Meet Cornwall’s Indiana Jones
PUBLISHED: 21:53 13 June 2013 | UPDATED: 22:15 13 June 2013
Searching for treasures under the waters of Cornwall’s coastlines has brought Todd TOdd Stevens to the beautiful Scilly Isles to live his dream searching for shipwrecks
Pulling a dive cylinder onto his back, Todd Stevens, 41, walked into the shallow waters of Pendrethen Bay. The discovery of a gold coin and the mysterious name of this shoreline - Cock Frigate – had brought him here looking for shipwrecks.
“It was a bright February day,” remembers Todd. “Using the sun as a guide, I swam through the seaweed, scanning the seabed for anything man-made.”
After forty minutes, he spotted a three-foot-long lump of rusted metal and sand. “Moving in closer, I spotted three or four straight lines in the sand, extending up to eight feet, before disappearing beneath the seabed.
Todd started digging at the sand with his hands and found that the seabed was covered with timber planking. Scraps of black cyanide cloth (once used to line hulls against tropical Teredo worm) told him he was looking at a prestigious, no –expense- spared ship pre-dating 1750.
“My heart was racing. This is why I’m a wreck hunter: the indescribable thrill of being first person to find a ship that’s been lost for centuries,” he says.
After nine months of research, Todd became convinced that he’d found the wreck of The John, an 80-foot pirate ship built in 1643.
Now 50, Todd was born in East London, the son of a stuntman and bit part actor and one of four boys.“Childhood was stressful,” he says. “It was extremely cramped at home and I hated school.”
His happiest times were summer holidays spent by the sea in the family’s static caravan on Mersea Island, off the Essex coast. “I discovered the mystery and romance of shipwrecks. It was heaven,” says Todd.
Todd’s ex-navy grandfather regaled him with tales of the wrecks around the island, Todd searched for wood at low tide and the four boys played shipwrecks by sinking and retrieving their small boat.
At 10, Todd’s parents broke up and his mother Jannette took the four boys to live in Northampton. Todd became a troubled teenager, left school at 15 and drifted from one dead-end job to another.
When he and older brother Perry went to the Northampton open air show, and saw a stand about scuba diving, they joined Dalgety Buswell Diving Club.
“I found an overwhelming peacefulness in being weightless and enveloped in water,” he remembers. “Diving kept me on the straight and narrow because I had to learn a trade to finance it,” he says. “I convinced the boss of a small joinery company to employ me and carpentry has financed my diving ever since.”
In 1990, Todd took his first diving trip to the Isles of Scilly and was amazed by the clear water and huge number of shipwrecks. “I grafted round the clock for years, to make enough money to move here permanently.”
He arrived in February 1999 and made a big find within three months. He explains: “The bow section of HMS Colossus, part of Admiral Nelson’s fleet, had been found back in 1975. But I wondered if they had missed anything.”
Half a mile from the known wreck, Todd found timber and copper nails. For a year, he followed a trail of pistols, muskets and shoes, until he found the missing back half of the Colossus still buried in the sand. “The gun bed had ‘H M Colossus’ carved into it. You very, very rarely find anything that identifies the ship,” he says.
The following May, Todd and local woman Carmen Davey spotted some carved wood sticking out of the seabed. “As we cleared away the sand, we uncovered a hand… a waistband on some armour… when I saw that the figure’s face was bigger than mine I knew it was the find of a lifetime!” grins Todd.
It was particularly fitting that Carmen found the three-metre high carved figurehead as her ancestors had helped save the men from the wreck when it went down in 1798.
After that, Todd and Carmen, then a council officer, grew closer and married in April 2004.
Todd is out in his boat as often as possible between March and October. He shuns high-tech equipment for his trusty underwater metal detector and magnetometer which beeps when it detects metal on the seabed.
It identifies hundreds of anomalies and Todd dives down to check every one. Finding and searching new wrecks can take years. Over the last decade or so, he has discovered 15 wrecks around the Scillies. His latest find is an extremely old, possibly Elizabethan, ship.
In winter, Todd does shallow dives from the shore, concentrates on his carpentry and gets down to research. The self-confessed ‘shipwreck anorak’ has spent hours deciphering old documents at the British Museum and Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
“I study each wrecks’ size, construction methods, materials and position and sometimes get any artefacts dated by experts. But it isn’t an exact science and most wrecks can never be positively identified,” he explains.
To his knowledge, Todd is the first person to uncover the full story of The John and its pirate captain John Mucknell. He became so fascinated he went on to write his book, The Pirate John Mucknell.
“He captured the ship on her maiden voyage, threw the crew off near Madagascar, then sailed the ship here where he lead some 10 ships, patrolling the seas and became known as the Pirate King of Scilly!
“But in 1645, The John was badly damaged in a battle with three Parliamentarian warships and Mucknell tried to run her aground to save her from sinking.”
Wrecks and their artefacts have to be declared to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which tries to trace a legitimate owner. If it can’t, the artefacts (though not the wrecks) belong to the finder. Todd doesn’t earn any money from his underwater archaeology but says “That’s not why I do it. I do it because I love the hunt!”
The museum on St Mary’s is full of artefacts on loan from Todd and his discoveries include a 16th century jug he found last summer and a child’s gold thimble found on the remains of a luxurious liner that sank in 1875.
“From newspaper reports, I discovered that she was just five when she and her family drowned,” he says.
The Colossus figurehead – seen as one one of Britain’s greatest maritime treasures – is now on display in Abbey Gardens on Tresco and English Heritage are considering making The John a protected site.
Todd also writes shipwreck-themed poetry. “I’m sure some of my work colleagues think I’m a big wuss. I used to be called Indiana Jones but now it’s ‘Here comes Shakespeare’.
“I don’t mind what people all me. I’ve found real contentment living here. As a teenager, I wasn’t a bad person but I could have ended up in a bad place. Now I’m surrounded by sea and hunting for wrecks all year round. I couldn’t be happier.” n