Treasure Hunters Say They’ve Found a 1744 Shipwreck
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, losing more than 900 men and possibly four tons of gold coins that could be worth $1 billion.
The team found the wreckage of the warship, the H.M.S. Victory, last year and confirmed its identity through a close examination of 41 bronze cannons visible on the sandy bottom, Gregory P. Stemm, head of the discovery team, said Monday at a news conference in London.
The team lifted two of the cannons from the seabed and gave them to the British Defense Ministry, he said. The team’s leaders are now negotiating with British authorities on the disposition of the artifacts and treasure before the divers attempt 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 shipwreck “a momentous discovery.” He is the chairman and chief executive officer of Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. of Tampa, Fla., a publicly traded company that specializes in deep-sea exploration and recovery.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Stemm said the discovery, made far from the ship’s believed resting place, was “hard to beat” in terms of raw history, lost treasure and solved mysteries. He said the find cleared the name of the warship’s commander, Adm. Sir John Balchin, whose navigation had been impugned after the catastrophic loss.
The news conference was held by the Discovery Channel, which plans to show a segment about the ship on Thursday on its weekly program “Treasure Quest,” which had its debut last month.
The Victory was armed with as many as 110 bronze cannons, making it one of the deadliest vessels of the age. The largest cannon weighed four tons and could fire cannonballs of 42 pounds — making it the most powerful gun then used in naval warfare.
In July 1744, the flagship Victory and a 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 then headed home.
A furious 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 vessel of the returning British fleet lost at sea.
The belief spread that the 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 charged with failing to keep its lights on at the time of the ship’s disappearance.
A month after the loss, a Dutch newspaper reported that Victory had been carrying from Lisbon £400,000 destined for Dutch merchants. At the news conference, the ship’s finders said that would amount to about four tons of gold coins.
In the history of the Royal Navy, Victory was the last warship to be lost with a complete set of bronze cannons. Their high cost eventually prompted the British Admiralty to replace them with iron cannons.
For two decades, Mr. Stemm and his colleagues have probed the deep sea, using sonar 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 its sonar registered an intriguing blip. Investigations with a tethered robot showed the seabed covered with cannons, hull remains, iron ballast, two anchors, rigging, a copper cooking kettle and 41 bronze cannons, including 8 of the four-ton guns.
“These were the biggest cannon in the age of sail,” Mr. Stemm said at the news conference. “These things are huge — simply amazing.”
Odyssey released a 46-page analysis of the wreckage. It said the distinctive cannons — many of which display royal arms surmounted by a crown — revealed their nationality and date of manufacture, and gave proof of the wreck’s identity. The powerful guns, the analysis added, made Victory “the pre-eminent warship of the age.”
At the wreck site, the Odyssey team also found human bones, including what appeared to be a rib bone, a skull and other remains. None were recovered, the analysis said, and the team’s robot carefully reburied any that had been uncovered.
Odyssey is keeping secret the exact location of the wreck, but the company said Victory was found beyond the territorial waters of Britain and nearly 62 miles from where the ship was believed to have gone down near the Channel Islands.
At the news conference, Jason Williams, a television producer for the Discovery Channel, said four tons of gold coins would fetch about $125 million if melted down or $1 billion if sold for their historical value.
Mr. Stemm of Odyssey Marine thanked the British authorities for their cooperation with the company “in the face of complicated issues” of wreck handling and disposition.
In the proposed agreement, Odyssey would get either a percentage of the value of the artifact collection, or a percentage of the coins or other duplicate artifacts that the British government judged to be surplus.
The company has a history of collaboration with the British Defense Ministry. It has cut a deal to recover the suspected wreck of the Sussex, a British warship that sank in the Mediterranean in 1694 with a cargo of coins that may be worth billions of dollars.
Asked at the news conference when the team might return to Victory’s resting place, Mr. Stemm said it depended on the Defense Ministry. But he expressed a sense of urgency, calling the underwater site “virtually impossible to protect from trawlers.”