Recently I was swimming back to shore after a great couple of hours snorkelling on the North Norfolk chalk reef at Sheringham when some large pieces of wreckage suddenly loomed into view. I had been told years ago about a shipwreck in this area but never managed to find it before despite swimming in the area where I believed it was.
As I swam through the wreckage I filmed & photographed what I saw with the intention of showing it to the folks at Sheringham Museum. Once I had processed the images I posted them on a couple of social media platforms and soon had a response from a local fisherman to say that he thought it may be the SS Commodore. A short time later Tim Groves and Kenny Holloway from Sheringham Museum contacted me to confirm that it was indeed the Commodore and were very excited to see the photos as it has, for many years, sat covered by sand, hidden from view.
Tim & Kenny were kind enough to send me some information and photos of the Commodore, for more information watch the video (bottom of this blog post) I made with a voiceover reading from newspaper articles at the time but the simplified version is below –
The Steam Ship Commodore was on passage from Hartlepoole with 1250 tonnes of coal when she ran ashore at Sheringham at 11pm on Saturday 7th November 1896. The seas were fairly calm when she first ran aground and some fishing boats went out to try to help the captain & crew off. The Captain refused assistance believing the ship would refloat but a little while later a storm blew up from the North East, so the fishing boats returned to shore leaving 3 fishermen on the Commodore. The sea soon became rough and the captain sent up distress flares deciding that now he wanted to get off the ship!
The town’s lifeboat, The Henry Ramey Upcher, launched to their assistance and by 2am, with a lifeboat crew of 33 they took the 3 fishermen and 14 crew off the Commodore, bringing them ashore where they were given dry clothes, hot drinks & food. The lifeboat must have been very cramped that stormy night.
Below are some pictures kindly supplied by Tim Groves at Sheringham Museum, the first is an artistic recreation of the scene by local painter Mick Bensley, middle left is the salvage team on the wreckage in 1896, middle right is the wreckage remains in 1897, and the bottom shot is another shot of the wreckage from the late 1890s.
I was amazed at how much of the wreck was still present and swam what I thought was the length of the wreck but a few days later, as you will see below, I put the drone up over the wreck at the next low spring tide and discovered that there was much more of the wreck lying there than I had possibly imagined.
Aerial shots the following week revealed the full outline of the shipwreck sat on the sea floor, lying East to West, in only about 3 feet of water with large chunks of the ship lying nearby. In September 1903 officials of Trinity House attended Sheringham and placed explosives throughout the ship in order to try to break up the wreckage as it had been posing a hazard to the local fishing boats, particularly the large boiler which could easily have holed a wooden fishing boat’s hull while just under the water’s surface. Looking at the wreckage it seems to have signs of being blown up, some chunks have holes in them and others lie splayed out away from the hull (although this could also have just been from 125 years of storms & wave action).
On subsequent snorkels on the wreck with friends we discovered what I believe is the tubeplate from the boiler – a grid of 6 inch holes through which would have passed many pipes taking water into the furnace of the boiler to then turn into steam in order to power the ship. This was lying approx 20 metres from the rest of the wreckage which ties in with it being blown up. One article from the time described the explosion – ‘a huge column of water shot into the air followed by 5 or 6 more’.
It was interesting seeing how the sealife now used the wreck as an artificial reef despite it being so close in to shore and well inside the surf zone meaning it would get battered in the storms. Above is a peacock worm on the tubeplate from the boiler and I saw lots of wrasse, crab, common prawn and more all using the ship as home. During one visit when I was filming another snorkeller swimming through the wreck to give an sense of scale, I noticed a dark shape also moving around the wreck and realised that it was a grey seal hunting. We saw her catch a couple of fish, one of which looked like a Ballan wrasse. The film of the seal is shown at the bottom of this post.
It was great to get some drone shots with someone snorkelling on the wreckage to give a sense of scale. On the right of the image below you will see the grey seal. Moments after this photo was taken the seal swam within 6 feet of the snorkeller (as seen on the video), clearly very curious!
The ‘discovery’ of the shipwreck gained a surprising amount of media interest with the EDP & North Norfolk News running stories about it, plus the national newspaper ‘i’ ran the story on Page 3 and the BBC featured the story on it’s main online News page here.
Once I got the aerial shots the BBC then ran the story a second time and at the time of writing it has been on their national news page for three consecutive days, including some shots taken of me swimming on the wreck by a friend & fellow drone operator Jon Payne. Second BBC article. All great publicity and gaining Sheringham some national attention.
Update – this week I have also had CBS in the New York on the phone about the wreck and this morning they ran this feature on their CBS Saturday Morning show, international fame at last!
Below are some press cuttings of the articles written about the Commodore finding. While I would certainly never claim to have discovered the shipwreck (it’s been known about for 125 years after all!), I do think these are the most revealing images that have been taken of it for many decades since it has laid mostly buried under sand for a long time. It was just a lucky coincidence that I happened to stumble upon it that afternoon while the water was clear and the sand had been scoured away by recent tidal movements…
I made a short film about the wreck giving some information about the history, which can be seen below. I do plan to make an updated version in the coming weeks as I now have further underwater video, aerial footage and have been contacted by a well-respected local shipwreck history researcher who is planning on delving into the historical records from the time to dig up more information about the story of the SS Commodore.
Also below is a short film showing the grey seal feeding around the wreck –
It’s been a really interesting couple of weeks, I feel very lucky to have been able to find this wonderful old wreck, learn more about her history and share it with others. It’s been lovely to visit the wreck over the last few days and every time see people exploring the wreck after seeing the various articles and items on the local news.
I’ve also managed to get lots of sea-time in to snorkel the chalk reef and film the wonderful sealife down there, I am planning another film with voiceover to show what lives down there so watch this space!