Salvage Firm Fined for Scavenging WWI Shipwreck

HMS Severn's launch returns from boarding the Friendship, August 2016 (Royal Navy)

Published Aug 21, 2018 2:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

A crown court in Newcastle, UK has sentenced a Dutch salvage company to a fine of nearly $320,000 for illegally scrapping a WWI-era shipwreck in the Celtic Sea. 

In August 2016, the Royal Navy vessel HMS Severn was on patrol around the Isles of Scilly when she was tasked to investigate the movements of the Dutch-registered salvage ship Friendship. Severn's crew found the Friendship lifting steel and copper from the bottom with a grapple. This scrap came from the wreck of the SS Harrovian, a steamship that was sunk by a German U-boat during WWI.

The Severn launched a boarding party, and when the crew came aboard the Friendship, they found that the vessel's master did not have a salvage license for the $115,000 in metal on board. They put a scratch crew together, impounded the vessel and sailed her to the port of Fowey, where she was handed over to the UK Maritime Management Organization.

Prosecutors pressed charges against the Friendship's captain, Walter Bakker, and shipowner Friendship Offshore BV for three unlicensed salvage operations at the wreck site. In the course of the trial, Bakker admitted that he did not have the relevant marine licence and showed how he had manipulated the vessel’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) in order to avoid detection.

After an 18-month trial, the prosecution won their case and secured steep fines and penalties for the owner. The master also received a small fine of about $2,600. 

"This case is very important and shows that we will take action against those deliberately avoiding the required consents in order to make a profit. The SS Harrovian is an important heritage asset and this result sends out a clear message that vessels of this nature should not be exploited," said the Marine Management Organization in a statement. 

A U.S. Navy officer, Lt. Angie Violante, led the boarding team aboard the Friendship while on an exchange with the Royal Navy, and she congratulated the team for the outcome. “It’s great news to hear the Friendship boarding resulted in a successful conviction – it was certainly one of the more memorable and unusual boardings we did. Well done, Severn shipmates!” said Lt. Violante in a statement.

The wreck, the British steamship SS Harrovian, was sunk by the German submarine U-69 off the Scillies in 1916. Unlike many WWI sinkings, the sub gave Harrovian's crew time to abandon ship before sending the vessel and her cargo below. The Harrovian went down with 2.2 million pounds of copper bars on board, which would be worth more than $6 million at today's prices.