A diver's guide to the
Shipwrecks of Bigbury Bay
By Kendall McDonald
No coast road runs along the bay. Each launch site must be approached by lanes hanging down from the inland A379. These lanes are narrow, so divers towing RIBs and big inflatables should make an early start.
Diving in the bay is excellent. Viz can be fabulous - up to 30m - and rarely drops below 10m. The sea is warmed by the Gulf Stream and the Lusitanian Current. In September, air and surface sea temperatures often match.
The 20m depth contour runs roughly a mile offshore, and in some places forms walls sparkling and glowing with jewel anemones and Devonshire cup coral.
There are plenty of big fish. Huge pollack are common, so are wrasse of over 5kg and more than 2ft long. Big bass are often seen. Salmon can be encountered near the mouths of the rivers Avon and Erme, which flow into the bay. Sole and plaice are to be found on the mud plains further out, along with scallops.
Crabs are particularly common in May and June, when the spider crabs come inshore. Crab fishermen often find exotic warm-water visitors in their pots - trigger fish and gilt-head bream. Basking sharks are regulars during summer. Huge jellyfish (as big as dustbins) usually turn up at least once during the year. All this life makes the bay great diving, and divers in the know come to explore it from launch sites as far away as Plymouth. Most divers, however, take hard boats out of Salcombe, or launch RIBs from Salcombe, Hope, Thurlestone Sands and Challaborough to explore the wrecks.
Moving from the bay's eastern tip at the 226ft-high cliff, Bolt Tail, the first place of importance for divers in the bay is Hope Cove.
Two miles out of Kingsbridge, Inner Hope is the original old village, with its thatched roofs tucked right in behind Bolt Tail. It is signposted to the left just before you start to enter Outer Hope. If you intend to launch, it is Inner Hope you need. The BSAC has made an agreement on behalf of all divers that in return for unrestricted access to the concrete slipway at Inner Hope - the BSAC made a major contribution to its repair - divers will not try to launch at Outer Hope.
Diving boats are launched from the slipway in front of the old lifeboat house in Inner Hope, and there is a notice giving instructions. After the launch, the car and trailer should be driven round to Outer Hope car park and not left at Inner Hope, where cars and trailers can easily block the road. Boats should be motored round to Mouthwell Beach at Outer Hope for loading. Care should be taken, however: Mouthwell is a very popular bucket-and-spade beach in the summer.
When launching down the lifeboat slip at Inner Hope, keep your eyes peeled ... silver coins have been found around it! Novice divers, making their first sea dives in the sheltered waters on the east side of the cove along e rocks of Bolt Tail, should also keep the coins in mind, for it is on that side of the cove that most recoveries have been made. A candidate for some of the coins on the beach is the San Pedro el Mayor, a Spanish Armada hospital ship - the only Armada ship to have been wrecked in England - which went down in 1588. No diver has yet been able to locate the wreck site, and some have tried very hard!
But not all the coins which have been found by the lifeboat slip are Spanish pieces of eight. Some of the discoveries are cruzados of King John IV of Portugal. These are later than the Spanish coins, dated between 1640 to 1656. It therefore seems probable that there is another wreck waiting to be discovered in Hope, or very close by.
Before leaving Hope Cove, it is worth noting that this is a popular launch site for exploring the many wrecks along the Bolt, such as the Maine and the 90-gun warship HMS Ramillies, just outside Bigbury Bay around the corner of Bolt Tail.
Only 26 of the 734 on board managed to scramble up the sheer cliffs to safety when she was driven ashore in February 1760.
One of the biggest of her cannon, 10ft long, lies just off Bolt Tail at 50 14 47; 03 52 05W. It was probably lost during the Navy's salvage operation just after the wreck.
Moving out of Hope to the west, the second small headland, Beacon Point, is the site of the shipwreck of the tug Empire Harry. The Empire Harry was a victim of the strange combination of gale and fog. She was towing two laden US Army barges from Falmouth to Antwerp in June 1945, when she ran on the rocks of Beacon Point at 50 14 59; 03 51 42W. The two lighters broke free and ended up in pieces on the Bolt. The 19 crew of the tug were saved by the Salcombe lifeboat from the wreck some 400 yards offshore. Which is where you'll find what is left of her - plates and ribs are spread over a wide area in only 5m. Her boiler can be seen at low water.
The coarse sands of Thurleston are much loved by windsurfers, and the eastern end provides divers with a good launch site. This is New Way Gut, a natural channel through the rocks at the eastern end of the reef, easily approached from just in front of the Rock House Marine Apartments. There is a National Trust car park for over 100 cars at the back of the beach, for which there is a charge.
Once clear of the reef, you will have to turn back and approach the eastern tip of Thurlestone Rock to find the wreck of the Chanteloupe. She was wrecked at the base of the Rock in September 1772, and is usually covered by several feet of sand. Storms, however, can clear this away overnight. The remains consist of a few cannon, musket and pistol shot, in the slate gullies under the sand. Local diver Neville Oldham raised a cannon from her, which can be seen on the green opposite Thurlestone Church.
Chanteloupe was sailing to London from Grenada in the West Indies with a cargo of rum, sugar, coffee and madeira wine. There was talk after the wreck that there was "great treasure" in the baggage of the passengers.
Odd worn coins dating from about the right time have been found on the beach, but "the great treasure" must be still there among the slate gullies running out from the Rock.
Further out, at 50 14 41; 03 56 22W, is the wreckage of the 800-ton steel sailing ship Oregon. She was carrying a cargo of nitrates when homeward bound from Chile to Newcastle. Caught by onshore winds in December 1890, she hit the Books, a rocky reef close to Thurlestone Rock and, though her captain got her off and tacked out to sea, she was leaking so badly that they were forced to abandon her.
Today, the Oregon can be found in 30m, her sides collapsed, with a large anchor near the bow.
Further west is Leas Foot Beach. To the right of the beach is Warren Point and the wreck of the Hawthorn, a 296-ton barque which was abandoned at sea by her crew, ending up on the Point in 1881. Her anchors can be found there in 10m, almost welded to the rocks. Divers recently found a square porthole and some mysterious lead letters: L, O, and D.
But it is the east end of Leas Foot which most interests divers, or rather novice divers. For thousands of them the wreck of the Louis Sheid was their first-ever wreck dive. It was mine!
And it is a wild weekend that does not have at least one inflatable visit the wreck or some divers snorkel out to her from the beach.
The Louis Sheid was a big ship - 6057 tons, 418ft with a beam of 55ft, owned by the Belgian National Shipping Line. She was homeward-bound from Buenos Aires for Antwerp with a cargo of grain, hides, leaf tobacco and honey.
Early on the morning of 7 December 1939, the Louis Sheid picked up 62 survivors of the torpedoed Dutch cargo liner Tajandoen.
Fearing a similar fate, the captain of the Louis Sheid made off at full speed for the nearest shallow waters, where the U-boat might not dare to go. However, heavy rainfall obscured the shape of the land as the wind increased into a southerly gale. Blackout regulations made sure that there were no shore lights to guide her, and the ship ran into the tiny bay of Leas Foot.
The Louis Sheid, despite many attempts to shift her, never moved again. The hides and tobacco were salvaged, but the grain was slowly washed out of her on to the nearby beaches. Further attempts at salvage were abandoned in 1940 after south-westerly gales broke her in two. In 1942 her bow collapsed and metal was cut off her to be melted down and re-used in the war effort. After the war she was sold for 400.
Today the Sheid is at 50 15 48; 03 52 12W in 10m. At low-water spring tide, her stempost breaks the surface. Her three boilers, which are upright, house some very big wrasse. A small piece of her bow, which it is possible to enter, is to the left of the main wreckage.
To search for the mystery wrecks of Burgh Island, the best launch site is at Challaborough. Launching at high tide off the beach is easy, and there is parking nearby.
Burgh Island, at the mouth of the Avon at Bantham, is really "Puzzle Corner" for divers. It is here that four small, beautifully decorated bronze cannon have been found in 20m to the west of the island. The cannon are dated 1670 and must have come from a grand ship. Add to this a splendid pair of brass dividers bearing similar fleurs-de-lis emblems as the cannon (found nearer inshore) and some mysterious, large brass rings, ornately decorated with red and green-coloured stones, and you have some tempting clues to a rich wreck. But so far no one can find her!
A ship which was found - 24 years after she sank - is a more modern wreck, and one of the most popular dives of the South Devon coast. This is the Persier, torpedoed in February 1945, on her way to take food to the liberated people of Belgium. This 5382-ton Belgian steamer was four miles from the Eddystone in storm-force winds when she was torpedoed. She was not located, however, until divers from Plymouth Sound BSAC dived on "an obstruction" at 50 17 00; 03 58 09W in 1969 - and found themselves on a huge armed merchantman!
The Persier today is immensely popular, and is dived by boats coming from launch sites such as Salcombe in the east to Plymouth in the west. Her bow is now her highest point at 10m from the seabed at 28m. She is on her port side and her central section has collapsed inwards. Her three boilers are clear, and her bronze propeller and her guns have been salvaged.
Yet another World War Two mystery lies at 50 16 25; 03 54 49W - which places it about a mile out to sea from the westerly tip of Burgh Island. Locals call this "The Aircraft Graveyard" because here lie the aluminium bodies and wings of aircraft, including at least two Catalinas. But no one can explain how these aircraft got there - there are no engines to be seen at the 20m site.
It is still best to launch from Challaborough to explore any of the wreck sites up to Stoke Point, which is the headland marking the end of Bigbury Bay.
One recently discovered wreck is the Totnes Castle, a 91-ton, steel-hulled paddle steamer, built in 1923. She was 108ft long and took holidaymakers on trips up the Dart to Totnes and back until the end of the summer season of 1963. In 1967, she was sold for breaking in Plymouth. While being towed there, she foundered at 50 15 20; 03 58 44.
She now sits upright in a hollow in the shingle seabed at 40m, from which she is 3m proud. Her superstructure is missing, but her engines can be clearly seen along with many of the gauges.
Further west from Challaborough is Ayrmer Cove. In the cove, at 50 17 39; 03 55 07W, are the remains of Alpha, a 50-ton trawling ketch, another victim of an onshore wind in 1899.
Still further west, inshore from the Persier, at 50 17 35; 03 57 05W, is the wreck of the Thrush, a wooden sailing barge. Though there is not much of her hull left, the wreck site is unmistakable - hundreds of great slates, each large enough to make a coffee table, are piled on the seabed in 12m.
The River Erme flows down from Dartmoor into the bay. Heavy silting means that there is only a small navigable channel upstream from the mouth at high tide. From the sea, the mouth of the Erme looks like a haven. But getting in is a problem, and the only safe approach is by hugging the coast on either side, where there are narrow entrances. The rest of the mouth is blocked by the East and West Mary Rocks - parts of a reef which show only at low tide. At other times, they are deadly bottom-rippers, lying just under the surface.
An inkling of how many ships have been ripped open in this way was given in 1990, when local divers located two swivel guns, possibly from the 1490s.
A later discovery on the same site was a Swedish finbanker cannon over two and a half metres long, dated between 1690 and 1750. Then the divers found a silver coin, a French half-ecu, minted between 1610 and 1640, and a little bronze figure of a goddess, which might date back to very ancient times. It was clear that they were dealing with ships of many ages, all victims of the reef across the river mouth.
The most sensational finds came as the divers widened their search: 42 ingots of almost pure tin, crudely shaped in earth moulds, typical of Bronze Age work. They had found one of the oldest shipwrecks in Britain. The Erme sites are now covered by the Protection of Wrecks Act of 1973. Divers who want to explore the area for other missing wrecks should make sure they do not stray into protected areas.
There are also many wrecks recorded between the Erme andbt, at the west end of the bay, which remain to be found; among them: the Rochester, which sank in 1700; HMS Pigmy, in 1793; the St Juan Baptista, in 1795; the Caroline, in 1851; and the Commerce de Paris, in 1869.
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