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Wreck helps piece together the story of the Sea Venture

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Hundreds of years after a hurricane drove the Sea Venture onto Bermuda's reefs, one would hardly expect to find much of anything left behind. And yet, in 1958 local divers rediscovered part of it sitting on the bottom of the ocean near Gate's Bay, some of its timbers intact despite the ravages of time.

A fascinating documentary about the Sea Venture and its underwater excavation, will air today at the Bermuda International Film Festival (BIFF). The film, 'Downing's Wreck: The Story of the Sea Venture', was produced by JP Rouja's film production company LookBermuda. It is directed by Ben Watson.

As the title would suggest, this is a film about the Sea Venture itself, and not so much about the settling of Bermuda or the saving of Jamestown, Virginia. In fact, only about ten minutes of the film is dedicated to this aspect of the story. That seems all right as plenty of other films and books focus that side of things.

The wreckage was actually rediscovered by Edmund Downing. He was inspired by Teddy Tucker's discovery of a treasure horde on the Spanish merchant ship the San Pedro. Sea Venture was not a treasure wreck, but still interested Mr Downing, because he was a direct descendant of one of the Sea Venture passengers.

When he found the timber remains of a hull on the bottom of the sea in 1958 in an area known as 'Sea Venture Flatts', he wasn't immediately sure it was the Sea Venture. His discovery kicked up a lot of interest in Bermuda, partly because it coincided with the 1959 350th anniversary celebrations of the Sea Venture's arrival in Bermuda. Mr Downing and others began investigating what was there. They were surprised to find that other than some cannon balls, pottery shards and a coral encrusted cannon, there wasn't a whole lot there. This was consistent with it being the Sea Venture, because in 1609 castaways stripped the ship of everything useful before abandoning it to the ocean. At the time, marine archaeology was very much in its infancy.

The Bermuda Government supported the exploration of the wreck, until an overseas expert concluded that the cannon was Spanish and made in the 1700s. The Bermuda Government withdrew its support and the Sea Venture was left alone, once again.

Twenty years later, in 1978, it caught the attention of a snorkeller, who took it to the attention of the board of the newly formed Bermuda Maritime Museum. Board member Allan “Smokey” Wingood reopened the case of the mystery ship.

The film could be classified as scientific mystery, as various parties attempt to piece together it's identity.

It is well constructed, although one sequence requires a dose of Dramamine. One interview with Mr Rouja was filmed in a small boat. As he talked he bobbed up and down, up and down. If the filmmaker was trying to recreate the sense of sea sickness the Sea Venture passengers must have felt, he should be congratulated. The viewer feels a great sense of relief when the scene changes to a map that is blessedly still.

Downing's Wreck contains some real gems, such as footage of a parade in the City of Hamilton in the 1950s, and interviews from the 1980s with Mr Wingood and Mr Downing, Mr Downing died the year after the interview in the film. The film apparently took five years to make, and much of that time was spent tracking down footage like this.

The film attempts to bust a couple of myths surrounding the Sea Venture. One of them was that it just happened, by fate, to wind up in a safe place in Bermuda. Mr Rouja argued that the Sea Venture could not have found the only safe passage through Bermuda's reefs without some prior knowledge of Bermuda, and great skill on the part of the crew.

Another myth was that the Sea Venture was a rickety boat better designed for traversing the English Channel than the Atlantic Ocean. Various experts in the film contend that it was actually the ship's state of the art design, for the period, that allowed it to survive the buffeting of hurricane force wind and waves and make it to Bermuda at all.

This project was initiated with the help of a grant from the 2009 Charitable Trust to create what was initially intended to be a 20-minute film primarily for educational use.

“However, once research began on the topic it became clear that a much more detailed and higher quality film would be required to do this most important topic justice,” said Mr Rouja.

The film will be used as an educational tool in all Bermuda schools. 'Downing's Wreck' will be shown today at 9.15pm at Liberty Theatre.

For more information about BIFF see their website at www.biff.bm. For more information about Downing's Wreck call 333-­5555, e-mail

LookBermuda@mac.com or see www.LookBermuda.com/Preview.

Chris Grime's painting of the Sea Venture used in the film 'Downing's Wreck'.
Edmund Downing preparing for a dive in the 1950s.
A map of the Sea Venture wreck sitting in what is known as Sea Venture Flatts. (A still from the movie).
Divers looking at the wreck of the Sea Venture in the 1950s.
Jon Adams in 2009 examines the wreck of the Sea Venture.

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Published March 21, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated March 20, 2014 at 4:22 pm)

Wreck helps piece together the story of the Sea Venture

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