Helping to preserve Bermuda’s history
Arriving at Fort St Catherine's Beach on Saturday morning, Bermuda Regiment soldiers were hard at work filling sandbags and preparing dive gear for a project of significant historical importance — the preservation of the Island's founding ship, the Sea Venture.
I was accepted on to the team to help document the laying of 52 sandbags on the remaining timbers to help protect them from the teredo worm, which is slowly devouring any wood that becomes exposed from beneath the sand.
The story of the Sea Venture is legendary — few countries can put their founding down to the fate of a single ship but it was her wrecking that led to the permanent settlement of the Island in 1609.
While we were not guaranteed to see any of the wreck owing to shifting sands, my head was filled with all I've learnt about the ship in the years I have lived in Bermuda — the documents of William Strachey that inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest, the vivid paintings of the Sea Venture sitting high and dry on the reefs, and all dramas encountered by the 150 survivors and a dog.
At about 10am, myself and a few regiment divers boarded a military skiff and steamed offshore, a little distance from Fort St Catherine's Beach, to join the custodian of historic wrecks, Philippe Rouja.
We tied up alongside his boat as the regiment vessels ferried sandbags out to us from the shore.
A little downtime ahead of the dive allowed for reflection. It was surreal seeing the Island almost exactly as those few scared and stranded passengers of old would have and from precisely the same spot. There may have been a few eerily squawking cahows and certainly no fort.
Once we had a good number of sandbags ready, we swam a small distance from the boat to the temporary buoy attached to the wreck — the site is not usually marked for its own protection.
Dr Rouja filled me in a little on what we might expect to see.
“If it is visible, you can expect some fairly large pieces of timber. It is clearly milled and laid out in patterns. In those days, they had access to large trees that you don't see today, like giant oak, so some of the timbers are absolutely massive. It is very impressive.”
Asked whether we might see some treasure after all these years, he said. “The wreck was really heavily salvaged, so I guess the only treasure you will see down there will be historical.”
With the arrival of Governor George Fergusson representing the Bermuda Regiment, which included the restoration project as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, we were ready to jump overboard. We hopped into the water and from the surface could see a little dark patch about 25 feet down on the sea bed. We stayed on the surface while the regiment divers dropped the sandbags, one by one, as close to the wood as possible. Sand and air gushed out of them as they dropped like deadweights on to the ground.
Once the sand had settled, a small group of us descended and we were lucky enough to see the precious few exposed remains of the Sea Venture's hull. The exposed structure was about eight feet long and had been lying there so long that it had turned black.
It was clearly man-made, with horizontal planks stretching out in a straight line like an old railway track — the only passengers now were the few reef fish that made the site their home.
I swam around secretly hoping to find a long-lost item of treasure that may have been missed during the initial salvage and subsequent excavations, but there was nothing, only a few small black pebbles — ballast stones that would have been placed in the hull to weight the ship down.
Regiment divers arranged the sandbags atop the ancient wood, thereby protecting it for its final few chapters before disappearing completely.
It was certainly a successful preservation brought together by the Historic Wrecks Authority and Department of Conservation Services with the help of the regiment's dive division. It was an honour to be a part of it.