The Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, and the Exxon Valdez are all infamous for one thing, oil pollution. In the mid 1800's that phrase had no meaning at all, and if you had told people that a hundred years later oil pollution would be on of the world's worst problems, they would probably have said, so what. You cannot really blame them; after all they had enough problems of their own. Nowadays we all complain about cars polluting the atmosphere, but imagine London in the horsedrawn 1850's. With a population of well over two and a half million, there were up to a million horses working in Englands capital city depositing something like sixteen thousand tons of horse dung on the streets every day. Just imagine it. Give me good old carbon dioxide any day. Still as the internal combustion engine started to replace the horse, petrol became more and more in demand and soon ships were being specifically designed to transport it. The controversial age of the oil tanker had dawned.
The wreck of the Blesk
One of the first ships to be specially designed for oil shipments was the Russian steamer Blesk, and she was to have the unhappy distinction of being the very first oil tanker to be wrecked on the coast of the British Isles. 298 feet long, and loaded with 3180 tons of petro-oil; the Blesk was built to have all her holds at the front and her engines at the stern. Defying convention of the times her bridge and accommodation was set well back towards the stern instead of being placed amidships. This first design was almost right first time and did not really alter until the first of the supertankers came along in the early Sixties. On November 14 1896 the Blesk left Odessa bound for Hamburg. On 1st December the Blesk was at the entrance to the English Channel and Captain Adolph Deme, confident in his navigation, cracked on at the Blesk's full speed which was around ten knots. It was a thick, dark day with heavy rain, and when Captain Deme saw a light blinking ahead in the murk he consulted his chart and decided that he was about to pass the Corbiere light just off Jersey. As he altered his course to come slightly more to the north it never occurred to him that the light was actually coming from the Eddystone Lighthouse. By altering course Captain Deme had now aimed the Blesk straight at the coast of Devon. As the rain continued its downpour the afternoon drew into the darkness of night, and the visibility dropped to nil. But still Captain Deme, happily pacing his bridge had no idea of the impending disaster that was shortly to happen. At just after nine o'clock that evening the Blesk, still forging ahead at ten knots, ran full tilt into the Greystone rock and ran hard up onto the Greystone Ledges just to the east of Bolt Tail. Because she had hit so hard and ridden up over the Ledges, it was fairly obvious even at that early stage that the Blesk would never get off.
Map of wreck area
Captain Deme ordered flares and distress rockets to be launched, and opening the ships firearms locker issued handguns to his officers and told them to fire those as well. With the seas pounding her stern, and the noise of her hull grating and banging on the rocks, it must have been a terrifying time for all the crew. However they all kept their heads and nobody tried to commit certain suicide by attempting to jump ship. At last the Hope Cove Lifeboat appeared, and in the space of two trips managed to save all forty three crew and take them to the safety of Hope Cove. By the next day it was a rarity to see oil floating on the water and people came from miles around to stand on the clifftops and watch the oil stain the sea black all along this part of the coast. After a while however the novelty wore off as the fumes made people vomit, and the stench grew horrendous. Local reports at the time said that you could smell the oil in Totnes, over twenty miles away. As the oil spread it poisoned all the fish between Bigbury and Prawle Point, and soon every tide brought ashore oiled up lobster, crabs, bream and mullet, all killed by the Blesk's escaping cargo. It was a sad time for Hope Cove and Salcombe and a glimpse of the ecological catastrophes yet to come.
The magnatometer man
Today if you swim around the Greystone Ledges the one thing you will not find is any wreckage belonging to the Blesk. However if you swim along Redrot Ledges, which are more towards Bolt Tail, you will come across plenty of boiler coke, solidified lumps of tar, and a certain amount of wreckage. It is my belief that here in about thirty five feet of water lie the remains of the Blesk. Thick kelp covers the area and a ground swell can build up very quickly throwing the unwary diver against the larger rocks that lie closer inshore. There is not much to see because only the bow is here and that is smashed to pieces. Only bits of iron plate, part of a hatch and pieces of guardrail are to be found, along with what looks like part of the foremast's loading boom. Most of the wreckage is in the inlet towards Bolt Tail and forms a little bay just to the left of the ledges, but if you look hard you will find small bits and pieces on either side of the ledges, but closer in towards the base of the cliffs. So why is the Blesk not on the Greystone Ledges? Well I am afraid that I just do not know. All the reports of her stranding give the Greystone Rock or Ledges as the place that she struck, but the fact is that no trace of the Blesk or any other wreck can be found in the area. In desperation I had a magnetometer scan done of the whole area, from the bows of the Jebba right around to Huges Hole, but absolutely nothing turned up. Whilst I am happy to be proved wrong I can only assume in the meantime that the reports were mistaken. The two areas are pretty close together, and in the photo of the Blesk, Redrot Ledge looks a better bet than the Greystone, but then it is not a high definition photograph. Still if the wreckage is the Blesk then where is the rest of her?
Visit from a John Dory
Well there are many reports of more wreckage about two hundred yards west of Bolt Tail, but I have never had any confirmation. I have had a look myself but with no luck, but that does not mean it is not there. Judging by the rest of the wrecks in this area the stern should be somewhere nearby probably buried in the sandy bottom. I have been hoping to run a magnetometer over where I think the missing wreckage is, and who knows maybe this will turn up some clues as to where the last resting place of the Blesk is. If from this account you think that the site is not worth visiting then you would be wrong. Like all of this area, the scenery is dramatic, the bird life fantastic, and the shallow water diving excellent especially on calm days when visibility can be in excess of forty feet. You might not find much of the Blesk, but you can enjoy yourself trying.