The Devon and Cornwall coast is almost as infamous for its spine chilling tales of wreckers, as it is famous for its shipwrecks. Even today the wrecking tradition lives on, as the owners of the ill fated Johanna, wrecked earlier this year at Hartland Point, found out to their cost. Within hours of that unfortunate ship crashing ashore she was stripped of virtually everything, including the radar scanner.
Sometimes however, a ship sinks and instead of the wreckers getting the cargo, nature takes a hand and presents the local community with an unexpected bonanza. Such an incident happened at Porthallow near Falmouth on December 1917, and it involved the British steamer Volnay.
The Volnay was a ship of some 4610 tons owned by Gow Harrison and Company. She was homeward bound from Canada, and part of her cargo consisted of much needed ammunition for the troops fighting the Great War in France. The other part of the cargo however, was to be of much more interest to the inhabitants of Porthallow as it contained items of food such as coffee, sugar, butter, jam, and potato crisps, which after two years of war had become almost unobtainable.
When the Volnay arrived off the Manacles there was an explosion by her bows, and her Captain assumed he had hit a mine. There was no immediate panic, and soon two tugs came out to assist the stricken vessel into Porthallow Bay. Unfortunately the Captain had badly underestimated the damage done by the explosion, and instead of trying to beach his ship he left it in the middle of the Bay where it promptly sank, spilling some of its cargo.
Later in the day a strong onshore wind blew up and soon tons of the Volnays cargo was piling ashore. In fact so much came ashore that it was almost impossible to see the beach, and in places the boxes and sacks were piled nearly five feet high. For days afterwards no boats could be launched to get out to the wreck. Not because of the bad weather, but simply because there was just no room to pull the boats down to the sea. That Christmas of 1917 must have been the best in living memory.
Today the Volnay lies in nearly 70 feet of water on a sandy bottom. Although the wreck is well broken up, there are still some very large pieces, but the whole site is covered in a fine layer of silty sand and you must be careful not to stir things up. I first dived on the Volnay in April of 1982,and this is what I wrote in my log book then.
The marks that I had put me right near the two massive boilers, which with their light coating of deadmens fingers, provide a good home for some very fine spotted wrasse.
All around the boilers are scattered large amounts of wreckage, including bollards, winches, chain, and a lot of wooden ammunition boxes. Further out from the boilers lie large areas of broken deck plates and rib sections all jumbled one on top of the other. It is extremely difficult to match up bits of the wreck with their relative positions, but with visibility averaging 25 feet you can have a lot of fun trying.
Most of the ammunition from the Volnay was salvaged, but as the wreck broke up over the years more came to light. Nearly all the ammunition is 18 pdr Shrapnel. All of it is fused, live, and very badly corroded, so force yourself to leave it well alone. Incidentally, the shrapnel container is made of light steel, and often this has completely disintegrated causing the brass nose fuse to drop off. Many of these lie scattered in the sand and obviously some must have been taken for souvenirs, because they are very attractive and look harmless.
Unfortunately these nosecones contain two detonators, so if you have one on your mantelpiece, take care. Because of the Volnay’s fairly shallow depth, you can have a nice long dive on her. This is just as well because she is a very picturesque wreck, ideal for photographers and there is a lot of her to explore. All of us who dived on the Volnay that day were very impressed, and I for one will be making a return visit.
Since those early days I have dived the Volnay several times and mostly been disappointed as the sand cover seemed to increase, making it difficult for me to get my bearings. Hover on my last dive in 2001 all was as I remembered on my first dive. The sand has receded and the wreck now sticks up in great chunks. A local dive school has a small buoy on the wreck, so it is easy to find.
There are not many bits of ammo left but a few of the wooden boxes can still be found. All in all a good dive.