The Guardian – ‘We call it a touchstone’: the mission to find the Windrush anchor

The Guardian – ‘We call it a touchstone’: the mission to find the Windrush anchor

We’re going to find it,” says the leading shipwreck hunter David Mearns. “My confidence level is as high as it’s ever been for anything I’ve ever done.” The mission to retrieve the HMT Empire Windrush’s anchor so it can stand as a public monument isn’t foolproof, but Mearns’s experience and conviction leave little room for doubt.

“You always have a contingency for unforeseen events [but] there isn’t a scenario here where this shipwreck could be a million miles away from where we’re looking for it. We’d have to go out and have a total disaster,” he adds. “I don’t contemplate failure.”

On 22 June – the 75th anniversary of the ship arriving at Tilbury Docks – the newly established Windrush Anchor Foundation outlined initial plans to recover the anchor from the wreck that is about 2,800 metres below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Algeria, where it sank after catching fire in 1954.

Once recovered, the 1.5-tonne anchor will be conserved and displayed in the UK, though the exact location is not yet decided.

Mearns has led 26 successful deep sea recoveries, including the search for footballer Emiliano Sala, whose plane crashed in the Channel in 2019 and the recovery of the second world war ship HMS Hood’s bell in 2015. The bell was restored and displayed in the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. More than 1,400 of the Hood’s crew perished and the bell provided a tangible memorial – or “touchstone” – for family and friends.

The impact of having a physical object to connect to is powerful, Mearns says. “The anchor is a physical part of the ship that will bring people back to that photograph of the ship docking in Tilbury, that iconic photograph that everybody knows – it’s seared into their brains.

“People will come and they will touch it, and it will connect them to that photograph, so it’ll be more than just a symbol. It’ll be a physical representation and that’s why we call it a touchstone,” he says.

Patrick Vernon, trustee of the Windrush Anchor Foundation, says the monument will serve as a permanent reminder of the contributions that Black Britons have made to the country for centuries, and symbolise the mass migration of what has come to be known as the Windrush generation.

“Our history is almost invisible – if you look at all aspects of Black British history in Britain today, all of it is temporal,” he says.

“You go to an exhibition, you go to events, but once it’s done, it’s tucked away and you have to wait months or years for the next project and exhibition. We need something that is permanent.

“The Windrush ship is part of British history. It is part and parcel of the DNA of British history.”

The cost of the search and recovery is estimated at £1m, which will be raised entirely through public and corporate donations. Asked why the foundation was not seeking government funding, Vernon – whose parents came to the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s – put this down to the failures of the Home Office.

“Because of the ongoing issues surrounding the Windrush scandal and the compensation scheme, which has not yet been delivered, it would undermine the whole project if we accepted money from the government.”

In 1954, after transporting hundreds of people from the Caribbean to the UK, the ship caught fire and sank, prompting a mass evacuation. Merchant vessels and naval vessels flocked to the area, sharing the Windrush’s location.

Mearns says it was being towed to Gibraltar by a British naval ship in the hopes that it could be saved when it sank, “so we have that final position.”

So, even before GPS was around, detailed records of the communications between the Windrush and the other ships discussing its whereabouts, radars and “excellent navigational clues” means the 120 nautical miles search area is likely accurate, he explains.

More than 60 people, including marine crew, a search and a recovery team led by Mearns, will be involved in the project to salvage the anchor, which is estimated will take 10 to 14 days to complete. A remotely operated vehicle will cut the anchor away, before it is pulled up to the surface.

Though not yet finalised, the monument’s site will be “geographically sensitive”, Mearns says. “It wouldn’t make sense in Cornwall, but it would make sense in London, or in Birmingham or Manchester, for example.”

“I’m determined to do this. We’re all determined to get this done in our lifetimes, whatever it takes. You need to have that ambition to pull it off, and we certainly do.”

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