Exploring the Wreck of the Invincible

Diver with a blue-green bottle found intact on the Invincible.
Diver with a blue-green bottle found intact on the Invincible.


MICHAEL PITTS, one of the world's leading underwater cameramen, has been turning his attention from wildlife in clear waters to 18th-century human life in green, murky waters. He explains why he has relished the opportunity

AS AN UNDERWATER CAMERAMAN, I’ve been lucky enough to dive in some of the most pristine seas and remote environments on the planet but also to film in locations where few ever get the opportunity to go.

Filming assignments to the Great Barrier Reef to shoot on a major BBC Sir David Attenborough series; the Solomons and Chuuk to film the aftermath of war in the Coral Seas; and the Galapagos Islands, again for a recent three-part BBC1 series.

Diving on the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea and in the Saudi waters of the Arabian Gulf for National Geographic for more than a year contrasting the two seas was also a rare chance. Cave-diving in Norway, under the Arctic ice, the marine lakes of Palau – they are all listed there in my logbooks and passports.

People might think that I could become a little blasé about these opportunities and shun diving in less-exotic locations, but I love my work with a passion, and diving closer to home has never deterred me.

I’m the first to admit that working in British waters and endeavouring to shoot stunning images can present a number of challenges, and nowhere more so than in the Solent Channel.

This stretch of water, renowned for its complex tides, ripping currents and limited visibility, is always a tough place to film. But there is a wealth of history in these waters, dating back to prehistoric times. That makes the challenge so worthwhile, and I’ll never tire of it.

UNQUESTIONABLY THE MOST FAMOUS vessel to be excavated, lifted and restored from the Solent is Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose. It was this ship that spearheaded an attack against a French invasion fleet but sank in front of the King in 1545.

The Mary Rose, a veteran of the Tudor navy, is the jewel in the crown of our maritime past, but there are other wrecks lying in these waters, each with a different story to tell. One in particular is once again revealing itself to archaeologists.

The Invincible pictured in her heyday.
The Invincible pictured in her heyday.

Lying barely three miles out from the historic waterfront of Portsmouth in the murky waters of the eastern Solent Channel, is the wreck of the Invincible, which sank in 1758. A French warship, she had been captured by the British in 1747.

Her construction was so significant that she influenced British-designed warships to the time of Trafalgar and beyond – this type of ship became the backbone of the Royal Navy.

In March 2012, archaeologist and current licensee Dan Pascoe, following in the footsteps of the previous custodian Commander John Bingeman, who had held the post for three decades, invited me to dive on the Invincible for the first time.

Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in recording the remains of this famous fighting ship, with the ultimate aim of producing a documentary film. It’s a story that can’t be ignored, and with each year that passes different parts of the wreck are being exposed.

Nothing had quite prepared me for the sheer size and scale of the hull timbers that protrude from the seabed. On that day in March, so early in the season, we had at least 5m of visibility, with no kelp obscuring the wreck.

It was an exceptional first dive, but it took many more to familiarise myself with this vast site. So much of the hull survives, the port side intact, the starboard side broken and scattered. It can be confusing to know exactly where you are, but each dive leaves you better acquainted with how the Invincible lies.

I didn’t underestimate the visibility that day; these are exceptional conditions for the Solent Channel. Quite often you’re diving in a thick pea-greenish broth with little chance of filming, but we had such a good view then and I judge every dive since on that remarkable first encounter.

We were lucky enough to get a few days’ near-repeating of those conditions during the June 2017 excavations. This new phase of the investigation is funded by a £2 million grant from fines imposed by the LIBOR banking scandal.

THE PROJECT TEAM is led by the Maritime Archaeological Sea Trust (MAST) in partnership with Bournemouth University and the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

The finds, once conserved at MAST’s archaeological facility in Poole, will be exhibited at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Diving from mv Avon, a Poole-based work barge, archaeologists, military veterans and other experienced volunteers are working together to excavate the ship and recover the many artefacts that lie hidden beneath the sands and sediments of the site.

In the first dive-season, hundreds of well-preserved artefacts have been recovered. These include sailors’ leather shoes, gunners’ implements, regimental buttons, a variety of rigging blocks and incredible coils of spare cable.

There was even a handwritten wooden label marked “Mainstay Mainsail Halyards”, the rope still smelling of the tar that was used to stiffen and preserve it.

Nearly 2.5 tonnes of that rope has now been raised. That smell takes you instantly back to life aboard this third-rate man-of-war of the mid-18th century.

Although I have dived many different wrecks in the Solent, the Invincible is so special. Knowing the ship’s history, you can’t help but be captivated by it.

A grid system of 3 x 3m squares was built from scaffolding poles across the entire bow section. It was within these squares that teams of two divers used the four airlifts. Following the yellow air hoses that snake across the seabed leads you to the site and makes these journeys an interesting and an easy commute. specially so, as I have the bulky camera housing with strobes and lights attached to push into the oncoming current.

As I get closer, my anticipation of what the archaeologists might have revealed builds. Seeing a completely intact hatch-cover in near-perfect condition being uncovered was exciting enough, but I remember moving to another grid and spotting three huge rigging blocks lying against each other deep within the trench – a sight that literally took my breath away. On any normal dive, you just don’t see stuff like this.

Gliding over and filming the freshly excavated interior and seeing the Invincible’s decks opened up beneath me gave me a real sense of the sailors who once walked on those planks, and the mission they were on.

FRUSTRATINGLY, AND AS ANY Solent diver knows, suspended kelp wafting in the current is a constant irritant when taking pictures. You just have to choose the right moment to shoot the shot you want; there are no short cuts out there.

Twenty-four- and 32-pounder gun wads, again with the accompanying tally sticks, each one etched with Roman numerals denoting the size of the wads, were being uncovered by the score from one compartment. Made up from scraps of rope and cordage, they were used to hold the cannonball and charge in place.

Seeing these holds strewn with musket balls by the hundred, with musket flints scattered in among them all, is a rare sight indeed. Make no mistake, this was a ship embarking on a campaign to fight our main adversary – the French.

On 19 February, 1758, the Invincible – the first of seven HMS Invincibles that have borne that proud name – was part of a fleet of eight warships to sail from Portsmouth to Nova Scotia in a second bid to take the French fort of Louisbourg. Invincible was an integral part of the task force that ultimately succeeded, but the warship never cleared the Solent Channel.

A series of calamitous events beset the ship. While weighing anchor, its flukes fouled under the bow and then, while attempting to clear the anchor, the rudder jammed.

The Invincible was now in a perilous state, unable to steer. Then, caught by a combination of freshening winds, she drifted onto the Horsetail Sand. Despite valiant efforts to refloat her, including the jettisoning of six of her upper-deck 24-pounder cannon, the hull was flooded and the wind that had now strengthened to gale force turned her on her side.

The ship was lost, and over the next 220 years she was slowly entombed by the shifting sands and shingle, much as the Mary Rose had been lost two centuries earlier.

The hull of the Invincible is now being exposed once again. The sands that once engulfed this ship are receding as tidal flow, currents and severe winter storms sweep them away. For Dan Pascoe, this presents a dilemma.

While this rare opportunity to see the ship’s huge timbers and structure unfolds, it’s also rapidly causing the wreck’s demise. As the structure is exposed to the elements and the actions of wood-boring organisms that riddle exposed timbers, it will be a race against time to excavate and record as much as possible before it deteriorates and is broken up by the forces of nature.

In a nation so intrinsically linked to the sea, the uncovering and preservation of our maritime past is an ambition shared by many. Although the Invincible project has gained much attention, as yet no broadcaster has come forward to underwrite a full documentary.

But I’m undeterred. As the project moves forward I’ll continue to work with the archaeological team to document the hidden secrets of this ship, which are now being uncovered. When you look back on the footage of the Mary Rose excavations, you realise how important those images are. They are not just for the present, but also a valuable archive for the future.

In September 1980, Invincible was designated as a Protected Wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

In 2013 the wreck was placed on Historic England’s list of 10 most at-risk heritage sites. Diving operations will recommence from May to July 2018.


by Jessica Berry, Dan Pascoe & Dave Parham

L’INVINCIBLE, OR INVINCIBLE as she became after her capture from the French in 1747, was of such an innovative and sophisticated design that her build revolutionised British shipbuilding. By the time of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 most of the 74-gun ships, French and British, were built along her lines.

Invincible’s orlop deck.
Invincible’s orlop deck.

The ship was an experimental build, with many iron knees making her hull lighter and faster and allowing her to carry more guns. She was also the first ship to trial the new lightweight 24-pounder guns. We hope next year to find one of these guns that was jettisoned at the time of the ship sinking. This would be a singular discovery, as none are known to have been found. Few were known to have even been made.

It took Invincible more than two-and-a-half days to sink in 1758. First her anchor stuck in the mud, and then she ran aground on Dean Sands in the Solent.

The sand had risen to unimaginable levels, according to the Portsmouth pilot, who had never seen the like, and so officers and crew were acquitted in the subsequent court martial.

This summer has seen the first major excavation since Cmdr John Bingeman’s excavations in the 1980s. This first season we worked in the bow section, an area considered most at risk from the ravages of storms.

The structure contains the boatswain’s, carpenter’s and gunner’s stores on the orlop deck, and also artefacts from the general store-rooms in the hold.

We have found a good number of regimental buttons, including those of the Coldstream Guards – the regiment was not known in Canada at that time, so this find is currently an intriguing puzzle.

More than 100 gun-wads – resembling deflated, soggy hedgehogs, and probably as pungent – were found in the ship’s store. These are balls of oakhum that keep the cartridge and shot in position when loaded.

Some we found complete with tally-sticks denoting the type of gun with which they were to be used. Some marked XXIIII or XXIV indicated that they were for the 24-pounder gun.

The wooden world, as shipboard life of the Royal Navy in the 18th century was known, came to life this summer with some perfectly intact artefacts including rigging blocks, pulley sheaves, barrel staves, spools of tampions and a 24-pounder rammer head.

Uniquely, unlike HMS Victory, the current most famous 18th century intact ship at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Invincible contains all its supplies and personal possessions from the day she was lost. Some of the rigging we found, for example, was still coiled on deck. We’ve also found a number of leather shoes and an intact bottle, still corked.

In subsequent excavations, we will extend forward to an area at the bottommost part of the ship. This has never been excavated. We hope to be able to complete the recording of the coherent portside, and study the way in which the ship was rebuilt in the 1750s.

3D photogrammetry is being conducted at each level we excavate, so the detail will be available to study and will also serve to develop the current 3D trail of the site.

Now that the first season is complete, artefacts are at the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust’s Archaeological Centre in Poole to be conserved and recorded.

This post-excavation phase will be done with the help of services and ex-services volunteers and disadvantaged youngsters, who are key beneficiaries of the LIBOR grant.


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