brass to make even the most experienced wreck diver drool. There is a bronze hatch from HMS Velox, an experimental destroyer sunk by a mine in 1915; the bridge telegraph from SS Tweed; shell-cases and golfballs from Highland Brigade; a U-boat telescope
sight; the commissioning bell from HMS Renown; and steam sirens from HMS Boxer. There are also huge brass lamps, navigational aids and dozens of musket balls.
And then there is the treasure - pieces of eight! These were international currency in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today their value varies between 10 and 250.
You can also see three tiny brass cannons, about 7.5cm long, which were salvaged from a wreck off the island's south coast. "Someone had built a model boat which sank," Martin explains.
One of the most bizarre exhibits is Marmaduke the Merman, a gruesome 15cm creation of Victorian sailors, who grafted a dead monkey's head on to a fish's tail. These strange creatures were exhibited at Victorian fairs, where anything unusual drew big crowds. "He was lent to me by a local chap when I opened the museum," says Martin.
Each exhibit has a story to tell and one of the most unusual is that of the narwhal tusk hanging on one of the walls. "The story is that it came out of HMS Pique," says Martin. "She was heading back to England and was commanded by a young officer desperate to come back to England for a horse race.
"On the way home they struck rocks, but the ship carried on. Fortunately one large rock stuck in the hull and acted as a plug, stopping the ship sinking. But in the Atlantic the ship was rammed by a narwhal, which became stuck and couldn't free itself." The whale eventually died and the crew retrieved the tusk.
Other exhibits highlight the human cost of a ship going down. Have you heard of the SS Mendi? Don't be surprised if you haven't. She was a troopship which went down in 20 minutes off St Catherine Point in 1917, after colliding with the Darro in thick fog.
She had sailed from South Africa when the accident occurred. She carried nearly 700 Africans who were brought to Europe to dig trenches on the Western Front.
More than 650 died but the tragedy was kept quiet for propaganda reasons.
"When I first found the wreck I could not believe the loss of life and the fact that no one seemed to know anything about it," says Martin.
Salvaging artefacts from wrecks is hard work and Martin, who has been diving around the island since 1968, regularly dives to 50m. "I've found about 150 uncharted wrecks," he says. And cleaning salvaged equipment is not easy either. Brass items have to be soaked in descalers and regularly polished, while iron might have to be soaked in caustic soda for up to three years!
Martin set up his museum because he is fascinated by maritime history and wanted to share his discoveries. "All this stuff means something to me," he says. "Everything is special." It is easy to understand why.
The museum is open daily 10am to 5pm from March to October. The address is Isle of Wight Shipwreck Centre, Bembridge, Isle of Wight, PO35 5SB, tel. 01983 872223/873125.
Appeared in DIVER - November 1997