“Just when you think you’ve found everything, on a quick return to Invincible we located the 11.5m-long rudder,” reported Bournemouth University Maritime Archaeology, after Rachel Bynoe and Heather Anderson from its diving team had discovered the rare item and fellow-divers Tom Cousins and Lee Hall had followed them down to record it.
It was HMS Invincible’s rudder that had been responsible for the sinking of the warship in the Solent, 264 years earlier.
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Built by the French Navy in 1744, Invincible was captured by the Royal Navy at the battle of Cape Finisterre three years later and sailed to Portsmouth Naval Dockyard.
Her innovative design and 74-gun capacity were recorded and rapidly went on to be copied, with her class forming the backbone of the Royal Navy’s fleet right up to the age of steam.
Her demise came in 1758 when the rudder jammed, causing the ship to run aground on a sandbank in the Solent between Langstone Harbour and the Isle of Wight. No lives were lost in the incident, but the vessel sank three days later.
Attempts to recover Invincible failed and the wreck became a “forgotten national treasure” until 1979, when it was rediscovered by scuba divers. Archaeological excavations have been carried out since 2017 by divers of the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST), Bournemouth University and Pascoe Archaeology.
Intact and in good condition from top to bottom, the rudder was found 60m from the stern of the main body of the wreck on 24 May. It is reported to retain most of its features, including iron pintles, pine sheathing, pendant hole and emergency chain.
The rudder would have come away from the stern-post as the warship sank and been buried in mud and sand for much of its time on the seabed before becoming exposed again. Many of the artefacts that have already been recovered from Invincible have also been found well-preserved through being protected from the elements.
An unidentified feature had previously been spotted in geophysical survey scans, but archaeologist Dan Pascoe told the BBC that the divers had not particularly been looking for the rudder on what was a routine inspection dive.
“It's a unique find – there are no other examples from warships of this era,” he said. “The ship was highly manoeuvrable and the rudder was critical to its design. It’s the last piece of the jigsaw that tells the story of Invincible. It’s a fantastic, wonderful find and extremely rare – it only survived because it was buried.”
Concerned that in its exposed state the rudder could deteriorate, the dive-team intend to use sandbags to protect it in the short term, though raising it for conservation would be estimated to cost a prohibitive £80,000.
Video of the rudder can be seen on YouTube. Many artefact finds from the ship are on display at the nearby National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, as reported on Divernet in January. Find out more about the HMS Invincible excavation on Divernet in Mike Pitts’ Invincible 50′ 44.34N, 01′ 02.23W, and more relating to the early dives on the wreck in Invincible With The Original Three.