On January 18, the crew of the container ship MSC Napoli took to their liferaft, after the ship lost power and water entered the engine room. This precipitated a flood of dramatic headlines like “Rescue operation underway, as ship sinks in Channel!”



A massive rescue operation was underway, with assets from France and the UK, but the MSC Napoli had not sunk and wasn’t even sinking. In fact, the French tugs Abeille Bourbon and Abeille Liberté were racing to the scene, to take the MSC Napoli, which was described as “stable”, in tow.


Members of the MSC Napoli’s crew were lifted - one by one - from their lifeboat, by helicopter, in massive seas and high winds, and taken to RAF Culdrose.


After examination by salvage experts, put on board by helicopter, the Abeille Bourbon took the vessel in tow. A decision was made to take the MSC Napoli into Lyme Bay, for discharge of her cargo, but the severe weather continued and, during the night of January 19/20, the ship suffered a serious structural failure and was high beached, near Sidmouth, to prevent her sinking. The next night she lost some containers


The following days brought scenes that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency described as “abysmal” and “disgraceful”. Hundreds of people drove to the area, from many miles away. Young children were left unsupervised on the beach, in gale force winds, whilst their parents looted containers. Men and women stole car parts, motor bikes, nappies, anything they could lay hands on, in a feeding frenzy reminiscent of the wreckers of yester year.

It was inevitable that when news got out that the Napoli was beached and her cargo starting to come ashore, there would be visitors. Some simply came to look, others came to loot. They broke open containers and carried their booty off by whatever means they could. They didn’t care about the birds that lay dying, they didn’t care about the villagers, whose lives became hell.

There was someone on Chesil Beach who did care. These powerful photographs were taken by Mike Hannon, a very talented amateur photographer, from Milborne Port, Somerset. As well as taking his own photographs, Mike also volunteered to record the scene for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue team, which at the time this magazine was published had rescued over 500 oiled birds. 

You can see more of Mike Hannon’s superb pictures - in colour - in the BYM Photo Gallery.

To read more about the rescue work, visit the BDMLR website and please make a donation, or buy merchandise to help this charity in its invaluable work.


The scenes reminded me of a book I’d enjoyed. Bella Bathurst spent years researching the history of wrecking and talked to people, many of whom had been involved, around the UK coast, from the Shetlands to the Scilly Isles, before writing The Wreckers

The result is a book full of colourful stories about the men and women who plundered those ships that were unfortunate enough to end up on Britain’s rocks, sandbanks and beaches. It’s a book that is not just a well written series of tales, but one that will raise questions in many minds about human nature, for some wreckers would watch impassively as men drowned, others would even lure them to their deaths with false lights.

Published by Harper Collins in 2005 and well worth reading.

Follow the ongoing saga of the MSC Napoli on BYM General News.