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Ships 3

HMS Victory

Eighteenth Century Warship Victory

By James Donahue

The British Royal Navy has been sailing the high seas of the world for a very long time. This was made quite evident when the news broke in 2009 that the HMS Victory, the fourth British ship to bear that name and which sank in the English Channel in 1744, had been discovered.

This was exciting news because this particular wreck, which took about 1,150 sailors to the bottom with it, was returning to England after a tour that involved the ongoing war between England and France and was believed to be carrying a large cache of gold and silver coins.

A dive team for Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Florida based firm that found the wreck one year earlier, has been negotiating with the British government over how and what to salvage from the site, and how to deal with the potential fortune that may be recovered. Whatever terms were made, the company has been awarded the job of "raising" the wreck, or at least the 100 bronze cannons, coins and other artifacts, and handing all but the treasure over to the Maritime Heritage Foundation.

The gold and silver, it if exists, apparently will be the property of Odyssey Exploration.

Those who know something of British Naval history must know that this wreck is not the famous 104-gun ship-of-the-line that carried Lord Nelson into the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. That HMS Victory still exists as the oldest naval ship still in commission. She is a floating museum, highly treasured as a rich slice of British history.

This Victory was launched in 1737, also as a 100-gun ship-of-the-line. She became the flagship of the Channel Fleet under Sir John Norris and was the last British First Rate ship to be armed entirely with bronze cannon. Although considered a fierce warship of its day, the Victory measured a mere 174 feet in length. She normally carried a compliment of about 900 sailors, which was a lot of men stuffed within the limited space of a ship of that small size.

While they were relatively short, the warships of that era were built with giant superstructures with three decks, which, in at least the case of the Victory No. 4, tended to make the vessel top heavy. This was believed to have been a factor in the ship’s unexpected sinking when caught in a gale while approaching the English coast after months at sea.

At the time the Victory went missing she was the flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchen. The ship was returning with a fleet of other vessels after participating in a blockade of French ports. It was October 3, 1744, and the fleet was scattered by a storm. The Victory disappeared in the gale somewhere near the Channel Islands and never reached port.

Frigates were dispatched to search for the Victory. All that was found was wreckage and part of a topmast that washed up on the islands. For years it was believed that the Victory wrecked on Black Rock, just off the Casquets, and sank with the loss of all hands. But remains of the wreck were never found.

The wreck was found in 330 feet of water, about 80 kilometers from where it was believed to have sunk. This means that the ship did not hit the islands but instead, foundered in the storm.

The guns and other items raised from the wreck will be displayed in British museums. Lord Lingfield, the man who founded the Maritime Heritage Foundation, told the Sunday Times that the foundation "seeks to prevent damage to this historically important site and maximize its archaeological, scientific and educational value."