By Paul Fiander

South Devon in general – and Dartmouth in particular – has been a staple for RBSAC diving for quite some time. It’s no surprise then that when Steve Clarkson decided to arrange a weekend of diving and assistance with his project on the historic wreck, HMS Venerable, it was filled with ease. (For further information on this project see the HMS Venerable Project report.)

Four people stayed on Steve’s boat, Spirit of Josie, and the rest of us were put up by Steve and his mate, Brian. Big thanks to both (and their respective wives, Carol and Diane) for the comfy beds and cooked breakfast!

Diving was planned for both days – originally on Saturday we were going to position two permanent concrete shots on Venerable for Steve as part of his project. We would then conduct a basic survey. Unfortunately, conditions were such that we had to go to ‘Plan B’ and turned left when we got out of the mouth of the Dart and across to Start Point and beyond. We arrived on site to dive two wrecks, the Jebba and the Rammilies.

The Ramillies

The Ramillies weighed nearly 1700 tons and was a 90-gun ship of the line, whose main claim to fame was that she had been in almost continuous service for ninety-six years. Originally built at Woolwich in 1664 as the 82-gun Katherine, she was rebuilt twice, renamed the Royal Katherine, and finally as the Ramillies in 1749. She was smashed to pieces on the rocks in a violent storm on the 14 February 1760 and more than 700 people lost their lives. Today, what remains of her lies in and around a small cave at a depth of about 7 metres.

The dive here was an absolute pleasure as the conditions were perfect – flat calm, just a gentle breeze and blazing sunshine. The visibility was at least 10 metres and the area is full of life. A complete contrast to what must have been a nightmare for those poor unfortunate souls that were lost. In spite of the dreadful looting that took place immediately after she was sunk, there are still many artefacts being recovered from this site, and the cave and its surrounds are littered with surviving evidence.

The Jebba

The second dive was on the Jebba. Built originally as the Albertville in 1896 by Sir Robert Dixon and Company, she was later taken over by the Elder Dempster Line and renamed the Jebba. The 302 feet long and 3813 tons gross Jebba was homeward bound from Sierra Leone carrying a cargo of rubber, ivory and fresh fruit worth a fortune. Besides this cargo she was also carrying 155 passengers and crew, and of course the Royal Mail.

In the early hours of 18 March 1907 the Jebba overshot the Eddystone in dense fog and ran aground under the steep cliffs at Whitchurch, just a few yards away from Bolt Tail. The ship immediately started to take in water, and after sending up distress rockets, the Captain ordered all the boiler fires to be doused to prevent the risk of an explosion. Being broadside onto the rocks, waves soon started breaking over the liner’s decks, but instead of the usual panic, the passengers and crew remained exceptionally calm, and all went dutifully to their lifeboat stations to await the Captains orders.

Very quickly, the Hope Cove lifeboat, which was literally around the corner, came upon the scene and because it could not get into the comparatively sheltered water between the Jebba and the shore, it was considered too dangerous to attempt to take people off the liner. However, with the aid of a rocket apparatus and the extraordinary bravery of two local men, all the passengers and crew were eventually saved, and in addition, at least one chimpanzee, three smaller monkeys and a parrot!

Again the wreck is very shallow and the conditions were such that we could see wreckage scattered all over the area. The two boilers stand proud of the seabed by at least 5 metres and are as big as small garages. It is a spectacular site in good visibility, which we were fortunate to have had. What a good day.

Sunday proved a bit of a challenge, as the conditions were not ideal to be in a boat let alone dive. We loaded the shots into the Tornado and started the trek to HMS Venerable, off Roundham Head in the middle of Torbay. The journey was awful, and Gareth and me were bashed about in the rib for what seemed like ages. I don’t think it was much better on the Spirit of Josie either! Anyway, after about 40 minutes we arrived on site and after some position fixing from Steve we managed to get two 55 kilo shots into position over the site, which will hopefully help the full survey of the site by Steve and his team.

A careful drive back and a few of Carol’s sandwiches helped all the aches and bruises, and a big mug of tea added the finishing touch! We had a splendid couple of days, even if it was a bit rough on Sunday, and I am sure there will be plenty of people back to help when the tape measures come out next year.