In the early hours of the 22th March 2003 the cargo ship RMS Mülheim was making its way from Cork in Ireland to Germany when a freak accident occurred with disastrous consequences. This unusual event caused the ship hit the cliffs at Gamper Bay, between Lands End and Sennen Cove, at about 5am.
In the days that followed there was a race against time and tide to salvage her cargo before it became an environmental tragedy for the Cornish coast.
And then the hull settled into the rocks and became a strange attraction for visitors.
This winter, with the 20th anniversary of the incident on the horizon, I made my first perilous trip down the cliff to reach this modern-day wreck.
WARNING: the author does NOT recommend visiting this wreck site. The ground is very steep and unstable and readers do so entirely at their own risk. Please remember if you get into trouble you may be risking the lives of those who have to come to rescue you.
The Wrong Trousers Wreck
Maritime accidents are rarely a laughing matter but it is hard to learn the strange circumstances of the wreck of RMS Mülheim without at least some disbelief.
As the ship approached Lands End in the still dark hours of that March morning there were light patches of fog lingering around the cliffs but in general the weather was mild. Of the six man Polish crew onboard the only man awake was the Chief Officer.
Alone on the bridge with dawn still a few hours away he stood up, perhaps to make another cup of coffee, and the pocket of his trousers got caught on a lever on his chair. The poor man lost his balance and fell, hitting his head and knocking himself unconscious.
RMS Mülheim was now sailing solo.
When sometime later the Chief Officer regained consciousness he was horrified to discover that the ship was heading straight for the cliffs and it was too late to take evasive action. Reports say that she hit the rocks at 5am.
The Sennen lifeboat was launched and the Land’s End Coastguard Cliff Rescue Team also arrived on the scene but it was the Search and Rescue helicopter from RNAS Culdrose that finally airlifted the crew to safety. They were dropped in Sennen carpark just above the beach and then taken to the Seaman’s Mission at Newlyn for warm clothes and food.
RMS Mülheim was abandoned to her fate.
The Clean Up
In the past wrecks around the Cornish coast were almost welcomed by the local population, especially when there had been no loss of life. Times could be tough in this isolated corner of the world and a wreck often brought welcome cargo to be salvaged.
This was not always the violent, free-for-all that we have been led to believe however. As well as finding useful items that they could use or sell local people were often paid by the owners of the ship for the goods that they could save from the sea.
In the case of the RMS Mülheim, well, her cargo was not a welcome arrival on our shore. In fact, without swift action it was going to be an catastrophic environmental disaster.
As well as the 75 tons of diesel fuel this ship was carrying 2200 tons of scrap car plastic – the remains of dashboards, seats and door liners all chipped up into tiny, insoluble pieces. There were also old car batteries and cans of paint. These larger items were fairly easy to recover, it was the plastic that was the major concern.
At first a Dutch salvage company tried to salvage RMS Mülheim whole but this was deemed impossible so they then reverted to getting as much of the cargo off the ship as they could before she broke up in the waves.
On 10th April a large crane was installed alongside the Mülheim to try and unload the plastic on to barges, but apart from the 400 to 500 tons that was already escaping the hull, high winds were blowing much more in all directions as it was being transferred. Plastic was now floating on the surface of the sea in drifts and was already washing up on Land’s End beaches. A change of tactic was required.
Cornwall Council and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency decided to place a huge conveyor belt from the top of the cliff to the wreck. On the Mülheim men then loaded the plastic into huge canvas bags to stop it blowing away and these were trundled up to the cliff top where waiting lorries took them away. This work continued for 25 days at which point there was ‘just’ 10 tons remaining in the hold when a storm came in a tore the ship apart.
The salvage mission ended on the 30th May 2003 and since then RMS Mülheim has been left alone with the elements.
Well, perhaps not entirely alone.
A New Tourist Attraction
Since that first day when the news of the shipwreck began to spread she has been something of an attraction. According to Richard Larn, in his book Sea of Storms, Shipwrecks of Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly, the cliff top soon became thronged with inquisitive sightseers.
“The tourist attraction complex at Land’s End welcomed the additional business as holidaymakers made the spectacle as excuse for a day out. Clifftop fields were turned into temporary carparks by enterprising farmers, which in turn attracted stalls selling pasties, sandwiches and soft drinks. The local shops admitted that they had had a bumper season.”Richard Larn, Sea of Storms, Shipwrecks of Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly, 2019
So I suppose you could argue that for a while, in its own way, the wreck of RMS Mülheim brought a little of that bounty to the people of Cornwall that the wreckers of the past would have once looked for.
It comes to something when you realise that events that happened in your living memory are becoming part of history. I am really starting to feel old!
Perhaps there will always be a certain mystic around shipwrecks. It is hard to put your finger on quite why we are so fascinated by a ship broken on the shore but in the past literally thousands of people came from miles around to view the scene of a shipwreck, newspapers devoted many column inches to blow by blow accounts of what befell ship, crew and rescuers, and you could even buy postcards with images of those wrecks on.
And just as those historic photographs remain ever popular today so RMS Mülheim also proves that we will still go to great lengths to see a ship grounded on the rocky coast.
Shipwrecks were so much a part of Cornish life that they birthed tales of unimaginable heroism and tragedy, they created myths and fostered legends, and in the not so distant past they provided an income of sorts for our coastal communities.
But let’s hope that this where they stay, in the past, we don’t really want see too many more, do we?
WARNING: I just want to reiterate that climbing down to the wreck is NOT recommended, the ground is very steep and unstable, DO NOT put yourself at risk!