One job that proved very successful for me and still creates interests and enquiries was my coverage of the sinking of the MSC Napoli cargo ship and the resulting free for all that put the village of Branscombe on the international news map.

Having heard about a cargo ship running aground off the coast of Devon, I agreed with my picture editor to go the following morning and see if it made a picture. Leaving London in the early hours, I arrived in the tiny village at around 8am and headed for the beach. My first view of the scale of the incident made me realise how much potential the job had. With police patrols sealing off the beach, the rough weather was bringing cargo containers to shore, smashing them against the rocks of the Jurassic Coast.

As day broke and the mist cleared, the MSC Napoli became visible and the scale of the salvage mission became apparent. With strong winds and heavy seas still rocking the crippled ship, containers were still falling over the side at regular intervals and bobbing off in all directions. Laying in comparatively shallow waters, the size of the ship becomes apparent when you see the boat to the lower right of the frame below.

Hiking up and down the cliff paths with a 400mm and laptop over my shoulder was absolutely exhausting but with every pathway providing new angles and opportunities for pictures, it was one of those jobs where you’re aware that every bit of effort you make will pay off. Word soon spread around the community of what was happening on their doorstep with residents making their way down to the beach to watch as the crew were brought ashore to discuss possible hazards to the environment.

By now, I’d had chance to explore the village and found what went on to become my hub for the coming days, the Masons Arms pub. Being the first media to arrive in small areas and villages always has real advantages. Showing courtesy and being open with what you are doing while the novelty of media attention is still fresh and unusual opens some very helpful doors. By late afternoon, satellite trucks and media crews had started to arrive in the area and while the doors of the pub remained closed, I could sit in the landlords office, sending images and drinking much needed tea. Small town hospitality rocks! Back on the beach, I met a local photographer called Paul Glendell as I was wiring some shots and he kindly shot me in my mobile office.

As the day went on, police continued to secure the beach as more and more containers were washed ashore. The sun went down and I soon found myself back in the Masons. By this point, the media presence was considerable and all hotel rooms had been booked up. Yet again, Branscombe folk came to the rescue with one of the bar staff offering me sleeping bag space on his couch. As the evening went on and people swapped stories of the days events, rumours started of a handful of the locals planning to use secret paths to get down onto the beach to see what they could find. Dressed in my finest “Mission:Impossible” gear, I joined a crack team of drunk locals and headed into the dark. Torches flickered in all directions all along the beach with voices shouting out as people tried to find each other in the pitch darkness. Within a few minutes, scraps of polystyrene and random tubs of cosmetics were surpassed by BMW steering wheels and before long we hit the mother-load…

A container containing seventeen £10,895 luxury tourer BMW R1200RT and £6,495 sports tourer BMW F800ST motorbikes, complete with petrol in the tank, log books and keys.  Within minutes, tool kits had appeared and a makeshift garage had appeared as impromptu pit-crews attached wheels and corrected steering before cardboard tracks were laid along the shale beach and the scramble towards the solid road began.

Now while off-road bikes would have been away in seconds, trying to ride stupidly powerful road bikes in complete darkness along a thin cardboard path over loose shale should become a new challenge for “It’s a Knockout”.  Sudden two and three second bursts of engine roar broke out all around as the modern-day Wacky Races tried to charge to glory but ended up once more in the rough.

Heading further into the darkness, the quantity of the spill became more apparent with tons of Lancome cosmetics, random BMW car parts, shoes and empty wine casks littering the beach. After a few hours of mayhem, I headed back to base to get some shots out and sleep.

The next morning is how every day should start. After a quick coffee, I headed back to the beach via the post office to see if any of the shots had made the papers. For the first (and only ever) time, I had pretty much managed a clean sweep. Nearly every paper was leading with my shots of the BMW bikes. THAT’S a great feeling.

Rushing down to the beach, it was now clear that any news desk that hadn’t sent anyone down late yesterday would now be waking up their teams and telling them to hit the road. Working with the villagers again paid off as one guy had heard that there were still a few bikes left that the new owners were trying to recover before the beaches filled with tourists. By this point, any attempts to avoid the police had long gone with patrols just watching on as a nearby fisherman cashed in on the moment with use of his tractor for those struggling to move their new acquisitions.

Moving further down the beach, the debris continued with the inclusion of a brand new 4×4 car and a JCB digger smashing against the beached containers.

With the daylight came the chance to really see what was actually being washed ashore and with that came the awareness of the personal effects that were mixed in with the rubbish. While everyone was happily loading up their bags and boxes with £50 tubs of skin cream and BMW medical packs, word came through that some of the containers contained a family’s belongings. As far as I saw, this was the one time when the excitement of the search spilled over into disregard for ownership. The Bokdal family from Sweden had packed up all of their possessions into a container ahead of their move to South Africa and now their photo albums, paintings and clothes were being trampled underfoot while some people began to actively break open the crates marked with their name.

Aside from this, the whole experience had a definite “Whisky Galore” feel to it as vans, loaded with oak casks cruised away and new parents struggling with crates of nappies headed to the car parks.

By the end of the day, nearly all of the larger items had disappeared and the crowds of tourists from all over the UK were arriving to pick through the remains. As the story was fading on the beach, I tried to see what would be the next part of the story to become of interest so rang around nearby animal shelters and sanctuaries for any sign of ecological damage. Unfortunately, my hunch proved correct and the RSPB confirmed that sea birds were being recovered with pollution poisoning and oil damage. Heading to a local wildlife centre, it was clear that the poisoning was too much for some of the recovered birds.

Thankfully, this wasn’t the case for all of them with the staff working their way through crates and crates of injured sea birds. Never having seen this done before, it was interesting to see that Fairy liquid isn’t just kind to your dishes..

With the wildlife angle covered, I headed down the coast to Chesil Beach after hearing reports that clean-up crews were battling an oil slick that was washing ashore. Again, never having seen these guys at work, I couldn’t help but admire their energy as they worked their way along the shoreline, removing rubbish and debris as they cleaned the oil from the rocks, only to have to start again after the next tide.

One Year Later

With the anniversary approaching, I decided to head back to Branscombe to see how the clean-up had gone and to see if the events of the previous year were still impacting the lives of residents.

With the majority of the ship removed to a shipyard for disposal, only sections of the MSC Napoli remained. The beaches had now returned to their former glory and the gift shop in the car park was selling paintings by local artists of the skeletal hull in the distance.

Back on the beach, tiny scraps of polystyrene were still visible in the wash but nothing that could tell of the previous years chaos. However, I’d only been walking for a mile or so until I found my first BMW remnant. Washed clean by a years worth of sea water, the component looked pristine and should be used as an advert for BMW’s design strength!

With the ship itself now nearly gone, it was only in local pubs and hotels that signs of the beaching were still evident. The wine casks are now tables, flower tubs and water drums with cuttings and framed photos lining the walls. Any attempt to find out the whereabouts of the fabled motorbikes is met with scratching of chins and denials of any knowledge of the whole thing. Some reports say that all but four were returned while others say that thirteen are still hidden away in garages and sheds across the area. I went from pub to shop to restaurant but now lips are sealed. I guess my “honorary local” privilege was only an annual membership.

10 Responses to “Beached”

  1. Very Interesting photo essay, my liege. Did you honestly believe anyone would tell you about the bikes? :-)

    Hope you & mum-to-be are prepping up well.

    Posted by pixgremlin
  2. Wow, love it! And beautifully written.
    Top marks xx

    Posted by Julia
  3. @Akin I must admit, I did hope some familiar face would take me to some garage for an anonymous picture but no.. :(

    @Julia Cheers, petal!

    Posted by tabascokid
  4. I love these images. Such a great set. x

    Posted by Kirsten
  5. Great story, really interesting read :)

    Posted by Lauren
  6. Excellent story and pics. Hamilton Russell’s people would be amused to see where their casks ended up.

    Posted by christine
  7. Great photo story and brilliantly written. Really must have been a great feeling to have the pretty much full sweep of all the papers with your shots.

    Alos think it was good you went back a year on to see what had happened to the place.

    Keep up the great work. It’s good to see what you’ve been up to!

    Posted by John
  8. Excellent photo blog – I go to Branscombe a fair bit as it’s only about 45 minutes drive away and it looks like absolute chaos in those pics you took, but it’s pretty much back to normal now but I’ll keep a lookout for the odd BMW exhaust etc next time I visit.

    Posted by Adrian Boliston
  9. How fantastic. My mother moved down there around about the time that it happened. I was kept up to date by her, but also saw your pictures in the news. I was on Branscombe beach only a couple of months ago looking for hidden treasures, and although I didn’t find anything from the napoli, I did find the perfectly preserved thigh bone of an unfortunate sheep, which, rather strangely, but satisfyingly, I have painted and use as something to hold and fiddle with when thinking of new ideas. Yes, I fiddly with my bone… la la la. Anyway, this was a great blog entry and I’ll be bookmarking you to see what else you get up too. Oh, and lastly, your shots of Glastonbury were beautiful and captured the atmosphere of its transition into the “2010’s” perfectly.

    All the best

    Tom Ashmore

    Posted by Tom Ashmore
  10. Great coverage Leon. I expect you’ll see a surge in traffic over the next few days, as we in New Zealand are experiencing our own environmental disaster, as the container ship Rena is stuck on a reef in the port of Tauranga. We can learn from Branscombe’s experience, no doubt. Cheers :)

    Posted by Peti

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