Sunday, September 13, 2020

Treasure Islands - Alec Crawford

 Sometimes it's relatively unexpected books which are the most rewarding. Books about maritime salvage wouldn't automatically be the first thing I pick up, even if they are 'True Tales of a Shipwreck Hunter', but I very much wanted to read Alec Crawford's account of some of his most notable dives because the most notable of them was probably on the Oceanic, and it's what the bulk of this book is about.

The Oceanic was one of the great White Star liners, for 2 years after she was built she was the biggest boat in the world. Aclose cousin of the Titanic she sank in September 1914 off the shaalds of Foula, a reef close to the island. For anyone familiar with the west coast of Shetland Foula is a familiar landmark on the horizon. It's about 14 miles off the coast of the mainland from where I grew up, sometimes disappearing into cloud and bad weather, and far away enough to demand effort and planning to reach. Apparently we went there in a rib when I was still in my carry cot, I've never made it back since, but it hovers in my imagination the same way it does on the horizon. 

Coincidentally it seems that Alec Crawford, and Simon Martin's attempts to salvage from the Oceanic began in 1973 - which was the year I was born. We lived on the Island of Vaila at the time, which guards the voe where the Foula mailboat travels to and from with supplies (the village is called Walls, or Waas in dialect). Work on the Oceanic, and excitement around it were a background part of my childhood. You could buy bracelets made of her copper stamped with the White Star logo from a local jeweler, my grandfather acquired a port hole, dad has one of the nuts from a propeller blade (it's big) and one of the actual blades stands outside the Lerwick museum, so big it's actually hard to imagine what the whole propeller must have looked like, but it gives some sense of the scale of the ship. 

I guess Simon and Alec must have been almost local celebrities, they were certainly well kent faces in the village, and in Shetland more generally, and are remembered fondly. One of the really lovely things about this book is seeing how obviously that affection was returned and how much they seem to have enjoyed working in Shetland and living on Foula, which is the least accessible inhabited island in the UK, and almost miraculously still inhabited. There has been speculation that it would be evacuated since St Kilda was emptied in 1930.

In 1937 Michael Powell filmed 'The Edge of the World' on Foula as a stand in for St Kilda, which only increased speculation about its probable fate (the film is interesting of you get the chance to see it), but it's carried on, sadly the shop closed in Crawford's time there but the post office has clung on and the School is still open. Strange stories about the Foula Folk still abound on the mainland, and I believe they still celebrate 'Old' Christmas and New Year. I still hope to make the trip over there some time.

Meanwhile 1970's salvage operations seem to have been several health and safety lifetimes ago - the risks that Simon and Alec take come to seem crazy even to them, as by the end of the book Alec is aware that his luck is running out after a series of near misses. Diving on the Oceanic is tricky because of the tides and currents on the shaalds - sometimes they have a window of as little as 20 minutes in the slack of the tide, and the things they achieve in small inflatable boats made me shiver from the safety of my landlocked arm chair in the midlands. 

There's quite a bit of technical information in here about the operation they ran, but Crawford's style is so engaging that I could have taken a lot more of it, despite being fairly ignorant on the subject. It's something about the combination of these being both ordinary and extraordinary people. They're not exceptional divers at this stage, Simon had been a journalist and took his share out of the Oceanic proceeds to open a wine bar. They're not especially well equipped either - but they manage to successfully dive on a particularly challenging site and do things that nobody else had managed in the preceding 50 years. It's a story of genuine adventure.

My favourite anecdote though comes from a time on Barra when they'd been diving on the S.S. Politician - this is the wreck that inspired Compton Mackenzie's 'Whisky Galore' (watch the black and white version of the film if you haven't seen it, it's brilliant, the recent remake is not). They managed to find some intact bottles on the wreck, although they'd been down there for around 30 years at this time, and took them ashore. They then went to visit the artist Peggy Angus (who's daughter lives on the west coast of Shetland) with a carry out of beer and one of these bottles. By the time the beer was drunk it seemed like a good idea to boil up the whisky bottle, let it cool, and drink it. Apparently the rankness of the whisky was only exceeded by the viciousness of the following hang over.

The combination of proper adventure, sunken treasure, Scottish islands, memories of fragile communities, the affection this book is written with, and the pleasure of spending time in the company of someone who's achieved some really notable things gives this book a much broader appeal than you might initially suppose. I was planning on buying it for a few people, but I suspect most of them will beat me to it. Dad says he's picking up a copy tomorrow, after we talked about it earlier and he shared some of what he remembers from the time. Highly recommended. 

1 comment:

  1. Just finished the book bought after hearing an article featuring Alec Crawford on Radio Scotland. A great read with my heart in my mouth on many occasions, wish I was anything like as brave, very much a scenario where 'fortune favours the brave'.