The days of wooden ships and iron men may have faded from memory but the legacy of early attempts to rescue precious cargoes from sunken wrecks and to free the crews of sunken submarines lives on.
Throughout the centuries the prospect of making vast fortunes hinged on sea trade, but at the mercy of the weather, pirates and enemy attacks more ships either foundered or were lost at sea than ever arrived at safe haven.
Even the locations of those that sank conveniently close to land could rarely be pinpointed with any degree of accuracy. And in those cases where their position was known the use of open-ended diving bells rarely proved adequate to the task. The problem of water depth still remained.
“For whom the bell tolls”
In 1799, the ‘Lutine’, a British frigate carrying 1,000 bars of gold and 500 bars of silver, all insured for £900,000, sank in a storm in just 40 feet of water within sight of the Dutch coast. Despite numerous salvage attempts over many years, only the ship’s bell and an insignificant amount of the cargo was ever recovered. For many years the Lutine Bell symbolised the perils of life at sea. Suspended in the offices of shipping insurers, Lloyds of London, its tolling indicated the loss of another vessel.
Salvaging a career
Springing a leak while riding at anchor in 1782, the large man-o’-war, ‘Royal George’, sank in 65-feet of water at the approaches to a busy UK naval port. Resisting attempts by the navy to raise her, the wreck posed a hazard to shipping. Because of their skills in demolition, army sappers were charged with its removal. A diving bell was employed for the task. But failing to make any headway with this device, the sappers eventually – in 1840 – turned to the newly developed diving helmet and flexible dress patented by Augustus Siebe in the previous year.
With no previous experience to fall back on, the sappers taught themselves diving and developed their own techniques for underwater recovery and demolition. A success story that prompted the Royal Navy to establish the first Navy diving school (1843) staffed by those same army ‘experts’ whose job it was to teach sailors the principles of underwater salvage!
Although Siebe’s diving helmet and dress had proven their worth, divers were still restricted in their ability to perform meaningful work at depths much below 60 feet. Umbilical hoses capable of handling high pressures and manual pumps capable of delivering the required amount of air to the diver remained limiting factors.
Gradually overcoming these setbacks, the Navy’s interest in diving still remained largely focused on military projects. Limited resources were available for commercial diving operations and insurance underwriters, intent on reducing their losses, were obliged to look elsewhere for people possessing the necessary skills and courage to challenge the ocean’s depths.
Dive equipment manufacturers like Siebe, Gorman & Co., provided ready-made solutions to the problem by employing some of the finest divers of their day. Notching up underwater feats of heroic proportions, many of these early salvage pioneers became household names.
“To boldly go …”
None was more famous than Siebe, Gorman’s Chief Diver, Alexander Lambert. A short, barrel-chested man described by a contemporary as a ‘pocket Hercules’, Lambert became a national hero when, in 1880, a tunnel being driven under the Severn River, in the UK, flooded.
In order to pump it dry, engineers had first to close a heavy iron door deep inside the tunnel. Although the water depth was not great, any diver attempting the task had first to descend 200 feet down a shaft and then make his way in the darkness towards the door situated 1,000 feet along the tunnel.
Henry Fleuss, designer of a self-contained oxygen rebreather worn in conjunction with the heavy diver’s helmet and dress, offered Lambert use of his new device. Neither designer nor diver were aware of the dangers of oxygen toxicity as Lambert made his way through the inky blackness towards the door where he discovered that the builder’s rail lines running over the sill prevented the door from closing. With bare hands he removed one rail line before returning to the surface for a crowbar to remove the second rail.
Three years later, Lambert’s services were again in demand when the Severn tunnel flooded for a second time. Luck was still with him. Although nearly succumbing to oxygen poisoning, he made his way back to the surface where he called for his trusty Siebe helmet and dress. With two other divers to pay out his hoses and lines, Lambert again managed to slam the door shut.
Lambert’s reputation for achieving the impossible made him the obvious choice for diver when, in 1885, the ‘Alphonse XII’ sank in 162 feet of water off of the Canary Islands while en-route to Cuba with a cargo of gold bullion worth £180,000.
Blasting his way deck by deck down through the wreck and into the strong-room, Lambert single-handedly recovered almost all of the bullion at depths never before achieved by a diver. But the price was high. Diving physiology was still imperfectly understood and despite apparent previous immunity to the crippling bends, Lambert at last succumbed and was obliged to retire from diving.
Appointed as Salvage Officer for Siebe, Gorman & Co., Lambert put his hard won knowledge to good effect by working closely with the Navy in seeking practical answers to the problems of deep-diving and salvage.