Monday, February 2, 2009

Wreck of Warship Is Found in English Channel

Wreck of Warship Is Found in English Channel

Sea explorers probing the depths of the English Channel have discovered what they say is a legendary British warship that sank in a fierce storm in 1744 with the loss of more than 900 men and possibly four tons of gold coins valued at $1 billion.

The team found the wreckage of the HMS Victory last year and confirmed its identify through a close examination of 41 bronze cannons visible on the sandy ocean bottom, Greg Stemm, head of the discovery team, said at a news conference Monday in London.

The team lifted two of the cannons and gave them to the British Ministry of Defense, he said, and is now negotiating with British authorities on the disposition of the artifacts and treasure before it attempts further recoveries.

“I’m surprised we’ve been able to keep it under wraps for nine months,” Mr. Stemm said at the news conference, calling the find “a momentous discovery.” He is the head of Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. of Tampa, Fla., a private company that specializes in deep sea exploration and recovery.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Stemm called the find “hard to beat” in terms of raw history, lost treasure, and solved mysteries. The team found the wreck far from its reported resting place, and said the discovery had cleared the name of its commander, Admiral Sir John Balchin, whose navigation had been impugned after the catastrophic loss.

The press conference was held by the Discovery Channel, which plans to air a show Thursday about the ship on its weekly “Treasure Quest” program, which debuted last month.

The Victory was armed with up to 110 bronze cannons — one of deadliest vessels of the age. The biggest cannon weighed four tons and could fire cannonballs weighing 42 pounds — the largest and most powerful guns then used in naval warfare.

In July 1744, the flagship and its fleet of warships were sent to rescue a Mediterranean convoy blockaded by a French fleet at Lisbon. After chasing the French away, the Victory escorted the convoy as far as Gibraltar and headed home.

A hard gale scattered the British fleet shortly after it entered the English Channel, and on Oct. 5, 1744, somewhere off the Channel Islands, Victory went down with all hands. The flagship was the only member of the British fleet lost at sea.

The belief spread that ship had grounded on the Casquets, a group of rocky islets west of Alderney that protrude a few dozen feet above the water line. The rocks are called the “graveyard of the English Channel.” The lighthouse keeper of Alderney was court-martialed for failing to keep the lights on at the time of the ship’s disappearance.

That November, a Dutch newspaper reported that Victory had been carrying 400,000 pounds sterling from Lisbon that was destined for Dutch merchants. At the news conference, the ship’s finders said that would amount to about four tons of gold coins.

Historically, Victory was the last Royal Navy warship to be lost with a complete set of bronze cannons.

For decades, Mr. Stemm and his colleagues worked on the cutting edge of deep sea exploration, using sonars and robots to discover scores of interesting wrecks and thousands of artifacts. They have found treasures valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Last April, the Odyssey team was exploring the English Channel when a sonar registered an intriguing blip. Ensuing investigations with a tethered robot showed the seabed covered with cannons, a copper cooking kettle, hull remains, rectangular iron ballast, two anchors, rigging, two probable gunner’s wheels and 41 bronze cannons, including eight large guns that could fire 42-pound cannonballs.

“These were the biggest cannon in the age of sail,” Mr Stemm told the news conference. “These things are huge, simply amazing.”

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