WHEN THE AUGUST 1981 issue of DIVER hit the news-stands, its full-colour artwork by John R Terry, depicting His Majesty’s warship Invincible perilously aground in the Solent, would have caught my eye – had I been old enough.
Aged nine, I was busy constructing model historic ships but a bit young to have scuba-diving on my list of extra-curricular activities.
My seafaring interest had been sparked two years earlier on a visit to the school library, where I had encountered a copy of the Ladybird book Pirates.
I was hooked on the stories of buried treasure and skull-emblazoned flags flying on pirate ships.
At the same time, half the world away, a real-life sea adventure was unfolding for Portsmouth fisherman Arthur Mack and his old friend and diving enthusiast John Broomhead. On 5 May, 1979, a bad day’s fishing resulted in torn nets but also uncovered one of England’s most colourful shipwrecks – the Invincible, lost on Dean Sands in February 1758.
The 74-gun warship had been taken by the Royal Navy as a war prize at the Battle of Cape Finisterre off Spain on 3 May, 1747. But the ship’s career had begun three years earlier as L’Invincible, built by the French at Rochefort.
French ships were advanced compared to their English counterparts, the builders of which over-relied on established “best practice”.
The French had ascertained that the two-deck 74-gun ship offered the best overall compromise of vessel size, firepower and agility to suit the range of duties that a warship had to perform, and when the Invincible was fitted out for English service following her capture, there was no other ship in the King’s Navy to match her specifications.
Invincible was nearly as large as Nelson’s Victory, yet under a full press of canvas she could make way at a speed of nearly 14 knots, whereas smaller 60-gun English ships made 11 knots at best.
In a 1748 dispatch to the Admiralty, Captain Keppel offered his assessment of Invincible that “she outsails the whole of the Navy of England”. The ship served as a pattern for subsequent warship design, and by Trafalgar in 1805, “74s” made up more than three-quarters of the Royal Navy fleet.
The DIVER article She’s Invincible showcased the fascinating range of artefacts yielded through excavation of the wreck-site, and the knowledge of the ship’s origins produced through intensive archival research.
By that time RN Commander John M Bingeman, an experienced diver and maritime archaeologist, had joined Arthur and John and was leading the project as the wreck licensee.
I was separated by a generation from these gentlemen as they embarked on a decade of archaeological work on the Invincible site.
And while on a 1987 trip to England to see HMS Victory, I was oblivious to the incredible Invincible artefacts being uncovered just a few miles off Portsmouth dockyard.
Making my way down the dockyard’s promenade, I probably walked right past the Georgian-era storehouses containing a display of newly found Invincible relics, with no inkling of a future association and adventure to come.
IN 2010 I HAPPENED UPON www.Invincible1758.co.uk and the story of “the Royal Navy’s first Invincible”. The website was authored by John Broomhead, by then no longer directly involved in the Invincible project.
The story piqued my interest. The ship had been lost on the day an English war fleet was preparing to cross the Atlantic in a bid to capture the French stronghold of Fortress Louisbourg, in present-day Nova Scotia, Canada.
The Louisbourg siege would pave the way for Major-General James Wolfe to take Quebec from the French the following year, and secure fame in the annals of Canadian history.
I found John Broomhead’s story so compelling that in 2012 I travelled with my wife Melanie from Canada to Hayling Island to meet the man. I was keen to hear about his diving and archaeology adventures, and see his collection of Invincible artefacts.
I made my way to Seafront, with its view out towards the wreck-site halfway between Hayling and the Isle of Wight.
An off-the-cuff suggestion had been made that I should hire dive-gear and see the wreck myself. This was a bit tongue-in-cheek, as the Invincible is a protected wreck and can’t just be dived on a whim.
And one other small detail – I wasn’t a scuba-diver! Despite my maritime interests, I didn’t much care for venturing into lakes or oceans. As a kid I couldn’t bear the thought of stepping into water in which living things might lurk.
But in 2014 I cast those inhibitions aside to take on what to me was the adventure of a lifetime. According to a newsletter from the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS), members like me could sign up for a nominal fee and dive the Invincible site as part of their maritime-archaeology education.
I told John that if I could get the qualifications, I would make another trip to England to dive the Invincible – would he care to accompany me?
John hadn’t been on the wreck for almost 25 years and had done little diving since, but at the age of 65 he succumbed to a lingering desire to “see the old girl” one last time.
A RECOMMENDATION LED me to Diver City Scuba in Winnipeg, and I registered for its PADI Open Water Diver course. I remember being kitted up in the shallow end of a city pool in my first class and contemplating how foolish I was sitting there at the bottom gasping for my next flustered breath.
The prospect of diving in the swirling ocean seemed like an unrealistic dream.
I was dismayed, but completed the pool training and theory. Then I was off to a deep freshwater meteor-crater lake in Manitoba’s Whiteshell parklands. This too presented personal challenges, but I became a – very green – OWD.
Four months later, a family trip to Cuba afforded me the opportunity of offshore dives on modern wrecks off Varadero.
The balmy Caribbean waters were a world away from the cold, dark and silty West Hawk Lake. Enthralled by the seemingly endless vis and teeming aquatic life, I was now hooked on diving.
Sights were set on a spring 2015 dive on Invincible, because at that time weed growth on this shallow dive (8-9m) would be minimal and the best visibility could be obtained.
The trip had to be postponed, but I took the opportunity to return to West Hawk and completed my Advanced Open Water and Drysuit certifications. By the end of the season I had done 18 dives and felt much better prepared for the Solent.
EARLY IN 2016, John Broomhead contacted Arthur Mack and John Bingeman to see if they would be interested in a reunion out at the wreck when the two of us dived it. John Bingeman in turn contacted the current licensee, Dan Pascoe, who agreed to lead us on an excursion to the Invincible.
I arrived in Hayling, and John and I hired dive-gear from Triton Scuba. We suited up in his garden to check our gear, and I test-fitted my GoPro so that I could record the reunion and dive.
That night, amid an accumulation of excitement, nerves, jet-lag and the charging of numerous camera and torch batteries, I managed no more than an hour’s sleep. But the previously poor weather had gone, and sunny skies and calm winds prevailed that 1 May.
We met up at Eastney-Hayling Ferry Terminal. A small fishing-boat named Nicole, owned and piloted by Melvin Goften, idled up to the dock.
As we boarded I stepped into a time warp – on 5 May, 1979, Arthur had been out fishing with Melvin in his boat Vanessa when they snagged their nets on Invincible’s timbers.
Now there I was, 37 years on, crowded in with the men I had known only from books on Nicole’s small deck.
We made our way south out of Langstone Harbour, and I listened to these gentlemen recall the events that had changed their lives.
John Broomhead later told me it had been an emotional morning for him, and it must have been for the others as well.
The discovery changed their lives, because each man invested significantly in their own ways to uncover Invincible’s story.
They had to fund countless dives, purchase equipment and take time off from their jobs, homes and families.
Some four nautical miles south-east of Portsmouth, Dan Pascoe went in first to assess seabed conditions.
It was his first dive there that season, and his responsibility to assess any impact from the past winters’ storms. The wreck might be covered by shifting sands or be more exposed.
John Bingeman, now 82, prepared for the dive. I still admire his determination to return to the ship, at an age when most divers have hung up their gear.
I WAS LAST OFF the boat after John Broomhead. I took my turn to descend the anchorline, finding that despite a fair amount of suspended plankton the vis was about 4m – exceptional for the Solent, as John told me later.
On the seabed we found John Bingeman re-living his work as former licensee, surveying the wreck-site
We had dropped down about midships of the largest remaining hull-section, about 52m long from bow to stern. Most of this was covered by sand, but with deck-beams, iron knee-braces and hull-timbers protruding upwards.
Dan had laid a reel-line for us to follow along sections of the wreck, extending north along the port side and then to the north-east, where starboard sections of hull had broken away as the abandoned vessel had slowly broken up in relentless seas over time.
I was taken aback by the sheer size of Invincible’s frames, some 35cm square, and the significant amount of timber remaining. I could discern futtock frames, ceiling planking in the hold, massive floor riders and other structural elements, both in sections and loose in pieces.
And in among those timbers were artefacts. About 10 minutes into the dive I tapped John on the shoulder to show him an intact barrel-lid lodged between two timbers.
There was a coil of rope on the orlop deck, half-buried in the sand; several flanged lead deck scuppers projecting through hull-frames; deformed lead sheeting; cleats; and iron rigging strops.
It was apparent that Invincible was still giving up more artefacts as sand shifted to uncover more of the wreck.
On that dive Dan Pascoe retrieved from the seabed an elm double pulley rigging block complete with lignum vitae sheaves and pins, and a big leather shoe.
We called the dive after 35 minutes. John had discomfort in one of his ears, having just recovered from a sinus infection. I was tired from my struggle to stay on the seabed, having gone into the water insufficiently weighted.
We ascended to find Dan and John on deck. The dive had been a success, and there were smiles all round.
A few more days in the Portsmouth area allowed me to spend more time with the “Original Three”. I was invited into their homes and heard their stories from past days of the project.
The dive was an adventure I won’t forget, but the best part was meeting the men whose efforts put Invincible into the history books.
New chapters in the story are poised to be written. In July 2016, a £2 million grant was announced for the excavation of the wreck and for the recovery, conservation and public display of its timbers and artefacts.
This year Dan Pascoe embarks on a four-year programme with the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust, University of Bournemouth and the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
I can imagine how pleased Arthur and the two Johns must be about that.
I had set my sights on the Invincible wreck, with scuba-diving merely a means to an end.
Now, if a family holiday is coming up, I’m eagerly checking the local dive-sites. Scuba has opened another world to me, and I’m looking forward to a lifetime of underwater adventures.
Find out more about the Invincible story in The First HMS Invincible (1747-58): Her Excavations (1980-2010) by John M Bingeman. Second-edition 2015.
ISBN: 9780993447013. Paperback, 260pp, £30