The next time back-to-back meetings have you feeling like you’re in for a rough day at work, consider the chief officer of the RMS Mülheim. On 22 March 2003, after catching his trousers in the lever of his chair, the aforementioned chief officer fell over, knocked himself unconscious and subsequently wrecked the 294ft 5in ship under his care, including her 2,200 tonnes of cargo. Even Superbowl-wardrobe-slip-up Janet Jackson would be wincing at that one.
The result of trousers vs. cargo ship is the tangled mess of rusting metal you can see from the cliffs around Gamper Bay, near Land’s End. Around half of the ship remains in tact on the shore, barely visible from the coastal path, while the remaining remnants of the ship lay strewn around it, crushed in to unrecognisable shapes under the power of the Cornish ocean.
On stormy, autumn days, there is no better place to bear witness to the wild and ferocious Cornish coastline than from sitting on those cliffs, watching the waves slowly claim back their prize one rusting panel at a time. When the waves are really roaring, the groaning of the disintegrating ship is loud enough to alert passers-by to its presence. On calmer days it lies quietly and forlornly, often missed by the absent-minded walker.
This week, during a particularly low tide, the Kiwi and I decided to head to Gamper Bay to visit the rusting RMS Mülheim. While the story behind it may have comical elements, the reality of the rusting wreck is far less humorous and almost ended in tragedy for the crew and an environmental disaster for Cornwall’s coastline.
Fortunately, all crew were rescued without injury yet the ship’s twisted and punctured hulk is still both incredibly shocking and dramatically eerie. Gutted, dark rooms lurk behind paneless windows and corroding ladders lead down into the dark and dank hold. Forget everything you previously imagined about shipwrecks, think less stolen treasure and more tetanus shots.
Today, even 13 years after the incident, the metal-strewn shoreline is still shocking to behold with twisted elements of the ship’s superstructure stabbing out from the surf. At the time of the wreck however, the local’s concern soon switched from the ship to its potentially devastating contents. Diesel had begun to leak from the damaged vessel and the RMS Mülheim was carrying a payload of 2,200 tonnes of scrap plastic. The operation to salvage the Mülheim’s cargo took 2 months to complete and a year later SAS (Surfers Against Sewage) were still reporting plastic and foam from the wreckage washing up on Cornish beaches.
With waste plastic posing one of the greatest international threats to our ocean it’s almost overwhelming to think of how much more devastating this wreck could have been. For not only the crew of the Mülheim but our oceans too. News of plastic waste washing up on our Cornish beaches is fast becoming a recurring headline and each ‘rogue spill’ from a container poses a great threat to our coastal wildlife. Almost ironically, the jackets we wore for exploring the wreck this day are actually made from recycled plastic bottles and other plastic waste (from Cornish brand Finisterre).
Beautiful yet deadly, the area around Land’s End has been famous throughout history for its ship-wrecking reefs and storms. The Romans even called it “Bolerium” meaning the seat of storms (there’s a 3-year degree in Ancient History for you). Even so, there’s no other wreck in this area where the darker side of Cornwall’s maritime past is so accessible. And was the result of a pair of loose trousers.
So if you’re lucky enough to be in Cornwall on a day when the wind is howling and the waves are crashing, be sure to visit the final resting place of the RMS Mülheim and observe the force of nature and the power of the common belt.
If you’re looking for some more Cornish ‘destination inspiration’, check out Kiwi in Kernow’s ‘Guide to Cornwall‘ for local hotspots, secret beaches and Cornwall’s must-visit hidden gems.
Please note: The wreck was dangerous then and it is now. If you decide to visit then please do so while exercising the utmost caution, (common sense) and respect for the Cornish coast. Fast changing tides can catch out even the most experienced of adventurers so please view from the safety of higher land and do not attempt to climb on or around the ship and its neighbouring cliffs! You have been warned…!