LET’S FACE IT, there are some archaeological dive sites that can be difficult to get excited about if you don’t happen to be an archaeologist. The Coronation or, more specifically, the offshore part of the Coronation of Plymouth, is different.
First off, I descend the shot to land next to a huge iron anchor. Just off to one side is a not-quite-as-huge iron cannon. Each of these has a small numbered buoy floating a metre above it, and the numbers tie in to points given in the dive briefing and pages in a laminated guidebook.
I don’t know any divers who need help recognising an anchor, but believe it or not a cannon can be less easy to recognise, especially when covered with a few hundred years of concretion and marine life. Even experienced archaeologists sometimes have difficulty with such well-known objects, as Peter McBride reminded us in his lively talk before the dive.
Peter led the team that in 1977, after many years’ searching, located this part of the wreck and the pewter plate that finally confirmed it as being the Coronation. One of the finds made
when they were systematically searching for the wreck was a “cannon” well off the site.
With the main area of the offshore site identified and surveyed, Peter returned to the cannon armed with a hammer and chisel, to clean it of marine life and take measurements that could be used for better identification.
As he hammered and scraped, the metal below was revealed until, among the clouds of debris created, he finally recognised what he was hammering at – a World War Two bomb!
Coronation is now a protected site. You can see the marked-off area on the local hydrographic chart, but with the opening of the Coronation Trail, the Coronation Wreck Project enables anyone to dive the site through a permit system.
Permits are organised by the skippers of local charter-boats and dive centres, like Top-Gun, from which we are diving today, or Discovery Divers, the classroom of which was used for the briefing.
Other charter-boats working with the project are Ceeking and Venture.
Alternatively, you can apply directly to the project and bring your own boat, or join one of the organised dives. Archaeological licensee Mark Pearce and the project team arrange introductory talks for those who want to learn a bit more before diving, and even lead dives when requested.

SAMUEL PEPYS IS BEST-KNOWN for his diaries, but he was also a government administrator for the Navy, initially as Clerk of the Acts of the Navy and subsequently becoming Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, an institution he was largely responsible for creating.
Pepys established changes that promoted training and professionalism, without which the Navy could not have risen to its later supremacy of the sea.
In 1677, Pepys persuaded Parliament to fund 30 new ships at a cost of £600,000, but it wasn’t until 1682 that Coronation was laid down in Portsmouth by Master Shipwright Isaac Betts. The hull was launched three years later, then left to rot for several years because of cost over-runs and lack of money to complete the fitting out. The same thing happens these days with aircraft-carriers.
Coronation was finally commissioned into service in 1689, though not before the mushrooms had been removed and the rotting keel replaced.
One theory about why the vessel sank is that rotting timbers gave way under the stress of the storm.
A year later, the 1366-ton warship saw action with a joint Anglo-Dutch fleet against the French in the battle of Beachy Head.
Coronation was commanded by Captain Charles Skelton with a nominal complement of 660, though it likely that this target was never reached, because of a shortage of trained men.
The battle resulted in victory for the numerically superior French fleet, the English and Dutch losing 11 ships while the French lost none.
The French temporarily gained control of the English Channel, but failed to follow up on their advantage.
The political and public outcry at England’s subsequent vulnerability to French invasion, even though it never happened, led to a policy of increased naval funding that would continue though the next two centuries.
Naval strategy switched to blockading the French fleet in port. In the summer of 1691, Coronation was part of a fleet commanded by Admiral Russell, patrolling off Ushant. On 1 September a storm blew up, and Russell commanded the fleet to make for shelter in Plymouth and Torbay.
Two days later, on 3 September, Coronation was approaching Plymouth when she foundered off Penlee Point. Only 22 men survived.
Differing reports had Captain Skelton cutting away the masts and trying to drop anchor to avoid being driven onto a lee shore, or the masts being ripped off by the storm as the ship was rolled.
In 1691 there was no protection from a breakwater, so the outer part of the sound was a death trap in a southerly gale. Several other ships from the fleet were driven ashore trying to navigate Plymouth Sound to sheltered water.
Looking at the numbered buoy above the cannon, I realise that I am out of sequence at point 10, not at point 2 as I should have been. The marked route leads roughly anti-clockwise round the site, though for some reason the cannon at point 10 overlaps the starting point
at anchor number 1.

OTHER DIVERS ARE CAREFULLY following the official route from the laminated book they carry with them. As well as a map of the site and details of the artefacts at each buoyed position, this also gives bearings and distances between buoys, in case of poor visibility.
Without a spare lanyard and clip to secure it, I have left my copy on the boat. I want my hands free for my camera.
The site is fairly compact, and I think I can remember enough to work my way round taking pictures of anchors and cannons, especially with all the other divers to follow. I get back onto the official route, slowly finning past two more anchors and several cannon to point 7, where the briefing advised that one of the more photogenic cannon could be found resting above a rock.
It’s at the far eastern end of the site, and without stopping it would take only a few minutes’ swim from anchor number 1 at the far west.
I then have two more groups of cannon before arriving back at the start. With the depth just less than 20m, it’s a no-stop dive for those on air. Forty minutes feels about right to make a complete circuit and get immersed in reading about each point as you go.
In addition to writing up my own logbook, I complete one of the project’s report forms, noting that I had found nothing new to add to the survey, but that I had seen a cuttlefish – the report form also asks about marine life.
It’s the background story that makes the dive. I have one small regret; I should have taken the laminated book with me, rather than having to peer over others’ shoulders.

Recent surveying of the site and preparation of the trail has been conducted by the project team assisted by Somerset Divers.
The original team dived in wetsuits, whereas the current project team are sponsored by Polar Bears drysuits.
The original team chugged about running magnetometer searches in a small cabin boat, whereas the current team has the use of a 6.2m RIB sponsored by Kelsey Vale Meats,
with the latest high-definition electronics sponsored by Lowrance.
Their survey diving continues, widening the area and looking for more clues about how the wreck sank in two main parts. At least one anchor and four cannon have still to be found.
When I visited the site the project already had more than 500 divers booked to dive the cannon and anchor site through the summer.
While not as big an attraction as the Scylla, that’s still a fair number of B&B nights, pub meals, boat-charters and air-fills helping out the local tourist industry.

Contemporary reports put the position of the Coronation in “22 fathoms” (40m) off Penlee Point, so in 1972 this is where Peter McBride’s team began searching.
They used magnetometer and echo-sounder, and initially sextants for position-fixing and subsequently a Decca navigator, as they dived on any anomalies.
The search area grew over the next few years until in 1977, in 20m and well inshore of their starting point, they found a small area with 14 cannon and three anchors.
More importantly, they found a pewter plate bearing Captain Skelton’s crest, so identifying the wreck. Subsequent surveys found three more cannon.
A sparse trail of debris leading 800m towards Penlee connected the site with another site of 59 cannon and three anchors close in to the shore, discovered 10 years earlier by George Sandford and Alan Down.
Popular speculation was that it could have been the Coronation, but nothing had been found to prove the identity, especially as it was a long way from the reported location of the sinking.
Putting 1691 into context
Date Event Monarch
1492Columbus crosses AtlanticHenry VII
1545Mary Rose sinksHenry VIII
1588Spanish ArmadaElizabeth I
1651English Civil War ends(Oliver Cromwell)
1660Samuel Pepys appointed to Navy BoardCharles II
1667Dutch raid on the Medway devastates laid-up British fleetCharles II
1677Samuel Pepys persuades Parliament to fund 30 shipsCharles II
1682Coronation laid down by shipwright Isaac BettsCharles II
1685Coronation launched in PortsmouthJames II
1689War with France; Coronation first commissionedWilliam III & Mary II
1690Battle of Beachy HeadWilliam III & Mary II
1691Coronation wrecked William III
1698First Eddystone lighthouse completedWilliam III
1707Admiral Shovell’s fleet wrecked off Scilly IslesAnne
1709Second Eddystone lighthouse completedAnne
1759Third Eddystone lighthouse completedGeorge II
1789Phoenix becomes first ship designated ‘HMS’George III
1805Battle of TrafalgarGeorge III
1812Work begins on Plymouth Sound breakwaterGeorge III
1815Battle of WaterlooGeorge III
1882Fourth Eddystone lighthouse completedVictoria
1967Sandford and Down find Penlee cannon siteElizabeth II
1977Peter McBride’s team discover Coronation wreckElizabeth II