U.S.-based explorers who say they have found a legendary warship may be in for tug-of-war with the British government, which claims the wreck is its property.
Odyssey Marine Exploration announced Monday that it has found the wreck HMS Victory, a warship that sank in the English Channel 265 years ago. The 175-foot tall sailing ship was the largest and most heavily armed of its day. It was the inspiration for the HMS Victory famously commanded by Adm. Horatio Nelson decades later.
"This is a big one, just because of the history," Greg Stemm, Odyssey's co-founder told the Associated Press. "Very rarely do you solve an age-old mystery like this."
The ship has 110 brass cannons, of which the Odyssey team has already salvaged two, Stemm said. The explorers estimate the wreck also houses 3.6 tonnes of gold, but say they haven't recovered any of it.
Stemm said he did not want to specify where his team found the ship, for fear of attracting plunderers.
"We found this more than [80 kilometres] from where anybody would have thought it went down," Stemm said. Federal court records filed by Odyssey in Tampa seeking the exclusive salvage rights said the site is 40 to 65 kilometres from the English coast, outside of its territorial waters.
Consent required before 'intrusive action'
But the British government has not confirmed whether it will work with the explorers.
"Assuming the wreck is indeed that of a British warship, her remains are sovereign immune," a spokesman said on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy. "This means that no intrusive action may be taken without the express consent of the United Kingdom."
The whereabouts of the wreck had long been debated after the Victory sank without a trace somewhere off the coast of the island of Alderney after it got separated from the rest of its fleet. The ship went down with some 1,100-odd crew members as it returned to England after a naval battle with a French fleet.
The belief that the Victory had crashed onto the rocks had marred an otherwise exemplary service record of the ship's commander, Sir John Balchin. A lighthouse keeper on Alderney also suffered a black mark on his reputation after he was prosecuted for failing to keep the light on. Odyssey believes the discovery exonerates both men.
Odyssey has a history of finding lucrative wrecks, sometimes running into trouble in the process. The company successfully negotiated a haul of over $600 million taken from the wreck of the HMS Sussex with the British government in 2007.
Also in 2007, Odyssey uncovered another shipwreck in the Atlantic laden with 15 tonnes of gold. But the Spanish government sued the company, saying the gold taken from the wreck was Spanish property. That case is still pending.