The Exelby factor

SATURDAY, 9AM. Place: Weymouth Harbour. Forecast: sun. Sea: calm. Four dive boats are loading up on the quay, watched by five pairs of eyes. Great. Plenty about. We should catch quite a few today. Four heads nod, then silence.
Meet the team: Government agent Sophia Exelby, Receiver of Wreck, licensed to search and raid; Alison Kentuck, Deputy; Alex Scott, Coded Vessel and Security Inspector; Norman Feast, Auxiliary Coastguard; and skipper Tommy Tucker.
9.10am: Aboard the state-of-the-art MCA Osprey, Tommy readies the cockpit, Alex taps data into a laptop and Norman peers into the engine. Sophia and Alison finalise plans, and Im looking forward to a day of maritime intrigue and espionage - chasing dive boats across high seas; leaping aboard them, government badges in hand, to wrestle priceless booty off looting divers and knock them into line with hefty fines.
Tommy says the new MCA Osprey - a Pacific 32 cabin vessel with twin Yanmar inboard diesel engines driving Hamilton water jets - can battle through the most extreme weather conditions and reach speeds of up to 35 knots.
This thing is so fast, they just dont see you coming, Alex beams. This is promising to be an exciting day.

But Sophia wants to start work on the quayside. Its good to catch divers before they head out to sea, so at least they know youre around. And they tend to be more at leisure when theyre moored up, so its easier to talk to them.
Id have thought it would better to apprehend them unawares and red-handed, but still, off we go.
A group of lads are heaving kit ontoa boat. Sophia introduces herself and Alex, and the divers look startled. Dont worry. Im just here to remind people to declare anything they find, she says pleasantly, as Alex collars the skipper and asks to see the boats paperwork.
OK lads, dont take any portholes today, one of the group jokes nervously.
You can take them, just tell me about it if you do, Sophia replies charmingly.
Ive been at sea every day since May. I havent had time to declare anything, says another.
It doesnt matter if youre a bit late, she says, presenting him with a pile of declaration forms.
What if I find some little clay trinket Do I have to declare that
If we find something and then moor up in France, do we declare it there or wait until we get back Good question. Shell come back to them on that one.
With every answer, Sophia reinforces a simple message: Im on your side. You must declare everything. Its usually just a paper exercise but what you find could be important to someone. Im not here to take things off you - 95% of finds are returned to the finder, and when items are not returned, the finder gets a salvage reward. Honestly, were not out to prosecute - were only interested in people who are trying to secrete finds.
The charm offensive is working. The divers seem genuinely interested, keen to co-operate, and its not long before theyre offering us cups of tea.
They dont even look bothered when Alex rifles through their licences and safety certificates - a nail-biting prospect when you know that a boat-owner has recently been fined£14,000 for taking passengers out to sea without the appropriate paperwork.
Its the same story with each boat we visit, and my visions of thrills and spills on the high seas are sadly dwindling.

It cant be easy being Receiver of Wreck. The job depends on the co-operation of the diving/seafaring community, and yet, by its very nature, it is bound to inspire wariness among divers.
After all, the job comes with a dedicated enforcement unit. Not long ago, Sophia masterminded a dawn raid on a house in Hampshire following a (supposedly reliable) tip-off that valuable maritime finds were being stockpiled.
Nothing was found, but she will clamp down hard on people who are knowingly breaking the law. Otherwise she shies away from the heavy-handed approach.
Its just not productive, she says. Its far more effective to have a good relationship with divers.
If someone waits longer than the specified 28 days to declare a find, thats fine. At least theyve declared it.
Since starting the job two years ago, Sophia has made it her personal mission to raise the day-to-day profile of the role, to get out and meet divers, build a rapport and win her publics confidence.
I dont want people to think were just bureaucrats stuck in an office. Theyre more likely to give me a ring if theyve seen my face.
To that end, she does regular radio, TV and press interviews, as well as presentations to dive clubs, dive shows, archaeologists, students and anyone else who might be interested.
Days like today, however, are a new venture. This is only the third time she has teamed up with Alex on the Coastguard boat, and the exercise is proving hugely successful. With a concentrated audience, its a far more effective use of time than trying to meet n greet at individual dive clubs. With Alex doing his safety and security checks at the same time, its a case of killing two sizeable birds with one well-aimed stone.

10.50am. Back on the boat, notes are made on the mornings activities - names of people spoken to, questions asked, details to follow up - then lifejackets are issued and we head out to sea.
Tommy suggests a quick trip across the bay into Castletown, where more boats are likely to be kitting up: Just a quick hello and a reminder. Dont want to upset them, he cautions.
We moor up alongside a dive boat, Sophia hops aboard with Alex hot on her heels, and the pair disappear into the cabin to track down an audience.
Mission accomplished, Sophia reappears on the quay, deep in conversation with a group of wetsuited divers who look more than happy to spare a few minutes to chat.

Word is getting around: Look, thats her. The Receiver of Wreck, one passer-by points and whispers to another. Did you see
The MCA is checking up on people, says another.
Being relatively young (31) and female could be deemed a disadvantage in a job that involves talking tough with macho divers, but Sophia has clearly turned these factors into an asset.
Having a government official jump aboard your boat unexpectedly could feel threatening, but Sophia manages to do it in a calm, friendly and wholly non-confrontational way, and her audience responds in kind. The need for tough talk doesnt often arise.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and we soon come across ours. Pulling up alongside one RIB full of divers, the skipper doesnt even wait for an introduction: Oh for f*** sake! These people have paid good money! Weve got to get out there now or well miss the tides. Surely you can appreciate that! he shouts, shooting off in a huff.
So much for our all-singing, all-dancing Coastguard boat. I suggest chasing him (after all, maybe he has something to hide), but apparently that would go against the soft-sell spirit.

Its a spirit that runs deep with Sophia. If she were to prosecute, the fine could run into thousands of pounds, but she says the need for penalties has never arisen.
Initiatives such as Adopt a Wreck, Respect our Wrecks and, most significantly, the 2001 Wreck Amnesty, have all helped to raise awareness and encourage people to declare. The amnesty resulted in 30,000 reported finds and produced a comprehensive database of wreck-owners, making Sophias job much easier.
I would need a very sound case for the Crown Prosecution Service to take it on, but if I did want to prosecute, these initiatives put me in a stronger position, because people have had every opportunity to declare, she says.

But why all the fuss Does it really matter if divers dont declare every last trinket We cant leave it up to divers to decide whats worth declaring - it would create a loophole in the law, she says. In other words, paperwork and bureaucracy is needed just to make sure that real finds dont fall through the net.
And, surprisingly, there are still real finds to be had. In 1997, a horde of Islamic gold was found on the protected Salcombe Wreck in Devon, and it was eventually bought by the British Museum for£98,000. The amnesty turned up everything from brass fixtures and gold coins to live munitions and medieval ceramics, and revealed several new sites of possible historic interest.
Many well-dived wrecks are still offering up interesting bits and pieces, too. The Kyarra alone was the source of 300 items reported during the amnesty. So, as far as the Receiver of Wreck is concerned, there is just cause for vigilance.
The mornings efforts have reaped rewards - weve spoken to 97 divers and seven skippers, all names and comments have been duly logged, and Sophia is pleased.
But not pleased enough. After a quick crab sandwich and a coffee, she is anxious to get back on the water. The winds are picking up and divers are scarce, but Sophia will not be beaten. Her enthusiasm is unwavering. Talking to people is one of the best parts of the job. Its just so rewarding, she says.

On an average day, most of that talking is done on the phone. Every find has to be registered and thoroughly researched, and the reports dont always involve clay trinkets and coins.
If a whale washes up on British shores, Sophia will work in tandem with the Coastguard, the local Council, the Natural History Museum, and any other interested party, to arrange for its disposal. In the case of a munitions find, she will work with the Ministry of Defence to ascertain whether the munitions are safe.
Much of her work involves giving advice - as a member of the Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites, she helps decide which British wrecks should be protected.
The previous week she had visited the site of the ss Richard Montgomery in Sheerness, a US Liberty ship sunk in 1944 with a large cargo of munitions.
A survey was being carried out into the condition of the hull, and it was Sophias job to decide what to do if it was deteriorating dangerously.

For someone with a passion for diving, an interest in history, and a degree in maritime archaeology, it sounds the perfect job. No wonder Sophia was plucked from obscurity as a temp in the MCA, pushed through a Civil Service assessment, fast-tracked into the post of Assistant Receiver of Wreck, and tipped for the top post when her predecessor, Veronica Robbins, retired.
There is only one small snag. Despite holding a PADI Advanced Open Water qualification and a logbook boasting 130 dives, mostly in British waters, Sophia is forbidden to kit up for work.
By law, anyone diving and being paid must have an HSE qualification, so until she finds the time to train up, she has no choice but to satisfy her scuba cravings out of office hours.
Her idea of the perfect dive sounds like a busmans holiday - battling high winds and rough seas with the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology, carrying out surveys and research on submerged archaeological and historic landscapes.
Its not essential, but it would certainly be useful to be able to dive for work, and it would be great because it would allow me to expand the Receiver of Wrecks role, she says.
Its a role which does have its lighter moments. Not long ago, someone called to say that he lived in a house built with timber salvaged from a shipwreck. He said he had a sketch of the wreck - could she tell him what it was and where he could find it
Shes also had several calls from people asking how to organise a burial at sea. (There is a serious answer to that one, but who would think of calling the Receiver of Wreck to organise a funeral)
The most common time-wasters are those who just fancy a days diving - can she recommend a good dive site The eternal diplomat, Sophia treats every call with respect, and sees the silly ones as a good sign. After all, if people are willing to phone her with ridiculous questions, it mean she is approachable.
Her predecessor certainly never visited dive sites for a chat. Sophia is becoming a minor celebrity in the diving world, and thinks her strategy is paying off, as the number of people reporting finds rises.
Sophia spots a dive boat on the horizon, but the divers are down. We hover a short distance away, and wait.
It must be unnerving for surfacing divers to find the Coastguard boat waiting for them - on a previous trip, Alex was standing at the stern when a disoriented diver popped up behind the boat. May I introduce you to the Receiver of Wreck he joked.
However, many divers are probably unaware that the Receiver of Wrecks office is a subdivision of MCA Search & Rescue. Tommy, a Coastguard for 28 years, is used to dealing with crises at sea, so if help is needed, the MCA team is well-equipped to provide it.

But theres no crisis this time. We decide to leave these divers in peace and call it a day. Our tally for the afternoon is 38 - good enough. Tommy revs up and we head for the harbour.
It hasnt been as thrilling a day as I had hoped - no white-knuckled chases and no problematic paperwork for Alex - but for Sophia, its been another successful outing, and shes only halfway through the exercise.
Over the weekend, she not only spreads the word to 170 divers but hunts down the angry man with a RIB full of divers and a tide to catch.
They have a pleasant chat. He is very apologetic. Apparently we just caught him on a bad day. It wont happen again, he promisesÉ And she didnt even have to talk tough.
It would seem that theres no escaping the Exelby Factor.

  • The Receiver of Wreck is always happy to discuss or advise on any wreck matters. Contact her on 02380 329474 or email

  • The
    The team, from left to right: Tommy Tucker, Norman Feast, Alex Scott, Sophia Exelby and Alison Kentuck
    Sophia scans the horizon for dive-boats from the deck of MCA Osprey
    No cause for alarm - Alison talks to a RIB-load of divers
    Sophia Exelby talks to divers in Castletown
    What must I declare
    Under Section 236 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, all wreck material recovered from or brought within UK waters must be reported, even if the finder is the owner. This includes ships, aircraft and hovercraft - any part of the hull, fixtures and fittings, cargo or personal possessions.

    What if I find something that could be of historical importance
    Leave it alone. Items are likely to be fragile, and will decay if you remove them. The positioning and relationship between objects give vital clues to what happened in the past. Record the depth, use a marker buoy and take photos of landmarks to pinpoint the location. Report the find and, if appropriate, a protection order will be issued under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 to stop unauthorised diving on the site.

    Whats in it for me
    All legitimate finders are entitled to a salvage award. The Receiver of Wreck will seek archaeological advice on the identity, age and importance of your find, advise you on what to do next and what your find might be worth. If no owner is found within a year, it becomes unclaimed wreck and the Receiver of Wreck will either return the item to you or offer a salvage reward.

    What if I dont declare
    You could lose your salvage rights, be fined£2500, and have to pay the owner twice the items value.

    What are the chances of the find being returned to me
    High, as long as the item reported is not hazardous. If no owner is found, important finds will be offered to local museums, and the finder will be consulted on choice of museum. However, if finds are not of historical significance, or if no museum is able to house them, they are often returned to the finder in lieu of a salvage award.

    How do I know if Im breaking the law
    Under the Firearms Act 1968 it is a criminal offence to possess firearms without a licence, and this applies to any munitions finds. Under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, it is an offence to enter or tamper with wrecked military vessels and aircraft that are war graves. Under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, you need a licence to dive certain designated wrecks - check before you dive. And the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 applies to divers who removes items for commercial gain.

    How can I get more involved
    The Nautical Archaeology Society organises training courses in association with BSAC, PADI and the SAA, ranging from basic archaeological techniques for divers to advanced courses such as the archaeological use of remotely operated vehicles and side-scan sonar. Wreck investigation projects are also organised as part of the training. Call the NAS on 02392 818419.