Shipwreck trail brings sea tales to the surface
Legend has it that if the waters off the south coast of Devon were drained, we'd be able to walk the length of the coastline by hopping from shipwreck to shipwreck without ever setting foot on sand.
The British Isles has more shipwrecks per mile of coastline than any other nation and a good many of them lie on the seabed off the South Devon coast, victims of the treacherous headlands that jut out into the shipping channel. There are untold numbers of wrecks within visible distance of our shores, some of them dating back thousands of years and a lot of them on their way to or back from war.
While a lot of the wrecks are known about, it's believed others have been lying there undetected for centuries. But what of the wrecks that we do know are out there? How much do we know about them? Survivors of the shipwrecks told their stories, while other tales – many of them embellished, no doubt – were passed down by rescuers and locals who either witnessed the sinking or knew someone who did.
Tangible evidence of the wrecks has been difficult to find up until recently, when advances in diving technology have helped the development of maritime archaeology.
Among the leading maritime archaeologists in the UK is Jessica Berry, who has just written a book about some of the wrecks which lie within sight of the South Devon coast. The paperback – South Devon's Shipwreck Trail – isn't intended for diving boffins but for walkers, kayakers, cyclists and anyone who enjoys this dramatic stretch of coastline.
"My dream for this book is that people will carry it along the coast with them," said Jessica, who has spent much of this year diving on wrecks off Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. "It's for anyone who likes a good story; you can gaze out to sea and out there, beneath the surface, are these terrific and exciting stories."
Jessica's own story isn't for the faint-hearted. The former journalist, who worked for broadsheets including the Sunday Times for 15 years, decided to switch her investigative skills from above ground to underwater a few years ago: "Ever since I was a baby, I've always preferred the water to the land," she explained. "Then in 2007, with my Sunday Times hat on, I was working on a story in Florida and I was told I'd be very welcome to do the story but I'd have to do some diving, if I was OK with that. I thought: 'Can a duck swim?' So for three weeks I was diving in beautiful, clear waters and learning what maritime excavation was all about."
The experience prompted a sea-change in her career – although, as Jessica puts it: "There's not a whole lot of difference – there's still a lot of digging involved, both physically and metaphorically." She spent a year in Adelaide, Australia, getting a Masters degree in maritime archaeology before working in Fremantle near Perth and then heading back to the UK to gain the commercial diving qualifications required here.
In 2011, she set up a charitable organisation, the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST). But disaster struck soon afterwards when she was diving off the South Devon coast: "I almost lost my left foot in a propeller – it did a 270-degree turn. Every ligament was like spaghetti."
It took nearly two years and two operations to fix the foot and a lot of help to overcome the traumatic shock: "I still get flashbacks – an image – but I'm all sorted now."
It was while Jessica was recovering that she decided to write the book. In it, she explores the history and drama of some of South Devon's most famous wrecks.
The oldest known wrecks in the area lie off Prawle Point, near Salcombe, and date back 3,000 years to the middle Bronze Age. Another famous wreck is HMS Ramillies which sank in 1760 – it was the greatest disaster in Royal Navy history. Carrying 734 men and 90 guns, the ship went down off Bolt Tail with the loss of all but 26 survivors. "There were some magnetic anomalies when we were there last year and I'd like to go back to see if we can learn more," said Jessica.
Her Holy Grail is to discover the location of the San Pedro, the Spanish Armada hospital ship which went down off Bigbury Bay in 1588. "It's never been found," says Jessica. "This is one of the biggest question marks in South Devon and if we could discover it, it would bring closure for a lot of people. We can use charts, historical records, documents and word-of-mouth accounts, but with this one I think it might just come down to luck.
"There are a lot of stories about the San Pedro, but not all of them are proven," said Jessica, who was part of the team which recovered the rudder from the Swash Channel Wreck off Poole this summer. The Dutch East Indian merchant vessel went down in the early 1600s and the excavation project was the biggest since the Mary Rose. "It was a real privilege working on that."
But for Jessica, it's not just about bringing things back; it's a desire to learn more about the pioneers and their vessels – the space craft of their age. The story of John Day, who perished in his experimental "submarine" off Drake's Island in 1774, is a case in point, says Jessica: "These people were at the forefront of discovery and it's thanks to them that we are where we are now. I want to find out more about their stories.
"It's terrifically exciting when you're down there and you discover something. Your breathing goes up as though you've run around the block at 100mph. It's the sheer exhilaration of finding something you didn't know was there, or finding something you've been looking for for ages.
"It's the investigative element I enjoy. It's like a giant puzzle which is infinite – but it's great fun to try and place the pieces."
South Devon's Shipwreck Trail is published by Amberley, priced £14.99. Jessica will be doing a talk and signing at the Torquay Museum, in co-operation with the Torbay Bookshop, on Monday, November 18, at 11am.