Bowbelle, Wreck of souls
ON 20 AUGUST, 1989, the Thames riverboat disaster dominated news headlines.
A nation mourned the deaths of 51 young, aspiring people, mostly from the fashion industry.
Photographers’ agent Jonathan Phang had organised a party to celebrate the birthday of Portuguese merchant banker Antonio De Vasconcelos. A total of 131 people, including guests, crew and catering/bar staff boarded the 26m passenger launch Marchioness that evening.
Sounds of clinking champagne flutes and high-pitched laughter emanated from the upper deck levels as the Marchioness made her way down the river. It was a clear, moonlit night.
At exactly 1.46am, the 1475-ton dredger Bowbelle rammed into the 47-ton Marchioness, rolling her over and pushing her under. There was no warning; no time to react.
Accident investigators put the time of impact to full immersion at less than 30 seconds. Many drowned in the ensuing chaos and confusion.
Eyewitness reports stated that the Bowbelle hit the launch dead centre, her starboard anchor demolishing most of the topside superstructure.
Bowbelle’s skipper Douglas Henderson, 31, was charged with responsibility for the accident. In 1991 he was put on trial, but the outcome was non-conclusive. Although some of his actions were severely criticised, he was eventually acquitted by the jury.
Family and friends of the victims were so outraged by the verdict that they formed the Marchioness Action Group, which led to a number of high-profile government inquiries.
IN 1995, THE CORONER’S INQUEST produced a verdict of “unlawful killing”. Henderson had not complied with regulations, and should have issued a warning blast before negotiating the bend near Cannon Street railway bridge.
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch stated that the Bowbelle had a blind spot, caused by the low wheelhouse and too much dredging gear stowed on deck. There had also been poor use of look-outs on both vessels, and a failure to properly instruct and monitor Bowbelle’s crew.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ordered a full public hearing in 2000. The damning report mentioned that the Bowbelle was well known on the Thames as a “rogue ship” that had already been involved in a number of collisions.
It emerged that Henderson had drunk five pints of lager and had slept for only three hours before starting his shift. He had also sailed away from the scene of the accident, and provided no assistance to the survivors fighting to stay afloat in the strong currents.
There was no MayDay call, and Henderson did not deploy his life-rafts and life-vests.
Summing up, Lord Justice Clarke said that this was a catastrophe that should never have happened. He made more than 30 new recommendations to improve river safety and restrict the use of alcohol. Surprisingly, Henderson retained his skipper’s licence, and no further action was ever taken.
I WAS VERY MUCH AWARE of the wreck’s history as I made my way out to the final resting place of the Bowbelle. She may have been renamed the Bom Rei, but it would take more than that to hide her tainted past.
The dredger was transferred to Madeira a few years after the accident, and used as an aggregate transport vessel. On 25 March, 1996, the 80m ship was caught fully laden in rough weather just off the coast, near Ponto do Sol. There are rumours that her portside crane cable got snagged on the seabed.
She eventually broke in half, and sank to the bottom. The wreck was discovered by divers six months later.
This was to be my second attempt on the wreck. When I had turned up earlier in the year, the underwater visibility was so bad that I literally head-butted the hull and had to abort the dive. There was no way I could have got a half-decent photograph in the murky water.
No fewer than three other DIVER correspondents had, on separate occasions, experienced similar conditions on visits to Madeira in recent years and, like me, came back empty-handed.
Before committing myself to a return visit, I spoke to Pedro Vasconcelos, the operations manager of Focusnatura dive centre, based at Santa Cruz.
Coincidentally, Pedro’s surname is the same as that of the Portuguese merchant banker involved in the accident, though they were not related.
Pedro told me that of the five legitimate dive centres that operate on Madeira, only two regularly run dive trips out to the Bowbelle – by regularly, he meant only once or twice a month.
Pedro had visited the wreck 30-40 times since 1998, so knew the site relatively well. He said that the best time for “clean” water was between May and September. During August 2010 the visibility had been an exceptional 50m, but he admitted that this was extreme.
I was worried that my trip in late November would be yet another waste of time, but Pedro said that the conditions should still be OK.
Ignoring the adage “once bitten twice shy”, I gambled and booked the flight, fingers and toes firmly crossed.
A number of problems seemed to be affecting underwater visibility. Rainfall was running off the rugged mountainside into the sea, and the muddy water was obliterating all the inshore dive-sites.
On our way to the wreck, I could see the coffee-stained water oozing out from the shallows and moving dangerously close to the wreck’s position.
Pedro said he had asked the government to look into the problem of run-off, but so far nothing had happened. There was also a dredger (probably the Bowbelle’s replacement) dumping tons of silt very near the dive-site. Pedro said that it should have been operating much further offshore, but no one had bothered to make any checks.
Apparently the dredger worked from Monday to Friday, so weekends would be my best option for a dive.
The Bowbelle sits upright at a maximum depth of 32m. There was no visible marker buoy, so the dive-boat had to hook a grapnel into the wreck.
I FOLLOWED FOCUSNATURA’S INSTRUCTOR/DIVE GUIDE Hugo Silva down the line into the gloom, the silty conditions enhancing the spooky graveyard atmosphere.
I could just make out dark shadows below, and then the starboard crane loomed up in front of me. We had barely 8m visibility to play with.
I crossed to the bridge area. The siren was still in position between the bridge windows. If this had issued a warning blast, perhaps a lot of lives could have been saved. I remembered the movie Déjà Vu with Denzel Washington – if only we could reverse time.
We went through a hatchway behind the bridge. I followed the gantry along and then down another stairway into the engine-room. Gauges, light-fittings, light-bulbs, fire extinguishers and power switches were all untouched.
Pedro said that divers have to be at least PADI Advanced Open Water-qualified, and he doesn’t normally allow anyone to go inside.
Everything was covered in a thick layer of silt, and just a few breaths was enough to create a snowstorm effect, no matter how careful I was with my fins. Such conditions could really catch out inexperienced divers.
I managed to get a few pictures of the gauges by the engines and the power switches on the side of the hull before we had a complete white-out.
I had booked a room at the 4* Vila Gale Hotel in Santa Cruz, which is just a five-minute taxi ride from the airport. The little town is far from being a tourist hotspot, with just a few bars and restaurants and a supermarket.
The dive centre is a three-minute walk along the seafront, sharing a big unit with the local sailing club. There are hot showers, toilets and a classroom on site.
A restaurant and a bar/cafe next door provide pastries, espressos and poncha, the local firewater, made from rum, lemon juice and honey.
The dive-boat is a 6.5m RIB with a 135hp Mercury outboard. It is kept at the marina, which is conveniently located right in front of the dive centre.
We loaded our kit onto trolleys and wheeled it down to the pontoon. From the dive centre it’s a 22-mile boat-ride to the Bowbelle, a journey that, on a good day, takes about 70 minutes.
I managed to fit in two more dives on the wreck. Pedro had been right to say that “most of the marine life is around the bow – nothing is near the prop”.
I found a moray eel and a grouper among the deck-winches and machinery. I noticed that the portside crane had broken off and was lying across the hold, confirming rumours that it may well have instigated the ship’s demise.
I circumnavigated the Bowbelle, in conditions that were still very silty. I got a shot of Hugo by the propeller, then we carried on round to a big crack in the starboard side. Plenty of fish were milling around in the twisted metal.
I noticed that the anchor was still hanging from the starboard bow. This had wiped out most of the Marchioness’s above-deck area during the collision.
I followed Hugo over the top of the bow, wondering if the Marchioness’s skipper, Stephen Faldo, had seen the Bowbelle steaming towards him before the impact. Faldo didn’t live to tell his story.
We again went below decks, and this time found life-vests hanging up. They were probably the ones that were onboard in 1989, and never got to do their jobs.
PEDRO SAID THERE HAD BEEN SOME LOOTING over the years, mainly from a particular dive centre. Lamps and other items were still displayed on its website – he even went online to show me.
He was opposed to removing any memorabilia from the wreck, preferring to leave it as the time capsule it was.
I think the probability of getting good visibility at any time of the year is quite low, despite Pedro’s claims. I spoke to other UK divers, and they had had even worse conditions than I experienced.
The below-decks area is by far the best place to explore, but the silt is easily kicked up. I was lucky to have only two other divers on the boat with me. I can imagine that with 10 finning around, visibility would diminish very quickly.
Having a dredger dumping silt so close to the wreck didn’t make the situation any better. The area is susceptible to strong currents, which helps take away loose silt, but this can be a problem in itself. On one occasion when we surfaced from our safety stop, the dredger was only 400m away and bearing down on us!
Friends and associates were astounded to hear that I had dived the Bowbelle. One of the most infamous of shipwrecks, here it was, lying virtually undisturbed on the seabed at an accessible depth.
I have dived on many wrecks on which there was considerable loss of life, but this time it somehow felt very personal.
Perhaps because the accident had happened in the UK and I had followed the story in the newspapers – or was it the items of clothing, such as a waterproof coat and life-jackets, that gave the wreck a more human touch
Each year, a remembrance service is held at Southwark Cathedral. To mark the 20th anniversary, Coastguard representatives placed 51 red roses into the River Thames.
As I sailed away from the wreck, my thoughts were on this poignant moment. Rest in peace Bowbelle, wreck of souls.
Focusnatura dive centre, Santa Cruz, Madeira, www.focusnatura.com