Frank Pope writes in today's Times about the neglect of historic shipwrecks around the British coast. It's a thoughtful piece that criticises English Heritage's laissez faire attitude to historic shipwrecks.
I was at school when a group of volunteers (and Navy divers) pulled the Mary Rose from the muddy gloop of the Solent near Portsmouth. The morning that the hull was raised from the water almost brought the country to a standstill: TVs in every school showed the moment.
Since then she has been seen by 8 million people and has provided astonishing information about life in the navy in the time of King Henry VIII. Skeletons of archers with curved spines and damaged shoulders from the effort of repeatedly drawing the 150 pound plus drawstrength bows. A surgeon's kit that made me shiver to think that it was ever used on un-anaesthatized human flesh. You think a needle hurts today?
Thousands of wrecks dot the British coastline. Take a sonar-equipped boat over a wreck site on a chart and it is rare you find anything standing proud of the seabed: sands shift and bury, trawls snag and rive apart, storms batter and seawater corrodes. These wrecks, respected by Mr Pope are important but raising and conservation costs a fortune.
As objects they are instructive. But boats are not meant to be in drydock or museum: they execise their magic only when afloat and when people are aboard them of seeing them under way. HMS Victory and the Cutty Sark, although great and noble ships feel motionless and dead in their dry docks, confined by steel trusses. The Grand Turk, currently in Whitby harbour has water under her keel, movement in her hull and a feeling that she wants lines dropped from the dock and a voice roaring 'hands aloft...lay out!' to send topmen racing up the ratlines and out onto the yards to set sail.
Raising the dead is worthwhile, but giving the young and old of Britain (and the rest of the world) a living historic ship to marvel at and lay aloft aboard is a greater aim. That's why we're doing this, raising funds to build a new HMS Beagle. Her remains lie in the anoxic mud of the river Roach: we would like to see them raised, conserved and displayed. She changed the world for the better in the way few other ships can claim to have done.
But a new HMS Beagle, with a crew of young people at the halyards raising the mainyard so that the mainsail fills to the wind, and later after a day afloat, exhausted, being told tales of seafarers past by the crew. Now that's the way to grip the tripes of a new generation and tell them of our seafaring heritage. Give them the living before the dead.