MY DEPTH GAUGE READS 90M. Breathing mixed gas, my equivalent narcotic depth (END) is just 35m. I know full well what I’m doing and where I’m going.
Or do I My dive partner Mark Bullen is beside me as we swim along the starboard side of the Kingsbridge, a sailing ship sunk 131 years ago.
Our powerful torches pick out key features that we absorb subconsciously for our return in this complete darkness.
Before long, an anchor appears. How can this be Surely we’re swimming towards the stern! We must be, because we’ve come from where I had found the ship’s bell on a previous dive – the bow! We have to be right, this must be a spare anchor, just stowed here.
Then we see another anchor, and before long a chain locker. Mark’s torch flashes like a Star Wars light sabre, and he begins to squeal loud into his rebreather loop. He’s excited, and Mark rarely gets excited.
There, in among a huge pile of millstones, is another bell, and it’s much larger than the one I had previously discovered!
A degree of confusion sets in, although over-ridden by excitement as I ease Mark away from his find to photograph our prize before the visibility deteriorates. A later return to the site in better visibility proves that the bell Mark had discovered was in fact the bow bell, and the one I had discovered was from the stern.
MY RESEARCH THAT WEEK revealed that sailing vessels of this vintage often had two bells, fore and aft.
During the 1990s, the heyday of the technical-diving revolution, dozens upon dozens of never-before-dived wrecks were being discovered and explored every year, and sailing ships were no exception, particularly in British waters.
I became even more excited when I thought of how many of these sailing ships we had located and not returned to since finding its bell, and thus completing our ID quest. With a long list of targets, it was time to retrace our steps.
Sure enough, as time went on more and more sailing ships began to reveal that elusive second bell.
Steamships traditionally have a single bell, though occasionally two have been discovered. The bell is normally located either directly in front of the bridge or towards the forecastle where the mast would have been – never aft of the bridge.
A good starting-point for navigation for a diver is the engine. The boilers will be forward of this point, in the direction of the bridge and bow.
If you end up following a propshaft you are definitely going in the wrong direction, unless a propeller is your choice of artefact!
There’s always a special atmosphere when the dive-boat returns to port with a bell. It’s all part of those rare but great wreck-diving days.
There will however be times when the boat returns with silent and sad divers.
On more than one occasion I have witnessed a desperate effort to recover a bell on the surface in rough seas, only for it to break free from the lift-bags and plummet back to the seabed, never to be found again!
Some have referred to finding a ship’s bell as joining a special club of elite divers. So what is it about the quest for bells that makes us go weak at the knees and drives us towards insanity
Having found a number of bells I have my own answers, but to see whether other divers felt the same I contacted a number who, while no longer active in the water, had their own unique stories about lifting what at the time felt not unlike lifting the World Cup must feel to a footballer.
WHAT MOST OF THEIR ANSWERS had in common was the unique part each bell had played in the history of its ship.
At a point in time these vessels were lost to the world. Often it was many decades before they were rediscovered by divers. Those who found the bells, the sound, heart and focal point of these once-proud ships, were the divers who effectively returned them to life by identifying their historical remains.
Only one diver has that special moment on each wreck, and for that moment it puts them a cut above their peers.
Of course, shipwrecks can be identified in many other ways, but a bell means positive identification like no other artefact. Some bear beautiful names such as Snowdrop or Marie Therese, while others are more meaningful.
The Michael Clements, a bell recovered by Lymington skipper Dave Wendes, is an example. Researching the name, Wendes found that Michael Clements had been a chief carpenter aboard HMS Victory.
Bells can also be misleading. You might read a name but be unable to find a ship to match it. Often ships would change hands between companies, and their names would be changed, yet the original name remained on the bell.
The diver-finder then has to dig deeper to discover when the name was changed and to what.
Bells were being used on ships as early as the 15th century. Records of epic voyages tell us how helmsmen used them to measure time in half-hour increments.
The “ship’s bell” system of chimes evolved from a crude sand clock dating back to the time of Columbus. Before the advent of the chronometer, time at sea was measured by the trickle of sand through a half-hour glass.
Watches or shifts were organised into four-hour increments, a custom still widely used. With the sandglass at his side, the helmsman would strike one bell at the end of the first half-hour, two after the second and so on until reaching eight bells, or the end of the watch.
This tradition continued for hundreds of years before the development of
the mechanical clock.
A ship’s bell was also used as a warning during fog, with a series of rapid, successive strokes and, at other times, as a signal of fire or danger from other nearby vessels. In the case of the Titanic, icebergs!
Even if a ship is not sunk, but merely broken up, its bell can become a highly prized memento and command very high prices if offered for sale.
THE DAYS WHEN BELLS ARE BROUGHT to the surface are the best in any wreck-diver’s logbook. Reading through my own brings back great memories that will remain with me forever.
I have also surfaced and boarded the dive-boat to see other divers huddled round an encrusted object, its finder scraping his knife frantically across its surface to reveal the ship’s name, and thus make this mark.
I witnessed this once when first a P appeared, then an A followed by an N. There the letters ended!
The diver twisted the bell and began scraping the marine growth in front of the P, but could find nothing else.
On his knees and pausing momentarily in disbelief, he looked up at the rest of us and muttered: “I can’t possibly have a bell with PAN written on it, can I”
“Well, you have by the look of it,” said skipper Graham Knott. And, holding a Lloyds Shipping Register, he began to read us the history of the wreck we had just discovered – the Pan.
Graham was once asked by the group of divers chartering his boat where they would find the bell on the wreck they were going to dive!
Straight-faced, he told them to first locate the mast, and then swim down until they saw the crow’s nest. Directly below there was where they would find the bell, he assured them in jest.
Within 10 minutes of them entering the water, a lift-bag surfaced with a bell on the end of it! Exiting the water, they thanked Graham for his advice.
As with Jamie and his Pan bell, Graham looked on in disbelief.
I never forgot that story. Some years later I was in New Zealand on an expedition diving the gold shipwreck Niagara in 125m depth.
An Australian diver approached me the night before a dive and asked me the same question those other divers had asked Graham that day.
“In Australia we don’t really find bells,” he declared, “you English lads all have a bunch each, isn’t that right”
Of course, I told him exactly what Graham had told his weekend divers, somehow keeping a straight face. The following day I followed this diver on the wreck, shooting photos as we went.
He actually located the mast, then, much to my amazement, a crow’s nest, before flashing his torch on the seabed below – where the ship’s bell turned out to be laid to rest!
He bought me a beer later, and that bell now resides in an Auckland museum. Next time perhaps I’ll keep quiet!
In the UK the Military Remains Act of 1986 makes it an offence to enter or tamper with any such listed wreck lost in wartime.
Military wrecks must always be treated with respect, and if their bells are discovered they must be simply photographed, filmed and documented.
A BELL MIGHT BE A PRIZED TROPHY for divers, but the find has to be declared to the Receiver of Wreck, and the vessel’s owners could still be in business and want their property back. Often this is undertaken with a reasonable fee granted to the diver in lieu of salvage.
Don’t assume, however, that your bell will be taken from you the moment you report a find.
The chances are that the owner is no longer alive or the shipping company defunct, and it will be your job to look after that piece of maritime history.
Many people argue that these finds should be on display in museums for all to see, although the fact is that the average museum lacks the space to display everything it has in storage, let alone every recovered bell.
There is a downside to discovering a ship’s bell, especially if you are diving from a Weymouth boat. In Weymouth tradition demands that if you find one while diving and the dive-boat skipper recovers your prize successfully to the deck, in return you have to kiss his arse!
There will be a ritual gathering of everyone on the boat after surfacing to watch as the skipper lowers his jeans and allows the finder to ease his lips against those often hairy cheeks!
I’ve witnessed this on many occasions, and hear that the ritual is spreading to other coastal ports. So beware - you may have become King of the Wreck-Divers, but your dignity may be about to be permanently compromised.
Many readers will believe that artefacts should be left on the wreck for all to see, and it’s a debate where agreement seems impossible.
Shipwrecks fall apart and will eventually become little more than iron-ore deposits on the seabed. Each year nature degrades and covers the wrecks we explore.
The bells pictured in this feature would never have been seen by this readership had they not been recovered. Has beauty any value if it can’t be seen
And lastly, if you’re wondering, the answer is yes, I have kissed arse! A number of times!
Let’s leave it at that.