The treasures of Salcombe
From gold-laden galleons to a fully rigged tea-clipper, there are wrecks galore in the clear waters around Salcombe.
Kendall McDonald provides a no-nonsense guide to diving the maritime treasurehouse that lies beyond the Bar
Although SALCOMBE has always been a favourite base for wreck divers from all over Britain, the large find of gold on a wreck very close to the estuary has put an extra tingle of excitement into every dive in the area.
The Salcombe diving team that discovered the gold coins, gold jewellery and gold ingots on a 17th-century cannon wreck behaved impeccably by reporting their find immediately.
Now the hunt is on for a second ship that is believed to have been in company with the gold ship and that may have been lost on the same stormy day in the 1630s.
Divers who know Salcombe were not surprised at the find. The sea outside Salcombe Estuary is the last resting place of many, many ships - with ancient cannon heaps almost common - and some of those sites will certainly yield up more treasure.
Divers have been using the Salcombe Estuary as a base since the 1950s, drawn not so much by the hope of a treasure strike, but by the good-viz diving on wrecks of all ages, amid magnificent underwater scenery and prolific marine life. Today the area is so popular that diving goes on all year round.
Salcombe Estuary isn't really an estuary at all, but a valley drowned in ancient times by the sea. At low tide, large areas dry into plains of black mud before the tide restores the creeks to their picture-postcard prettiness.
Salcombe Estuary is under the control of the Salcombe Harbourmaster, Stephen Tooke. He and his staff look after the boating activities on 1600 acres of tidal water between the Bar at the mouth of the Estuary and the Quay at Kingsbridge, all of which is loosely called "Salcombe Harbour".
It is a huge task. During the summer months the harbourmaster is responsible for more than 2000 moorings and has to deal with hundreds of day-sailors, big yachts and motor cruisers from all over Europe.
Boat diving out of Salcombe is not cheap, largely because harbour dues must be paid for any boat using the harbour, which really means the whole of the Estuary. The minimum period for which you can pay harbour dues is one month. There are no daily or weekend rates.
Divers are welcomed at Salcombe and respected for their boat-handling abilities, unlike some visiting powerboat hooligans who have been known to roar through the moorings at well above the speed limit of 8 knots. The harbourmaster's launches are on patrol from dawn to midnight, and prosecutions with radar-gun evidence have resulted in heavy fines.
At night, police and security patrols have greatly reduced vandalism and theft from boats, though you should still never leave expensive gear in the open on a boat overnight. Many divers think that the high cost of using the estuary
As a base for a self-drive day or weekend are well offset by the gains of sheltered water, the ease of refuelling afloat from the floating fuel barge, and the huge area of excellent diving of all kinds on offer on the other side of Salcombe Bar.
However, there is no diving allowed at all inside the Estuary. At one time the harbourmaster would give permission to dive the Placidas Farroult, a former French coaster of 136 tons, which sank in 1940 just inside the Blackstone at the entrance to Salcombe.
But no matter how hard you plead today with Mr Tooke to dive her, he will not give way. He is not being anti-diver - he is quite the opposite - but the huge amount of boating traffic in and out of Salcombe will not permit it.
The Salcombe lifeboat is moored in the middle of the busy harbour. Pleasure boat traffic is added to by the small crabbing fleet. You will find their pots - 44 to a string, seven strings per boat - in the waters round about. Please respect them, as fisherman-diver relations are good.
Salcombe is a busy town, clinging to the hillside on the west bank of the Estuary. It is packed with yellow wellies in high season and has divers around for the whole of the year. Hotels and B&Bs abound. There are plenty of restaurants and good pubs with good grub in the town and in nearby villages.
The grand old man of hardboat diving in Salcombe is Pat Dean, who recalls first running divers out of Salcombe in 1958, but not taking divers out on a paying basis until 1964.
The most popular wreck, Pat says, is still the Maine, followed by the Riversdale, Baychatten and Wreathier. He goes to the Eddystone and up to Start Point and the liner Medina. He stresses that the joy of Salcombe diving is that it takes place in clear water and can be suited to any kind of diver, from shallow-water novices to trimix users on the deeper wrecks.
The Salcombe gateway to great diving can be blocked by the Bar, a sandbank across the mouth of the estuary, which rises steeply to within one metre of the surface at low tide.
This makes it dangerous in onshore winds between east and south, particularly during ebb tides. Then breakers appear on the Bar, and crossing it in breaking seas can be extremely treacherous - in 1916 there was a lifeboat disaster here when the William and Emma capsized on the Bar and 13 out of 15 Salcombe lifeboatmen were lost.
Diver-coxswains should be warned that if there is any swell running then crossing the Bar should not be attempted until the tide has risen considerably. They should also take advice before leaving about possible conditions on the Bar at the time of their return. The Admiralty Pilot gives good directions for entering Salcombe Harbour.
Once over the Bar, some of the great wreck sites of British diving are within easy range. With such a huge number of wrecks, it is easy to find perfect diving doubles - a deep wreck followed by a rummage around a shallow one. Only a few of the wrecks dived out of Salcombe are listed below.
Go straight ahead for:
Soudan: an 800-ton French steamer that sank under tow after hitting the Ham Stone in fog in 1887. At 50 12 29N; 03 46 31W, it lies in 18m, broken but with an intact stern, and iron propeller with brass boss, which is well polished by divers' hands!
Turn to starboard for:
Herzogin Cecilie: the famous 3111-ton clipper ship. Under full sail, it was the second-fastest ship in the world. Another casualty of the Ham Stone, it was towed round and beached in Starehole Bay in 1936. It is now very broken and lies in 7m, at 50 12 49N; 03 47 01W. This is often a first sea dive for novices. It is favoured by diving photographers for its Devonshire cup coral and congers.
Maine: an almost intact wreck of a 3616-ton British coaster. One of the most dived wrecks in Britain and certainly the most dived out of Salcombe. It was torpedoed by UC-17 in 1917 and now lies in 37m at 50 12 45N; 03 50 53W. Upright, swept, gun lifted, it is a magnificent wreck dive. The counterstern is breaking away.
Skaala: a 1129-ton Norwegian steamer, torpedoed on Boxing Day 1917 by UB-35 while carrying a cargo of coal briquettes. Not swept, upright, with a slight list to the port. Lying in 43m at 50 11 12N; 03 50 20W (and not in charted position), the superstructure is collapsing round the engine room. The prop is iron. Take great care - divers have been lost on this wreck.
Wreathier: torpedoed in 1917, also by UB-35, while carrying a cargo of coal. The 852 ton, 60m long vessel is intact and upright in 50m, with a gun on its stern. It lies at 50 10 40N; 03 49 39W.
Halloween: a famous iron fully rigged tea-clipper, wrecked at the west end of Soar Mill Cove in 1887 when homeward-bound with 1600 tons of tea from China. Lying in 11m, the wreck covers and uncovers. The ribs and plates can often be seen, and a port-hole was recovered recently.
Blesk: the first oil-tanker in the world to be wrecked. Went down on the Greystone in 1896, just to the east of Bolt Tail. Lying at 10m, its sand covering is often removed by storms, exposing the keel, prop shaft and part of the engine.
Jebba: wrecked on the rocks in fog in 1907 at 50 14 04N; 03 51 45W, this liner soon broke up. The stern and rudder are near the Ramillies site. Lying in 7-10m, there are ribs, boilers and much broken crockery to be seen.
HMS Ramillies: a 90-gun warship wrecked in 1760 with the loss of more than 700 men. Only 26 survived when the ship drove on shore near Bolt Tail in a hurricane. Marked on many maps as lying in Ramillies Cove, the wreck is in fact further east near Whitechurch Cove in 5-20m. The ship struck near the Cove's right-hand cave, and one of her biggest guns is still inside.
The wreck has been heavily excavated by archaeologists, but worn iron guns, cannonballs and small pieces are still to be found.
Turn to port for:
Prawle, Start Point and Dartmouth, and closer for the "gold wreck", which is a protected historic wreck.
Don't even think about diving this wreck. It is guarded by the Gara Rock Hotel, which looks down on her. No diving is permitted within 250m around 50 12 69N; 03 44 67W. More than 600 gold coins, mostly Moroccan with the latest date of 1632, gold jewellery and little "home-made" finger ingots of gold were raised and are now in the hands of the British Museum. The team of divers that found the treasure are still waiting for their reward.
The wreck's identity is unknown, but it is possibly one of two Spanish ships. Oral tradition talks of the wrecks of "two Spanish galleons" and "doubloons" on the sand near Gammon Head. Spanish pottery was found among the wreckage.
Riversdale: laden with 4000 tons of coal, this 2805-ton steamer was torpedoed by UB-31 in 1917. It was put ashore by her master, but sank when being towed off. The wreck was bought by Torbay Branch for a fiver in 1964. Located at 50 11 44N; 03 44 04W, in 41m, it is 95m long, upright and swept. The bow is broken away and it has an iron prop.
Newholm: sunk by a mine in 1917, this 3399-ton steamer lies on its starboard side down a sandbank at 50 12 31N; 03 38 27W. The stern is at 28m. Iron prop. The wreck has a break at 32m and another at 43m. The tip of the bow lies at 44m. There is much marine life.
Medina: a 12,350-ton P&O liner torpedoed by UB-31 in 1917. This massive wreck has been salvaged for its copper ingot cargo, but is still reasonably intact. The stern has suffered most damage. The deck lies at 39m, the seabed at 60m.
Gro: lying less than 400m from the Medina, this 2667-ton Norwegian steamer was torpedoed by UC-47 in 1917 while carrying a cargo of coal. It lies upright in 60m. Divers have raised the builder's plate.
Baychattan: a victim of UC-50's torpedo in 1917, it lies at 50 11 23N; 03 42 07W, upright, swept of superstructure, but the torpedo damage at its stern is clear to see. In ballast. Depth to the deck 37m, and 54m to the seabed.
De Boot: a Dutch East Indiaman that ran on to Prawle Point in 1738. Scattered in gullies, only shards remain of her cargo of porcelain, and there is one cannon. A box of diamonds that was lost in the wreck has never been found.
HMS Crocodile: a 24-gun frigate, wrecked in thick fog on Prawle Point (next to De Boot site) in 1784. Several iron guns are left. Recent finds include copper pins marked with the broad arrow of the Admiralty, copper sheathing, pan weights, musket balls, cannonballs and a sounding lead.
Demetrios: blown on to Prawle Point in a gale in 1992 , it is a classic example of how the sea destroys a huge onshore wreck very quickly, though there are still pieces the size of double-decker buses up on the rocks. The engines show at low tide. The very tangled seabed is annoying as parts are lying over some of the eight other wrecks at Prawle.
Diving: Pat Dean, 01548 843319 - trips aboard the 21m steel-hulled Lodesman for 12 divers, with four crew, between Easter and November. Also two-day diving holidays with four dives per day, air, B&B in bunkhouse and lunch aboard, for around £92 per person.
John Kempton, 01548 842057 - 20m liveaboard, Dunedin, for 12 divers. Mainly cruises.
Diventure, 01548 843663 - runs a daily RIB shuttle to local wrecks for up to 12 divers. Equipment hire available - full kit for around £35 per day. Also teaches PADI courses, nitrox diving, photography and nautical archaeology qualifications.
Ocean Adventures, 01803 770666 - runs RIB shuttle five times a day from Dartmouth Harbour.
Launching: Salcombe Harbourmaster, Whitestrand Quay, 01548 843791. Harbour dues cover minimum of one month. RIB of more than 4.5m with engine of more than 40hp costs £34.50 for a month. No charge for launching down ramps, but parking costs £4.30 for car and £3.50 for trailer per day at Shadycombe (known locally as the Dump).
The Dump has wide concrete ramp into water at nearly all states of tide and is, in season, the only practical place to launch RIBs.
Also ramps at Whitestrand and South Sands; and Kingsbridge (slip at end of Quay carpark) where you can launch two hours either side of high water, but don't wander from deep channel on way to Salcombe and the sea.
Moorings: Harbour office offers moorings that dry, for £6.20 per day, and out of season will probably offer deep mooring for same price.
Air: Pat Dean supplies air to 290 bar to divers who arrange rendezvous with the Lodesman (mobile 0836 726676). Diventure supplies air to 232 bar and nitrox. An air-fill delivery service is now available within a 10-mile radius of nearby Hope Cove (contact Richard Clarkson 0421 926430).Trimix supplied on request by DDRC in Plymouth.
For more boking details on Salcombe, see the classified advertisements on page 114 of Diver.
Appeared in DIVER - September 1998