25th December 1982
Asterix is discovered in St Peter Port harbour
Diver and fisherman Richard Keen was taking a Christmas day swim when he spotted the remains of a third-century Roman trading ship. It had been sunk right in the middle of what was then the mouth of St Peter Port harbour.
Unfortunately, its position meant that the ship was slowly being eroded by the motion of the water, which was constantly being stirred up by the passing maritime traffic. It was obvious that it needed to be brought to the surface as soon as possible. However, lifting the 18m remains of a 22m- to 25m-long, 6m-wide ship is not an easy business, and particularly not in that location where doing so would disrupt a lot of sea traffic.
The Guernsey Maritime Trust was formed in response and immediately started making plans for the ship’s recovery. In the meantime, the vessel, which turned out to be the most complete sea-going Roman ship of its size known to have survived outside the Mediterranean, earned itself the nickname Asterix, after a schoolboy referred to it as Asterix’s ship.
As work on its excavation and removal proceeded, it became clear that Keen had found more than just a ship. Asterix was a supply vessel that had seemingly caught fire and sunk with much of its cargo in place, including tiles and coins.
Work on raising the wreck took place in November 1984, March 1985 and September 1986, with sandbags being placed on top of it to protect it from suffering any further erosion in the interim. Further dives were taken when required (and when safe to do so) until 1988 and the work was completed under the guidance of Dr Margaret Rule, who had also supervised the raising of King Henry VIII’s gunship, the Mary Rose.
Once it was out of the water, work began on preserving the wood. In 1999 it was sent to Portsmouth for the expert attention of the same team who had worked with Dr Rule on the Mary Rose. The timbers didn’t return to Guernsey until the start of 2015.
The preserved remains of the wrecked ship are now on display in Rocquaine, and some of the cargo is on display in the Maritime Museum at Castle Cornet.
While it might seem strange that the ship was discovered on Christmas Day when few people would be expected to be diving, that is actually the only day of the year when diving is permitted in the harbour, since at all other times there is too much marine traffic for it not to pose a danger to shipping or the diver themselves.