British village still silent on shipwreck looting

A year on since a shipwreck off the English south coast, locals are still revelling in their wild days of frenzied pillaging. But they are keeping mum on who grabbed the best plunder.

The carcass of the MSC Napoli cargo ship is still visible through the sea fog off the coast of Branscombe, a picturesque village on the Devon coastline. Debris still occasionally washes up on the pebble beach, but calm has returned to Lyme Bay.

Damaged by storms in the English Channel, the 62 000-tonne container ship, 275m long, was deliberately beached in the bay on January 20 last year to prevent it from breaking apart and causing an ecological disaster.

A hundred-odd containers fell off the ship and washed up on the so-called Jurassic Coast, a United Nations-registered World Heritage Site.

Initially intrigued and then delighted, local residents, followed by scavengers from all over the country, descended on to the beach and spent two days and nights frantically looting whatever booty they could get their hands on.

Motorbikes, spare car parts, clothes, make-up, nappies and even Bibles in foreign languages were all rapidly pilfered by grinning beachcombers in a crazed treasure hunt more akin to the days of galleons and pirates.

Plundering the washed-up booty was legal—as long as it was registered with the receiver of the wreck.

Tales about those frenzied hours of madness are plentiful.
But Branscombe is keeping mum on what happened to the most precious plunder, including 17 BMW motorbikes.

The police have seized two of them, their finders having not reported them correctly, said Alison Kentuck, deputy receiver of the wreck. Thirteen have been correctly reported and are still in the hands of the finders, waiting to see whether BMW wants to claim them back.

But the whereabouts of the other two remain a mystery. “We don’t know where they are at the moment,” she said.

In the neighbouring village of Beer, the Dolphin Hotel’s proprietor, Darren Clinch, has two barrels discreetly decorating the bar. “We picked up the barrels from the beach,” he said. “It was very amusing. We had fantastic fun, until all those people came. There must have been 15 000 people.

“One night, we were about to close. Some people knocked on the door, they were in three white vans, coming from Oxford,” 240km away. “One guy told me, ‘I came down for a motorbike.’ They must have been two days too late. I filled the form in to have nothing to worry about.”

He laughed as he recalled the amnesty shed, where people filled with remorse could drop off the goods swiped from the beach. Several items were handed in. It was then burgled.

Another tale regularly reappears in conversations. One determined fellow made off with a barrel of wine, rolling it all the way up the cliff, only to find out at the top that it was full of seawater.

“Everyone has a different story,” said Barbara Farquharson, who has made a film in which Branscombe residents recount their tales of the Napoli. She said locals had scavenged all the good stuff long before people from further afield made it to the beach.

“The poor people who came from outside, they ended up with dog food, cat food and nappies. It’s a good story. It was a moment of amazing excitement. There was a sort of madness. And at the end, we didn’t suffer too badly at all.”

One young local recalls how he got hold of one of the motorbikes, but another man had grabbed the keys from the washed-up container. They tossed a coin to settle it—and the youngster lost.

The Branscombe Vale Brewery has brewed about 10 000 pints of “Napoli’s on the Rocks” ale to commemorate the shipwreck.

But Branscombe is not seeking to cash in on its moment of fame. In the cottages, villagers are getting on with their lives, happy with the memory of a bizarre turn in their history.

The entire salvage operation has cost about £50-million. Work to remove the remaining stern section is expected to begin in April.

However, the Napoli‘s 14-tonne anchor will stay to form the centrepiece of a display marking the days when revelry in looting overcame a tiny village.—Sapa-AFP

Cyril Belaud

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