Salvagers have asked permission to raise some of the finest liquor in England, but so far have been denied by the authorities.
The prized liquid sits in the deep surrounding the SS Libourne, an English ship sunk in late 1918 at the tail end of WWI at the hands of a German U-boat. The cargo ship was torpedoed in the English Channel just 10 nautical miles south of Lizard, Cornwall, with three of her crew being lost.
Her contents include sauternes, champagne, and premier cru claret, and are perfectly preserved in the frigid waters of the Channel. For those with an acquired palate, sauternes and cru claret are a sweet wine from the Bordeaux region of France, while champagne, with its popularity, is a sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France.
The bottles appear to be scattered in the mud around the wreck, but there are fears that trawler nets may spread the bounty farther away from the wreckage.
Within months of the declaration of WWI in 1914, Germany announced an exclusion zone around Britain and consequently began sinking merchant ships without warning throughout the Channel. By 1917, an average of 15 British ships per day were being sunk while the elusive and hard to detect U-boats patrolled English waters from all sides.
To combat the siege, the British Admiralty began escorting merchant ships to minimize the economic impact inflicted by the Germans, but U-boat stealth capabilities were largely unmatched until Western intelligence caught up late in the war.
The SS Libourne set off from Bordeaux in early September 1918 headed for Liverpool as part of a group of five steamships. They were on their return leg to deliver coal to Britain's French allies when they were torpedoed, according to the Daily Mail.
Her other stowage included the aforementioned wine and champagne, but also brandy and Benedictine, a herbal liquor made of flowers, berries, roots, and herbs that was popular among monks, as well as a hefty cargo of gherkins -- the beloved pickled cucumbers.
“There were a lot of bottles visible on the wreckage, but we also felt there were a lot more under the sand and pieces of wreckage,” said diver Dominic Robinson to NeedToKnow.online.
At the time of her sinking, she was in a holding pattern awaiting good weather to approach the mainland.
But she never reached her destination. Now her cargo is part of a heated battle between a group of marine explorers and bureaucrats from the Historic England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), according to Marine Industry News UK.
The treasure-hunters include Daniel Jayson, an expert in underwater exploration, naval historian Ian Hudson, and Belgian salvage expert Luc Heymans.
“We have invested a lot of money and went ahead with the exploratory dive knowing that the law allowed it. But we were subsequently told that the government, despite not signing the Unesco treaty, applies its policy,” Jayson told the Daily Mail.
“They have told us that we can bring up a few bottles to evaluate them — but that’s financially impossible, you can’t get investment for just a few bottles.
“There is no common sense. We’ve tried to have grown-up conversations with Historic England, but we have got nowhere. If they don’t let us salvage it, the cargo will simply be lost. It’s bureaucratic nonsense.”
Hudson also added: “The deep ocean is the perfect cellar; it’s dark and the temperature is cool and constant. Many wine houses are storing wine underwater now. I’ve spoken to experts who sampled wines previously salvaged from wrecks and the flavour is amazing. It can sell for 25,000 euros a bottle.”
For some perspective, $25,000 Euros is roughly the same value in USD, meaning each bottle would attract a tidy sum on the open market. It equates to roughly $35,000 Cdn.
The initial plan by Hudson and Jayson was to explore portions of the British coast because, unlike many coastal nations, the UK permits treasure hunting. While it is illegal to disturb any wreck that many contain human remains, Britain did not sign the 2001 Unesco treaty that forbids exploring underwater wrecks for commercial gain, meaning the SS Libourne remains open to deep sea divers.
With that in mind, Hudson, Jayson and their team created a list of 50 potential wrecks for exploration, with the SS Libourne being high on the list. The group studied shipping archives and eventually found the wreck in 2015, after which they sent divers to explore the wreckage in 100m (328 ft) of water.
The divers took photographs and video footage depicting the remains of the SS Libourne, but there was a major surprise. In the seabed next to the ship were significantly more than the 1900 bottles listed on the original manifest.
According to the team, there are tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of bottles on the sea floor. The majority likely contain brandy, champagne, and Benedictine, which would fetch enormous prices at public action, not to mention the cultural value to the English and to war historians.
Based on the appearance of the corks that are visible on the sea bed, there is both red and white wine as well as the Benedictine. The corks on the champagne are in place, and the 'muselets,' which are the wire cages around the corks, are also intact.
Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if the U.K. government will allow the precious cargo to reach the surface.
The group applied for permission to salvage the bottles, which would require specialized divers who would live underwater in a pressurized capsule for up to 18 days during the recovery operation. But the British government has thus far refused permission, despite the salvagers offering to donate some of the profits to the Lizard Lifeboat Station, as well as a non-profit historical group called the 1421 Foundation.
According to Hudson and the Daily Mail, "There has never been anything of this age or quantity found off the coast in UK waters. We could learn how wine is affected at depth, whether corks are pushed in from the pressure, or get bacteria in them. We know that the corks on the brandy have lead sheathing over the top so they will be in pristine condition.’
Time will tell if the British government will relent, but given the tendency of governments to get involved when highly valued shipwrecks reach the mainstream news, it seems unlikely there will be progress anytime soon.