Lost Cornish shipwreck Darlwyne 'found' after 50 years

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe pleasure cruiser the "Darlwyne" sank off the coast of Cornwall in 1966 at the loss of 31 men, women and children

The undiscovered wreck of a ship which sank in a major maritime disaster 50 years ago may now have been found following a BBC investigation.

The 23 adults and eight children on board the Darlwyne perished when it disappeared in heavy seas off the Cornish coast on 31 July 1966.

Despite an extensive air and sea search, the ship was never found.

For the 50th anniversary, BBC Inside Out South West worked with a dive team to uncover what happened.

Diver Nick Lyon said: "The Darlwyne had been forgotten because it sank the day after England won the 1966 World Cup. That's very much the issue that overshadowed it.

"This is something which is still in living memory and they [the relatives] need some closure, this is an important story for them."

Image caption The Darlwyne sank off Dodman Point while returning to Mylor from a daytrip to Fowey
Image caption The only trace of the Darlwyne ever found was the boat which had been towing astern

The tragedy took place as the 45ft (13.72m) pleasure cruiser was returning to Mylor after a daytrip to Fowey.

She left Fowey as a storm broke and the skipper, Brian Michael Bown, ignored local advice to stay in port.

In addition to the poor sailing conditions, the Darlwyne was not in a fit state to go to make the voyage. It was heavily overloaded beyond its capacity of 12 passengers, the hull was riddled with dry rot and there were only two life jackets onboard.

When the vessel did not return to Mylor an alarm was raised and a full air and sea search was launched including using Royal Navy vessels.

Image caption A full air and sea search was launched for the Darlwyne
Image caption In the fortnight after the tragedy 12 bodies washed up on local beaches

Martin Banks, author of "The mysterious loss of the Darlwyne", said search teams "thought they'd find it because they had a state-of the-art minesweepers that searched Veryan bay for 18 months".

He added: "One of the mysteries is they never found it with the top cold war equipment they had at the time."

Over the next fortnight 12 bodies were washed up on local beaches including at Looe and at Whitsands. Autopsies revealed "all lungs were full of water" suggesting the victims drowned in deep water.

A child and a lady's watch were found which had stopped working not long after 21:00.

Lifeboatman Brian Willis said: "I used to dream about it, it was so bad. We went miles that day - we were out 12-13 hours and never found a thing. It upset a lot of people, it upset me because I had young children myself."

The dive team on the BBC investigation believed the original search had been carried out in the wrong place.

Image caption Divers Nick Lyon (left) and Mark Milburn (right) believed the original search was held too far out at sea
Image caption Diver Nick Lyon (center) said the Darlwyne was "not a sea-going boat" and "a disaster waiting to happen"

They believed that due to the bad storm the skipper would have taken the Darlwyne closer to the shore in reefs around Dodman Point, known locally as "Deadman's Point".

Diver Mark Milburn said: "We know there are many wrecks on that headland that have never been found possibly because it's one of the worst places to dive."

Programme producer Jeremy Hibbard, who led the investigation, said: "When we first started looking at this we started to think like local boatmen. We examined all the alleged sightings of the Darlwyne.

"We looked at the wind and storms coming in to the south west, we looked at the currents, we looked at where the bodies were found."

Image caption At Dodman Point divers discovered metalwork including an anchor and a small winch of a similar size as those on the Darlwyne
Image caption Metalwork and hand cut pieces of granite like those used as ballast on the Darlwyne were found on the sea bed

After searching the new site, diver Mark Milburn said: "About 30 minutes into the dive I suddenly came across various bits of metalwork. There was a fisherman's anchor.

"This is what I was looking for. It's the right size for the Darlwyne, there's nothing concrete to say it is but it's got the right size of anchor on, my best guess is it's more than likely it is."

The formal investigation into the tragedy found that the skipper Mr Bown acted negligently as the Darlwyne "was not fit to go to sea with passengers onboard".

It said: "The Darlwyne was not seaworthy in several respects", it was only supposed to take 12 people onboard, it had dry rot in the hull and was not fitted with any radio.

The ship's owner - John Campbell Maitland Barrett - was ordered to pay £500 towards the cost of the investigation for failing to ensure that the skipper was warned the Darlwyne was not fit to go to sea.

The tragedy of the Darlwyne led to changes in maritime safety.

Richard Doughty, the Director of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, said: "As a direct result of the Darlwyne tragedy regulations were tightened and strictly enforced.

"Licence holders must demonstrate competence and experience in boat handling and boats must meet minimum safety requirements."

More on this story