Community Marine Archaeology Project in Sanday – Surveying The Utrecht

Diving is to start on Phase Three of The Utrecht Community Marine Archaeology Project. This phase aims to involve the community in further surveying of the wreck and contribute to the growth of dive tourism in Sanday.

Built in Rotterdam as the Irene by Glavimans, The Utrecht was a 38-gun frigate that was owned by the Dutch Navy. Several sources (Canmore; Ferguson, 1988; Larn and Larn, 1998; Whittaker, 1998) offer contradictory information regarding the number of cannon on the vessel with numbers ranging from 32 to 44. The first phase of the project can confirm she had 38 cannon comprising twenty-six 12-pounders, four 6-pounders and eight 20pounder carronades

On the 15th February 1807, The Utrecht was sailing to Curacao from Helvoetsslus, near Rotterdam, to reinforce the Dutch garrison stationed there against the British. In addition to her complement of 190 crew and passengers, she carried with her 220 artillery men to help in this endeavour.

En-route she was driven off course in a blizzard and was stranded off the North coast of Sanday in the early hours of the morning of the 26th February 1807. The remains of The Utrecht represent a unique resource in Orkney waters. Orkney has a rich submerged maritime resource that brings in substantial economic revenue to the islands through diving tourism each year; much of the research into this diverse heritage has focused on the extensive wartime remains (WWI and WWII) within Scapa Flow.

Historic evidence suggested The Utrecht remains were in shallow water in a comparatively sheltered environment and, as such, discovery and recording of the remains would greatly enhance the potential for dive tourism outside of Scapa Flow.

The second phase of the project took place earlier this summer, and involved volunteersExif_JPEG_PICTURErecording an Iron cannon, identifying various extents of the wreckage debris field surrounding this 12 pounder cannon. . The assessment of the remains of the vessel also contributed to local and national heritage management strategies and provided some protection to the remains by producing a detailed and accurate record of the nature and extent of the wreckage and associated artefacts that were present on the seabed.

Desk based research confirmed a thought provoking timeline of the stranding and abandonment of the vessel:

  • 5am – Vessel struck the shore reported to be on an uninhabited part of Sanday.
  • Dawn – Waves break over the side of the ship and was “driven into a sort of bay with rocks on both sides”. Rear-mast cut down and a cutter [smaller vessel from the ship] launched. The launch was destroyed as the current swept the cut mast into it.
  • Mid-Morning – Orders to cut down the fore and mid-mast could not be carried out in light of huge seas. Waves take the ship of the rocks turning her until she hit the rocks on the other side of the bay.
  • Midday (approx.) – Fore and mid-masts were cut down. Fire noted in portside stern cabin and subsequently extinguished.
  • 3pm – Tide ebbs, islanders arrive to assist in the rescue. Lines were passed to the ship. Those strong enough come ashore via the lines.
  • Sunset – 366 men ashore, 54 had died.

Further research also provided evidence to confirm actual number of hands lost (54 in total) – compared with the previous vague accounts of losses ranging from 50 – 100 men. The burial ground for these men still remains unknown and would be an avenue for future research.

The successful identification of the site will allow for the development and promotion of the site of The Utrecht, and the maritime archaeology of Sanday and Orkney’s North Isles.

This third phase will initially record the site extent and condition, building on earlier phases of work undertaken by the UHI Archaeology Institute and SULA Diving. This project offers a platform for community engagement through volunteer programs, displays, talks and online outreach, utilising such mediums as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and YouTube.

This community project aims to involve the local diving community through the delivery of training programs such as the Nautical Archaeology Society courses.

In effect the site of The Utrecht is part of a shared history between Sanday, Orkney’s North Isles and the Netherlands and this new phase will help to generate dive tourism in Orkneys North Isles through community involvement.


Thanks to Sula Diving Photographs courtesy Ken Kohnfelder.

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The Utrecht Project is supported by:

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