HMS Victort 1744 : Wiki Commons
In a major and disturbing development in the growing HMS Victory scandal, the Ministry of Defence has been forced to admit that the flagship of American commercial salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. the Odyssey Explorer, has been actively preparing to recover artefacts from the wreck site of HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchen, lost with all hands in October 1744, even before permission has been given by Government Ministers Jeremy Hunt and Philip Hammond to permit the recovery of artefacts from the ship.
What makes the revelation that Odyssey has jumped the gun on the Minister’s decision even more embarrassing for the Cameron Government is the fact that the un-authorised work may have been sanctioned by Sir Robert Balchin, Lord Lingfield, a close associate of Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt and former senior official in the Conservative Party who was ennobled by Prime Minister David Cameron in December 2010.
Lord Lingfield is chair of Odyssey’s ostensible employers, the charity the Maritime Heritage Foundation which he founded in October 2010 specifically to take control of the wreck of HMS Victory. In January 2012 the MHF became legal owners of the wreck, although their freedom of action is supposedly strictly controlled by a “Deed of Gift” imposed by the Ministry of Defence to protect the public interest of the United Kingdom over what was formerly a sovereign naval vessel and particularly the remains of over one thousand Royal Navy personnel who died in the sinking and for whose welfare the Ministry of Defence retains responsibility.
The news that Odyssey had pre-empted the decision of Ministers came in a letter from Deputy Command Secretary at Navy Command Portsmouth, Mr Simon Routh to Mr Robert Yorke of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee [JNAPC].
The JNAPC contacted the Ministry of Defence in response to growing rumours in the archaeological community that Odyssey Explorer was on station over the Victory and could be carrying out the unauthorised recovery of material from the site.
“…there is to date no agreement by Ministers to work on the site. I should add that, following a proposal by the Maritime Heritage Foundation for work to address identified threats to the wreck site, MHF have confirmed that some limited activity has been undertaken to prepare for the potential recovery of artefacts; but no recovery of artefacts has been undertaken…”
This admission would appear to show that both Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation are in clear breach of the “Deed of Gift”. The Deed requires Ministerial approval for all works on the site and for all works to comply with UK Government policy which is to uphold the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, under which excavation and recovery of artefacts is a last resort.
The suspicions of the archaeological community were aroused by the almost continual presence of the Odyssey Explorer over the wreck site during June and July which has led to the inevitable question, what could she be doing when it was known Odyssey was supposedly barred from actually excavating the site and Odyssey CEO Greg Stemm had informed shareholders that an authorised pre-disturbance survey had already been completed by early May?
Suspicion grew even more intense when the Odyssey Explorer issued a notice to mariners ““Underwater operations in progress by M/V Odyssey Explorer – wide berth requested” which suggested she was deploying sub surface equipment such as her Remotely Operated Vehicle [ROV] Zeus which is capable of recovering material in its own right and placing lifting strops around heavier items such as cannon.
However, Mortimer believes Mr Rouths admission may not be the end of the story. The length of time taken and the deployment of underwater equipment clearly begs the question of just how “limited” the activity is which Odyssey has undertaken? A suspicion which has only been re-enforced by the fact that, in spite of the site being located in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the western English Channel, the Odyssey Explorer has repeatedly turned off her AIS transponder. AIS is an electronic device which allows other vessels, the coastguard and rescue services to follow the ship’s position in real time. All vessels over 300 tons are required to carry it and turning off a vessel’s transponder, especially in a busy sea lane such as that where the wreck of the Victory lies, is an action which is a danger to both other mariners and to the Odyssey Explorer’s own crew.
It is clear that Lord Lingfield at least is sensitive to the severe risks his organisation runs now it has been caught blatantly ignoring the terms of the Deed of Gift and anticipating the decisions of Ministers. As soon as Mr Routh challenged the MHF as to what precisely the Odyssey Explorer was doing the Foundation went into damage limitation mode enabling Mr Routh to report…
“…MHF have confirmed that even this preparatory activity has now stopped in advance of any Ministerial agreement to the proposed work.”
However, how long Odyssey will allow work to be halted, or even whether the company will actually take any notice of the instruction to stop remains to be seen. With no Ministry of Defence, Department of Culture Media and Sport or English Heritage observers on board the Odyssey Explorer it cannot even be stated as a fact that the unauthorised work has indeed ceased.
It is also unclear whether Odyssey has the required marine licence from the UK’s Marine Management Organisation to carry out ‘marine licensable activities’. Under the UK’s Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009 it is an offence not to possess such a licence, and were an offence to be proven to have taken place penalties consist of a fine up to £50,000 and/or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
The question arises as to why Odyssey should behave in such an apparently reckless fashion? Certainly Odyssey has a track record in ignoring local and international law when it suits it. The most notable being the illegal removal of 17 tons of silver coins from the sovereign Spanish Warship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes sunk in 1804. However, this latest episode may as much to do with Odyssey’s imperative to see a financial return from the Victory Project as soon as possible.
Odyssey has accumulated losses of over $120 million is it already deep into what the company’s senior management has repeatedly billed as a key Summer for their business model with huge expenses on three projects and only a limited income stream to show for it so far.
Under a commercial salvage agreement reached with the British Department of Transport, made when the current Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was Transport Minister, Odyssey has succeeded in partially recovering silver bullion from the SS Gairsoppa; a ship which was torpedoed while carrying silver bullion to the UK in 1942. However, Odyssey needs to show its investors it can maintain a cash flow to service its debts, fund its on-going operations and, maybe even offer its long-suffering small stock holders a dividend.
This is particularly the case since the price of Odyssey’s stock has fallen back sharply after a temporary spike when Odyssey was able to land silver from the Gairsoppa at Avonmouth in mid-July. Indeed, Odyssey was forced to obtain an emergency $10 million line of credit, secured on the proceeds of the recovery, to finance the completion of the recovery of silver from the Gairsoppa and the companion contract on the SS Mantola, which was also torpedoed while carrying silver bullion, this time during World War One.
Against this uncertain financial background, the promise of monetising Victory is central to confidence in the archaeological arm of Odyssey’s business model, which also comprises commercial shipwreck salvage and underwater mining. Certainly, financial commentators and posts on US investor message boards shows that, at least up until today, the investors believed the company was actually excavating the HMS Victory site, partly reassured by repeated and arguably erroneous assertions that Odyssey was “salvor in possession” of HMS Victory and that the vessel was carrying a substantial cargo of gold and silver specie.
Odyssey’s problems over the Victory might not just be financial. The latest revelation also lands Odyssey squarely in the controversy over the Cameron Governments alleged favours to its political supporters. In particular it highlights the relationship Lord Lingfield and Odyssey have with certain senior Ministers, in particular with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
In May this year Lord Lingfield and Odyssey appeared to prepare for the current situation by using an article in the Sunday Times to claim the site was in immediate danger from trawlers and illegal salvage and also to attack the competence of the statutory archaeological advisor to Hunt’s Department, English Heritage. In the article Lord Lingfield appeared to appeal directly to Ministers for permission to excavate the Victory, over the heads of the archaeological Advisory Group which is chaired by the Ministry of Defence and is designed to ensure work on HMS Victory follows best practice in archaeological terms and is in compliance with UK Government policy for historic wreck sites, which is to uphold the Annex of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Among other stipulations the UNESCO Convention requires adequate funding to be in place before a project commences and prevents the sale of artefacts.
Then, just this week, Heritage Minister John Penrose revealed in a letter to the JNAPC that Mr Hunt and Lord Lingfield had discussed HMS Victory at an un-minuted constituency meeting as early as the Summer of 2010, while Hunt’s Ministry was still considering responses to a consultation over the future management of HMS Victory.
Although Mr Penrose stated that no decisions were taken at the meeting, Lord Lingfield, who had previously shown absolutely no interest in maritime archaeology, founded the Maritime Heritage Foundation in October 2010, almost a year before the DCMS published its departmental response to the consultation and which recommended a charity should be offered the management of the wreck under a “Deed of Gift.” Lord Lingfield’s new charity had just two other directors, neither of whom had experience in archaeology or large scale heritage projects and all its advice and even its public relations is provided by Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc.
This pattern of privileged communications with favoured partners and the exclusion of dissenting and regulatory voices is very reminiscent of Mr Hunts conduct over the BSKYB affair and which led him into so much trouble at the Leveson enquiry.
The involvement of Mr Hunt, comes on top of repeated attempts by Lord Lingfield to lobby the Government on behalf of Odyssey, dating back to Lord Lingfield’s response to the DCMS consultation document in June 2010 which was effectively a sales pitch on behalf of the American company. In January 2012 he even requested the Ministry of Defence accept Odyssey’s definition of personal property from the wreck which would have led to his own charity paying Odyssey 80% commission instead of 50% on the commercial salvage contract which he negotiated with Odyssey without taking any outside archaeological advice as to whether the contract was either appropriate, or in compliance with the UK Government’s policy on Historic Wrecks under the UNESCO Annex. Critics argue the contract is neither appropriate nor in compliance.
The decision to pre-empt the Government’s decision and begin work on HMS Victory without a Ministerial all clear also calls into question the judgement of Odyssey Chief Executive Officer and co-founder, Greg Stemm. With a government in Britain which is sympathetic to private sector solutions and the outsourcing of Government services and with a business relationship already in place over the Gairsoppa and Mantola contracts, Mr Stemm probably only had to wait a few weeks for clearance to work the site. Instead, with or without the active connivance of Lord Lingfield, he has chosen to commit what must be seen as a calculated snub to the British Government which places the entire relationship of his company with the Government in jeopardy.
It is understood that Mr Stemm is now canvasing for support among the licensees of the UK’s Designated Historic Shipwrecks. Given that in the past Odyssey’s method of work has previously involved toughing out any problems, taking opponents the courts if necessary, it is thought likely that this demonstrates Odyssey now realises it may have pushed its luck too far in going behind the back of more or less the only Government in western Europe which is prepared to give Odyssey and its profit driven vision of maritime archaeology, houseroom.
It remains to be seen whether people who depend on the effective functioning of a maritime heritage policy which is founded on observing the UNESCO Annex are prepared to support a company whose track record is in trying to subvert that same code of ethical archaeological practice and the professional body which administers it, English Heritage.
Certainly other Governments watching this debacle unfold will think twice before trusting Odyssey’s word; particularly as, in spite of the promises of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, the Odyssey Explorer is currently back on station over the Victory and emitting the following signal…
“MIN CPA 1NM PLEASE”
If the Odyssey Explorer is back at work it leads to one final possibility to explain why Odyssey and the MHF would risk so much by defying the stated policy of the British Government in terms of both Maritime Heritage and HMS Victory herself. That is that that Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation were led on by either the Ministry of Defence the Department of Culture Media and Sport or some combination of the two saying, “this is the solution we want- get on with it and we will sort out the paperwork and square the other agencies.”
Of course, if it were proven that either officials or Ministers were conspiring with a foreign commercial interest, Odyssey, to subvert their own Government’s stated policy without reference to Parliament or the Parliamentary oversight committees, let alone the public, then the HMS Victory, “BSKYB on Sea,” scandal would move to a whole new level.
What is now certain is that with the subterfuge discovered and with Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation facing a possible criminal investigation, Ministers and Officials will want to distance themselves from the Victory Project as fast as possible. In that context, if the writ of the Cameron Government is to mean anything, the decision which Ministers Jeremy Hunt and Philip Hammond are now required to make is no longer whether to allow Odyssey to recover artefacts from the site as part of a commercial salvage contract. It is whether to rescind the Deed of Gift which gave one of Great Britain’s most historic warships and most importantly the remains of her crew of over one thousand, to a charity headed by a Government Insider which is either incompetent or conniving with an American salvage company and its Chief Executive which is contemptuous of British Law and procedures and which is, to all intents and purposes, out of control.