The wreck lay undisturbed for over two hundred years, until in May 1979 a fisherman, Arthur Mack, snagged his nets and persuaded a local diver, John Broomhead, to investigate. Since then, the Invincible has been giving up her secrets and the artefacts recovered tell a tale of Eighteenth Century shipboard life which, in its completeness, is unrivalled. The physical and written archive of excavations, and the volumes of research into the ship and her history, will be one of the most important testaments to the development of British shipbuilding and the rise to pre-eminence of the Royal Navy. It became a body of knowledge of World wide importance.
The Discovery of the Wreck
By normal standards the 5th May 1979 was not a good day for the 27ft fishing boat Vanessa of Portsmouth. Melvin Gofton and Arthur Mack had taken her out into the Solent at 7.30 that morning. They had laid out trammel nets and left them for two hours while they went trawling for sole. When they came back and began to raise the nets there was plenty of weight in them, but it turned out to be seaweed and so they went back to trawling. The net was put over the stern, along with the otter boards which held it open as it was pulled along, and the warps, ropes and chain which were used for the towing. The boat proceeded eastwards along the Horse Tail bank, outside Langstone Harbour. After about 15 minutes it was brought to an abrupt stop by a tremendous jerk, which nearly knocked the fishermen off their feet. The net had caught on an underwater obstruction.
The fishermen tried to get the net free. The boat was taken back so that she was almost above the obstruction, and, with some slack in the net, they hauled in one of the warps and tried to lift one of the otter boards free. Having failed at that they decided to try to pull the obstruction away using the power of the boats engines. The warps were tied around the boat's samson posts, and the engine was put in forward gear, the throttle was opened full. The boat surged forward and the net came away suddenly, rather like a tooth being pulled, and was hauled in. Its head rope was torn off, the ground chain was broken and the net itself had been pulled to pieces. Entangled in the mesh of the net was the cause of all the trouble - a piece of wood, which had obviously broken off from something very solid under the water
It was time to end the day's fishing. They took the bearings of the obstruction so that they could avoid it for the future and set course for home. Melvin Gofton had had a bad day - he had caught nothing and managed only to sustaine 150 pounds worth of damage to his net.
Arthur Mack took the timber home with him. He had left school at 14, and by his own account his education was 'in the mud of Portsmouth Hard', but he had always kept up an interest in maritime history and the piece of wood intrigued him. It had some iron fastenings, but it also contained wooden pegs known as a treenails. He knew this meant that it was old and its size suggested that it came from quite a large vessel. He put it under his dinghy on the shore, but he became obsessed with the idea that he had found something of great age and importance.
Two days later, on 7th May, he returned to the site in his own 17ft boat Wishbone, aptly named for a fisherman who relies mainly on his good luck. Instead of using a net, he put a chain between his otter boards and towed it over the area where two days earlier he had taken a fix on the obstruction. He found nothing. He tried again over the next few days, whenever he could spare time from his fishing, and final located the obstruction again on the 15th. He marked the obstruction with amarker bouy attached to a small boat anchor. In the meantime he had shown the piece of timber to several divers he knew, but none had shown any interest until he spoke to an old friend and amateur diver, John Broomhead who had often helped him to clear his nets from obstructions, and to Jim Boyle, the owner of a local diving shop. Arthur, John & Jim went out to the area the next day in Wishbone, but once again they could not locate the wreck because the marker that Arthur had left was not there!
Arthur Mack would still not give up. On 28th May he found the wreck again and this time he was determined not to lose it. He left his chain tangled around the obstruction and attached a buoy to the warps. For good measure he dropped another spare anchor on the site to help hold the buoy in place. John Broomhead and Jim Boyle came back in the evening, freed the gear from the timbers below and took accurate bearings so that they could find it again. On 1st June John Broomhead and another diver, Steve Courtney, went down to find the extent of the wreck. On board Wishbone, Arthur Mack was amazed to follow the divers' bubbles as they covered an area approximately 200ft long, following the line of visible timbers. Below, the divers' visibility was poor, but they saw enough to establish the importance of the site: 'Lots of old wooden beams found to be protruding from the sand at various angles, also very large planks held together by wooden pegs.' The first artefacts, apart from the original piece of timber, were brought up - part of a leather shoe, part of a steel shaft, and 'some old wood with some wooden pegs through it'. John Broomhead knew that this was the beginning of something extraordinary and for the first time in his life he began to keep an accurate log and diary, recording the events surrounding the wreck.
Over the next few weeks the site was worked as much as possible on a strictly part-time basis. Arthur Mack found time from his fishing to take John Broomhead out after he had finished his day's work as a field service engineer for Goodyear Tyres.
What had started off as a seemingly uneventful, annoying incident was about to dramatically change the lives of those involved forever.