Scuba divers on a historic mission to solve the mystery of a haul of 19th Century industrial cargo sunk off the Scilly Isles are backing a campaign to support the region’s charter boat industry.
British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) member Kevin Camidge, a top archaeologist who once worked with television’s Time Team, and fellow members of BSAC’S Cornwall-based Peninsula Sub-Aqua Club are hoping to unlock the long-hidden secrets of the sunken cargo, known as the Wheel Wreck.
They are using 3D plans, videos, and photographs, alongside historical regional background to help understand how it came to be there.
The project is being led by The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society (CISMAS) which was established by members of Peninsula Sub-Aqua Club several years ago.
Society Secretary Kevin, of Penzance, and its treasurer, Brendon Rowe, who is Training Officer with BSAC Peninsula SAC, say the intriguing project is only possible thanks to the availability of charter boats which serve the waters around the Scilly Isles.
Brendon, of Redruth, said: “Charter boats are crucial to the exploratory work which we and other sub aqua clubs around the country undertake. They do a fantastic job. That’s why we’re 100 per cent behind the SoS Save Our Skippers campaign which has just been launched by BSAC nationally.”
BSAC is urging all its members to ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to the vital services charter boats provide, and to book them to support club activity.
In the Scillies it says the Wheel Wreck project is a prime example of the benefits to be gained by divers using charter boats and gleaning vital local knowledge from their crews and Skippers.
All their diving on Wheel Wreck has been done off local charter boat Moonshadow run by skipper Jolene Williams.
The cargo of what looks to be cast iron pumping machinery lying on the seabed is thought by some investigators to be a consignment from a Cornish foundry. But Brendon says the CISMAS research team has not turned up any solid evidence to support that theory - given the date of the site the machinery could have been destined for Cornish mines, rather than originating from a Cornish foundry
The cargo mound was discovered by local divers in 2005 and in 2007 it was officially designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act.
Bendon explained: “It is one of the smaller sites to be found in the area, but nevertheless interesting. No boat structure has been discovered nearby which makes our mission to determine which ship the cargo came from and where it was destined even more difficult.
“We are looking for clues on the cargo itself and on the nearby seabed. We’d also like to pinpoint the exact date of the wreck.”
The society’s work so far indicates that the wreck occurred sometime between 1770 and 1830.
CISMAS, whose membership is made up almost entirely of BSAC divers, was commissioned by Historic England to undertake an investigation of the Wheel Wreck protected site earlier this year.
As part of the project it is also creating a virtual dive trail which enables non-divers to get an in-depth look at the cargo by visiting the website: vdt.cismas.org.uk.
Kevin said: “It consists of a pile of iron machinery some 10m long x 8m wide and about 1m high. This cargo mound sits on a rocky seabed in about 16m of water.
“Assessment in 2006 indicated that this discrete cargo mound consists of components of mining equipment, the majority of which appear to have been pumping equipment.”
Kevin took up diving in 1987 after retiring to Cornwall from Lincolnshire. He featured in a Channel 4 Time Team programme documenting The Wreck of the Colossus, one of Nelson’s ships at Trafalgar, which also lies off the Scilly Isles 15 metres down in sheltered waters.
He is now the nominated archaeologist for Colossus and the protected wrecks Scheidam, St Anthony, Rill Cove, and Royal Anne Galley, as well as working on numerous other society projects.
He said none of the valuable work on Wheel Wreck and other important wrecks would have been possible without the charter boat industry – in particular Jolene and the Moonshadow.
Brendon said: “We heavily depend on Skippers like Jolene and their crews and facilities to enable us to do our research. They have the experience - which sometimes goes back generations – and the local seafaring knowledge to get us to exactly the places we want to be, and to offer the vital onboard support required while we’re diving.”
Jolene, a diver herself, who has been running charter boats for 20 years agreed the SoS Save Our Skippers campaign was needed.
She said: “We have actually had one of our busiest seasons this year and are booked up until September, but that is not always the case. It can be very up and down and I know some operations are genuinely struggling.
“There is an increasing trend for people to go abroad to dive in places like the Red Sea where it’s warmer. But by doing that they’re missing out on so many beautiful and intriguing sights in our own waters. We have amazing marine life, beautiful scenery, plus many fascinating historical wrecks to explore. Colossus, for instance, never ceases to impress no matter how many times I take divers there.”
Jolene lives in St Martins with her builder husband Dave and their two children, Orla, six, and Liam, eight.
Her father, Tim Allsop, a dive instructor, also runs a charter boat. He helped teach Brendon in his early days diving.
Jolene said: “My father is semi-retired now though still takes groups out from St Martin’s, while I run Moonshadow out of St Mary’s.
“Along with the Tiberon charter group run by Dave McBride, we’re the most experienced around here.
“Probably 80 per cent of our dive trip bookings originate from BSAC and its associates, so it’s important they keep coming.”
As the UK national governing body for snorkel and scuba, BSAC is made up of 120 dive centres and 900-plus family friendly and sociable clubs, run by volunteers, up and down the country and abroad. The Duke of Cambridge is the club’s president.
It represents more than 28,000 scuba divers and snorkellers and welcomes new members from complete beginners upwards including those who have trained with other agencies.
BSAC chief executive Mary Tetley said: “Several charter boat operators have raised concerns with us that the industry is struggling due to low booking numbers.
“We are launching the SoS Save Our Skippers campaign to raise awareness of this plight, and encourage more divers to use charter boat services.
“The skills and expertise of experienced skippers and crew are crucial when it comes to many mission-focused expeditions run by some of our more experienced divers. It also keeps costs down as you don’t have to maintain the boat year round.
“Charter boats are also a great way to organise a fun club day trip, helping you to keep the focus on safe and sociable diving, rather than running the boat.
“We are keen to do all we can to minimise the risk of losing this vital resource from UK waters, so we are encouraging BSAC divers to support the charter boat industry by using them whenever appropriate.
“We are also pledging to celebrate collaborations between charter boat companies and BSAC divers, by sharing some of these stories publicly, and in the process also highlighting the best and most exciting diving the UK has to offer.”
Peninsula SAC a small but active BSAC club based in Redruth and diving regularly around the south west of Cornwall, typically from Falmouth, Penzance and Hayle.
For more information about Peninsula SAC visit: peninsula-bsac.co.uk For more information about BSAC go to www.bsac.com, find @BritishSubAquaClub on Facebook or @BSACdivers on Twitter.