Discovery of British Shipwreck Solves Centuries-Old Mystery

A bronze cannon from the HMS Victory shipwreck is lifted onto the Odyssey Explorer.
A bronze cannon from the HMS Victory shipwreck is lifted onto the Odyssey Explorer. (Odyssey Marine Exploration)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

LONDON, Feb. 2 -- American salvagers announced Monday the discovery of the wreckage of the HMS Victory, one of the most important ships in British naval history, at least 60 miles from where historians have long believed it sank.

Generations of researchers have puzzled over the loss of the Victory, which sank in 1744 carrying a crew of more than 1,000, more than 100 brass cannons, and four tons of gold it was transporting from Portugal.

Most historians have said the wreckage of the ship had to lie close to the Channel Islands, near the French coast, where Adm. John Balchin was believed to have fatally steered it onto rocky shoals.

But the wreckage was found much farther out in the English Channel, said Greg Stemm, chief executive of Odyssey Marine Exploration, the Florida-based firm that announced the discovery at a London news conference.

Stemm, who said finding the Victory "has solved one of the greatest shipwreck mysteries in history," said the famous ship's remains had been damaged over the years by natural erosion and by fishing trawlers dragging heavy nets across the sea bottom.

"Rather than staying frozen in time beneath the waves, this unique shipwreck is fading fast," marine archaeologist Sean Kingsley, director of Wreck Watch International, said in a statement released by Odyssey.

"The Victory lies in an area of intensive trawling, and her hull and contents are being ploughed away by these bulldozers of the deep day in, day out," he said.

Odyssey is in negotiations with the British government, which claims sovereignty over the ship, the most modern in the British fleet in its day. The ship was the predecessor of the HMS Victory that served as the flagship of Adm. Horatio Nelson, hero of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

Stemm said the company was cooperating with British authorities and expected to be rewarded for its discovery.

He said Odyssey's salvagers identified the wreck as the Victory after raising two unique brass cannons from the seafloor. One carried the royal arms of King George II, and the other bore the crest of King George I, according to the company.

Using high-resolution cameras and a remotely controlled robot, the company has identified a 70-by-200-foot debris field, with at least 39 of the ship's cannons and many other artifacts visible.

Odyssey officials also said the discovery exonerates Balchin of losing the ship on the rocks. They said the Victory sank in 330 feet of water, apparently in a storm.

"This is the most astonishing news; for generations my family has wondered about the fate of Sir John and the Victory," said Robert Balchin, a descendant of the admiral, according to the Odyssey statement.

A TV documentary on the find will be broadcast this month on the U.S.-based Discovery Channel.

Odyssey made headlines in May 2007 when it announced the recovery of 17 tons of silver and gold coins from a Spanish wreck in the Atlantic Ocean off Portugal. The company and the Spanish government are still battling in court over the rights to that treasure.

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