Q & A: Wrecks

Kendall McDonald, a former Fleet Street editor
Kendall McDonald, a former Fleet Street editor

Kendall McDonald, a former Fleet Street editor, has been diving (and writing about it) for more than 45 years. He has been DIVER’s wreck expert since 1960.

How much treasure was aboard the Merchant Royal, asks John Messent, who adds: Can you give me her position?

I wish I could – I’d be a rich man! Lots of other divers have asked about this treasure ship and to my knowledge three heavily funded and well-equipped teams are searching for her in the Channel Approaches at this very moment.

One research ship has more than?500,000-worth of computerized navigation, magnetometer and sonar equipment on board, which gives some idea of how seriously they take this treasure hunt.

The 700-ton, 32-gun Merchant Royal (sometimes spelt ‘Royall’ in the style of the times) was a trading ship owned by four London merchants.

She spent three years trading with Spanish colonies in the West Indies from 1637-40.

We were at peace with Spain at this time, so the Merchant Royal and her sister-ship, the Dover Merchant, called into Cadiz on their way home to London. By all accounts she was leaking badly after her long voyage.

When a Spanish ship in Cadiz at the same time caught fire just before she was due to carry treasure to convert into pay for Spain’s 30,000 soldiers in Flanders, the Merchant Royal’s Captain Limbrey saw his chance to make a little more cash for his owners.

He volunteered to carry the treasure to Antwerp on his way home.

How much treasure? Details vary but she certainly had 100,000 in gold (20 million in today’s money) on board, 400 bars of Mexican silver (another 1 million) and nearly 500,000 pieces of eight and other coins.

However, you know what treasure-hunters are. Some of those involved expect to find John Limbrey’s own personal fortune from that long voyage in the wreck as well, so estimates run up to 100 million!

The Merchant Royal went on leaking after she and her sister-ship left Cadiz and, when the pumps broke down, she foundered off Land’s End in rough weather on 23 September,1641.

Her sinking was seen by the Dover Merchant, which estimated their position as ‘ten leagues from Land’s End’.

If the weather was bad, they would hardly have been able to see the coast, which throws considerable doubt on that position.

(For those keen to work out where she lies, a league was 3.18 nautical miles, and for practical purposes in those days was taken as three nautical miles).

Eighteen men drowned in the sinking – Captain Limbrey and 40 of his crew got away in boats and were picked up by Dover Merchant.

The scientific hunt for the Merchant Royal has gone on for nearly ten years now. She could be anywhere in the 600sq miles of the Western Approaches. But I have no doubt they will find her in the end.

Of course, anyone who knows the position should write to me at once in the strictest confidence!

Can you help me to identify a wreck we found while diving off the Sussex coast? asks Trevor Spiers.


No, I can’t, but I bet there are wreck-divers reading this who can. Trevor has a clue to his ship, some plates bearing what might be the shipping line’s crest – a globe with latitude and longitude lines on it.

A belt and buckle surrounds the globe with the letters C S N Co around the belt.

Anyone know a shipping line with that crest and those initials? Drop me a line and I’ll pass it on to Trevor.

Do you have any information about the wreck of the Empire Crusader off the Isle of Wight? asks Gary Paddock.

The Empire Crusader was originally known as the Leander. She belonged to the German Neptun Line of Bremen, where she was built by Atlas-Werke AG in 1925 as a steamer of 1042 tons, 224ft long with a 33ft beam.

She was pretending to be a neutral Russian when she was stopped off Vigo, Spain, by the destroyer HMS Isis on November 9, 1939. She was taken as prize to Plymouth and renamed Empire Crusader.

She didn’t sail under the British flag for long. On August 8, 1940, she was bombed and strafed by Junkers 87s when in convoy 15 miles west of St Catherine’s Point on the way from Seaham to Devonport with 1020 tons of coal.

Her crew of 15 included six naval ratings to man the large gun at her stern. Her master, second mate and two ratings were lost when she caught fire and capsized.

Until recently many divers believed that the Empire Crusader was the wreck in 27m at 50 35 43; 01 43 21, but this turned out to be the Venezuela, sunk in 1918, and you can’t argue with that as the name is in big brass letters on her stern!

Her gun is now a star exhibit in Swindon BSAC’s clubroom.

There are a number of wrecks in the right area. The Empire Crusader is probably the badly broken one at 50 25 52N; 01 42 16W. She lies at 40m and has not yet been positively identified by divers.

There is a fine painting of the Empire Crusader by marine artist Barry Mason, reproduced in Steve Shovlar’s Dorset Shipwrecks.

As you asked about her, Gary, does this mean you can positively identify her? I’d like to know.

I think the shipwreck you listed in Dive Sussex as ‘probably HMS Laforey’ is probably HMS Minion. What do you think? – Tim Bennetto.

I think you’re right. And thanks to Tim’s help with that old destroyer and other wrecks in the Brighton area, which Tim covers with his dive boat Spartacus, the next edition of Dive Sussex should make even better reading for South Coast divers!

The World War One vintage wreck to which Tim refers stands 8m proud in 43m at 50 38 37; 00 13 53.
I thought the three holes in her were where her funnels had been, and couldn’t find another naval ship to fit the bill, but Tim Bennetto could.

During many dives on her, he became convinced that the holes were not for funnels but for gun turrets, which had been removed leaving only rails on which the turrets would have swivelled.

The turrets were nowhere to be found on or near the wreck. Their absence suggested a ship heading for the breaker’s yard.


Tim’s research led him to HMS Minion, an M-class destroyer launched in September, 1915. She was one of six Admiralty M-class boats built by Thorneycroft, all of 1052 tons, 276ft long with a 26ft beam.

Their three turrets were the home of three 4in guns.

They also carried a 2pdr pom-pom and four 21in torpedo tubes in pairs. Their three boilers and 25,000hp engines drove three screws to give 34 knots flat out.

The Minion survived the war and was sold for breaking up in Germany in 1921. She was stripped of her guns and under tow when she foundered.

Can you tell me anything about the Spanish Armada galleon wreck at Portencross, Firth of Clyde? asks Paul Holden.

I can, but only thanks to Peter Moir and Ian Crawford’s excellent book Clyde Shipwrecks (ring 01475-520141 for copies).

Spanish Armada? Perhaps, but early documents record only ‘a Spanish ship against the shore’ near Farland Head and the ruined castle.

Certainly some recoveries of guns, both bronze and iron, are noted in 1740 from a wreck ‘scarce a quarter of a mile from the shore, in ten fathom and a foot of water’.

A large iron cannon is on display near Portencross Castle. It should be worth a search between 18 and 19m about 400m off, don’t you think?

Let the Archaeological Diving Unit know if you find anything.

Do you know who made a beer called ‘Tue’? asks Bob Peacock, who is himself a mine of information about Kent diving.

Does anyone know? Bob is trying to check that he is diving the Hundvaag, a small Norwegian steamer of 690 tons used by the Navy as a collier and mined in 1940. The wreck is in 25m on hard sand at 51 08 41; 01 27 55 and is in two parts.

Bob has found cutlery with what might be Norwegian markings and a beer bottle with the word ‘Tue’ on it. If any Scandinavian beer-drinker can help, I’ll pass it on.


Submit them, marked ‘Wrecks Q&A;’: by letter, addressed to DIVER, or by fax on 020 8943 4312
by e-mail by steve@divermag.co.uk on DIVERNET’s Wrecks Talk page.

This can also bring you rapid responses from other readers (though these should of course be treated with caution).

We regret that questions cannot be answered on the telephone or, generally speaking, replied to individually.


Get a weekly roundup of all Divernet news and articles Scuba Mask
We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Connect With Us

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x