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  • Writer's pictureJon Bunker

Shore Thing: Royal Adelaide

The Royal Adelaide, an iron sailing vessel of 1,400 tons was on her way from London to Sydney when she ran aground on Chesil Beach in 1872, not far from where the present visitor centre stands today. As an obvious part of its modern appeal to divers, the area including and around Chesil Cove is now strewn -as then- with a great many wrecks, some even piled on top of each other. Indeed, as the locals will delightedly point out to you over your Quiddles coffee, the whole place was once known by Hardy as ‘Dead Man’s Bay’. The prevailing south westerlies and a dearth of deep-water anchorages, have always made Lyme Bay an unforgiving place to get caught in a gale. Worse still, the 18-mile sickle of Chesil Beach presents a formidable obstacle to the unwary mariner; the ancient barrier beach sweeps round to the Isle of Portland in the English Channel in a magnificent arc, projecting surprisingly far out into the sea. With the wind blowing fiercely toward land a sailing vessel reliant on capricious winds or indeed any vessel out of power and luck can find themselves face to face with what another poet, William Falconer, described as ‘the impervious horrors of a leeward shore!’ -impossibly embayed with little steerage room to get you off the beach or rocks.

Chesil beach at the height of summer is a considerably more tranquil scene


Such was the position the master of the Royal Adelaide found himself in when, getting caught up in a gale in the channel shortly after dusk on the 25th of November 1872, the beleaguered vessel was cast into Lyme Bay and then onto the beach at Chesil when her anchors dragged. James Robertson, the Mayor of Weymouth, hastily abandoned the dinner he had been hosting upon being informed of the beached ship, and set about gathering volunteers for a rescue attempt. Indeed, many residents had already began to gather on the beach, a matter of yards away from the passengers and crew of the Royal Adelaide as the ship underneath them was thrown violently and repeatedly side-on to the bank, those aboard imprisoned by the raging surf. Locals had already risked their lives entering the edge of the water to throw lines toward the ship and once on the scene, the local coastguard fired a rocket line to the vessel, but the crew were unable to secure it. The first mate’s brave effort to swim a line ashore ended with him being swept away and drowned in the surf, along with another man. Once a line was established between the stricken vessel and the shore, the rescue via breeches buoy (imagine a ring on a zipwire) met a rocky start. The passenger stewardess, Catherine Irons, accidentally clasped hold of the ships main brace instead of the rescue line, tipping her out of the buoy as the third casualty of the heaving sea. After this terrifying turn of events the passengers were understandably reluctant to try the buoy, even though crew member Samuel Gibbs then demonstrated the device worked when pressed to do so. The bulk of the passengers still did not attempt the buoy until the captain took a child ashore to prove its safety, and then the rescuers soon established a steady rhythm, with all but seven safe ashore before the line finally broke. Efforts to reach those remaining aboard were unsuccessful.

The cover of the London Illustrated News, two weeks after the shipwreck.

I recently picked up an original of this for my home office.

The heroic rescue of the majority of passengers in horrendous conditions should be the end to this tale, were it not for what happened when the 235ft ship began to break up. Nor was it to prove the end of the night’s fatalities. When her diverse cargo of soap, coffee, sugar, boots, textiles, as well as casks of brandy, gin and rum washed ashore, ‘wrecker’s fever’ is said to have descended on the less-Godfearing members of the assembled crowd. In scenes that caused a moral panic when publicised in the London gazettes, men and boys broke open the casks then and there, drank to excess and passed out inebriated on the beach. As a result of this, four men and a fifteen-year old boy were found to have died from exposure the next day. Another was arrested attempting to carry a pig up the hill at Fortuneswell, and for many days after the incident local school registers reported numerous absences as pupils helped themselves to the flotsam that continued to appear on the beach. You couldn’t make it up.

Despite the tragic story of the wreck and its aftermath, The Royal Adelaide today represents an opportunity too good to pass up for divers with an interest in marine life, photography or the aforementioned remarkable history. There are several guides that will help you enter the water at more or less the right point across from the visitor centre, and as Anita Sherwood mentions in her superlative ‘British Shore Dives’ please be extremely careful during both the walk over the bank and at entry; this is really only to be attempted with optimum conditions- certainly don’t go in with any waves breaking on the beach and whilst it’s a shallow site I’d avoid taking novice divers.

Wait for favourable conditions before you attempt the walk and wreck.

As helpful as the guides are, be prepared for a bit of a mooch about for what’s left as the uncovered and upright portion of wreck is only bow and chain locker section, pointing westward out to sea. Depth is the crucial thing here, as visibility can sometimes be much poorer than the comparatively close Chesil Cove, depending on season and tide. You want to search variously south down the beach or north (up) between 12-14m, depending on tide. Whilst there are some judicious bits of plate scattered at 15m, the general rule of thumb is by that point you’ve gone too far for the interesting bow section. In which case, turn around and search a bit further up the shingle slope, remembering plate is a good sign the wreck ‘proper’ is nearby. Once on the wreck I heartily recommend parking yourself and your buddy just inside the bow and out of current, for even on the neapiest of neaps there is still likely to be some water movement. Once you have your rhythm back, begin your circuit around the wreck, perhaps starting with the large anchor on the north face of the plate, and working your way round the outside then back in. Obviously, watch out for sharp rusty edges and any dangling gauges, and (I’m afraid) potential snagged fishing line as you’re still within range of the more determined Chesil anglers.

Whilst it can seem more sparse in early spring the wreck is never truly devoid of life; the prominent deck winch being a home to beautiful clusters of jewel anemones, and within the boarded holds you’ll often see plaice, lobster, brown and velvet crabs, congers with attendant shrimp, wrasse and famously the Royal Adelaide’s numerous warring Tompots. The latter are extremely inquisitive, even by Tompot standards, yet shockingly violent towards each other during their spring and summer mating season. Look for the scarred individuals with the best hidey-holes and you’ll probably see a female nearby. Shoals of pollock, bib and clumps of bass appear in summer, and a lucky few might be treated to the sight of a grey triggerfish (Balistes capriscus). Whilst I can’t count myself amongst that number, it does give me an incentive, if needed, to keep coming back to this remarkable place.

Photographers, leave yourself a bit of gas though, because you’re not done yet. If you turn about facing immediately back up the slope toward the beach and take a diagonal bearing more or less 40m SE you will find the prop of the Nor waving at you from the seabed in 9m.

A Norwegian cargo ship with a load of salt from Cadiz, she was bound for Bergen until on January 18th 1887 she ran aground in thick fog. This is the perfect conclusion to the dive (in my opinion) and you’ll often find sea toads clinging to the surface of the huge propeller like some kind of crabby 2001 Space Odyssey. More or less of the prop shaft is exposed given the shifting shingle, but sometimes you can make out a bit of keel poking through. Whilst you’ll probably be ready to exit by this point -especially with that climb up the beach in mind- if the current is drifting south a little you might want to let it carry you just a bit further to the Nor boiler, also in 9m or so, standing vertical on the seabed. You can make out the numerous pipes within and you’ll find some ancient looking Ballan wrasse parked in there wondering just what you’re about.

Count yourself fortunate if you manage two out those three, but of course if you end up the 250m or so south on the landing craft (LCT (A) 2454) you’ll know you definitely got your tides wrong! Good luck, and do let me know if you spot any of those Triggers.

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