VIOLENT winter storms have placed a key heritage asset off the coast of Bracklesham Bay at risk of being lost forever.
The shipwreck of the Hazardous, which sank in 1706, has long been visited by divers.
However, the harsh storms of last winter have swept so much of the sand away from the wreck it is now deemed by English Heritage to be at risk of being eroded far more quickly than previously anticipated.
Iain Grant, 66, of East Wittering, has been involved at the site since 1982.
“In early 2014, after the horrendous winter storms we had in 2013/14, I went out to the site and found it completely uncovered,” he said.
A project group of determined volunteers has worked tirelessly over the years to retrieve and conserve as many of the artefacts from the wreck as possible.
For the early part of this year, divers were able to work on the site, however things suddenly took a turn for the worse.
“We had a very poor summer this year,” Iain said. “Although the water was nice, we had absolutely no visibility. In early April it was fantastic. We had four to five metres of visibility.
“We were able to see the whole of the site.”
Unfortunately, visibility was ruined shortly afterwards. The exact cause is not known, but could relate to dredging work that was carried out further along the coast having an impact.
After more than 30 years, Iain and his colleagues are keen to start work on excavating the site as soon as possible before it is lost.
“We’ve got an intimate knowledge of it,” he said.
“It’s really become our baby and we don’t want to see it lost.”
He said the group hoped to see the project through to its end, with the site being properly excavated.
“It’s the interest, it’s the history of it,” he said about what kept the group returning to the site again and again.
“It’s learning more about it all the time.
“If you think that the ship was wrecked 300 years ago and anything that’s within the wreck and within the site hasn’t been touched for 300 years, that gives you a big buzz when you find something new and you think you’re the first person to see it, let alone touch it, in 300 years.”
Now, the team wait with baited breath for the go-ahead from the government’s marine management organisation to get to work on excavating the site.
English Heritage said the storms had a ‘pronounced effect’ on the site.
“Sand overburden that once covered much of the wreck has been significantly reduced and artefacts that were once stabilised are now exposed to attack from biological and chemical threats.
“Current remote sensing will assist in with future management of the site,” it said on its at-risk register. The Hazardous is labelled as ‘high vulnerability’ with ‘extensive significant problems’.
The Hazardous started life as Le Hazardeux, a French 50-cannon, third-rate ship built in 1698 at Port Louis.
In 1704, it was spotted in the English Channel by three British warships. Le Hazardeux was captured and towed to Portsmouth in triumph.
There, it was refitted as the fourth-rate Hazardous – a British warship.
In 1706, it was escorting a group of merchant ships across the Atlantic as part of a convoy.
The ships were scattered by storms, but the Hazardous and others continued along the south coast towards Kent.
On November 18, as the convoy passed south of the Isle of Wight, a storm forced the warship to seek shelter in the Solent. The ship was driven on to shoals before it could drop its anchor and during the night it was driven towards the shore.
The following morning it was grounded in Bracklesham Bay and beyond recovery. All the crew survived.
As years passed, the ship settled under the sands.
It was nearly 300 years after the Hazardous sank that two divers, George Arnold and Buster Geary, discovered the wreck in 1977.
Over the next few years, a few items were brought to the surface to try to discover more about the ship.
In 1986, the Heritage Project Group was formed, with five key members: George Arnold, Norman Owen, Jim Edwards, Peter Jolly and Iain Grant. The group has had dozens of other helpers and volunteers over the years – all of whom have retrieved items from the deep to conserve the ship and its history.
Over the years, the group has been supported by other organisations in recovering and conserving items from the wreck.
In 2000, the group looked at creating England’s first diver trail around the site – similar schemes already existed in Scotland and Wales.
It was successfully opened in 2001 and ran for many years.
In 2006, the group got lottery funding towards getting a store for important artefacts that were undergoing conservation.
Two years later, in 2008, the group got permission from English Heritage to do a limited excavation across the site.
Areas of the site were becoming radically uncovered and there was an urgency to undertake the work before it began eroding. A major team of divers was set up, but the weather took a turn for the worse and the divers were no longer able to work on the site.
They returned in 2009, but the same thing happened. They decided give it one last try and returned in 2010. However, the site was almost completely covered up by sand again, which put a stop to excavation hopes.
Nevertheless, the sand meant the site was protected and preserved. The site had initially been placed on English Heritage’s at-risk register, however it was taken off.
After the horrendous storms of early 2014, the site was almost completely exposed once again to an even greater extent than it was in 2008.
The paperwork has now been filed to carry out a major excavation from the site, with English Heritage’s backing.
However, permission is still being awaited from the government’s marine management organisation.
Hopes are that excavations can begin in 2015.
In the meantime, the hundreds of items recovered have been stored and conserved. Several are available to view at a special display at the Earnley butterflies, birds and beasts centre.