A deep dive by the experienced technical team Darkstar has succeeded in capturing the first images of the WW1 steamship Libourne, including some of the 10,000 bottles of wine and liqueurs she was carrying – but salvors hoping to retrieve what they believe could be an invaluable cargo have had their ambitions dashed.
“Although we weren’t the first to dive the ss Libourne, I’m not aware of anyone taking photos previously,” Dom Robinson, the British Sub-Aqua Club’s head of diving & training and one of the Darkstar divers, told Divernet.
“The wreck lies in 85m about 15 nautical miles south of the Lizard peninsula so is quite difficult to reach, and the marks aren’t publicly known,” he said. “Conditions were pretty good, although it was quite dark.”
Owned by the Moss Steamship Co, the armed merchant vessel had been part of an escorted convoy of five, returning to Liverpool via Penzance after delivering coal to Bordeaux.
Three of the Libourne’s 33 crew died when the ship was torpedoed off the Cornish coast by the German submarine U-54, commanded by Hellmuth von Rockteschell, on 29 September, 1918 – six weeks before the end of hostilities.
The wreck site was identified by divers in 2015. Bottles remain scattered around and their contents, reported to include champagne, sauternes, claret, brandy and Benedictine, are believed by the prospective salvage group to have been preserved in the cold, dark conditions, even after more than a century under water.
Historic England, which represents the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, has refused to grant permission for a salvage operation to be mounted, on the grounds that being for commercial gain it would be forbidden under the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
While not a signatory to the convention, the UK government does observe the terms of its annex. It has however now said that it would consider permitting a small quantity of bottles to be brought up for evaluation.
The recent exploratory dive was led by Mark Dixon, owner and skipper of the dive-boat Darkstar. The technical team have been responsible for locating and exploring many deep wrecks over the past 20 years.
The divers reported that while bottles were visible on and around the wreck, many more were likely to be buried in the sand or concealed in the wreckage.
Connoisseurs have proved willing to pay as much as £25,000 a bottle for certain ocean-preserved vintage wines and spirits in recent times. That could put a potential value of up to £250 million on the cargo but, putting aside possible breakages, lost corks and unremarkable vintages, Robinson is dubious about the quality of the Libourne’s liquid assets.
“We aren’t involved with the group who are hoping to salvage the wreck so don’t really know what their plans are, but I’d be surprised if any of [the contents of] the bottles have survived, being submerged at over 9bar for 100 years!” he said.
“We didn’t recover any bottles because of the disputes that are going on.”