As part of the Archaeological Services in Relation to Marine Protection contract from Historic England, marine geophysicists Stephanie Arnott and Laura Andrews recently undertook a marine geophysical survey over a number of locations, working out of Ramsgate marina. Each position had the potential to be a possible location for the wreck of the RMS Royal Adelaide; a paddle steamer that sank during its passage from Cork to London on Saturday 30 March 1850. Sadly, the ship went down with the loss of all on board.


The sinking of RMS Royal Adelaide, as seen in the London Illustrated News, 1850

The sinking of the RMS Royal Adelaide, image courtesy of the London Illustrated News 1850


The catamaran Neptune, skippered by Dave Batchelor with first mate Brian Robinson, was mobilised for the survey with an Edgetech 4125 sidescan sonar, a Geometrics G-882 marine magnetometer and a GPS system.

The Edgetch 4125 sidescan sonar used for surveying Readying the Geometrics G-882 marine magnetometer for surveying

Equipment on board: an Edgetech 4125 sidescan sonar (left) and a Geometrics G-882 marine magnetometer (right)


For the survey, we were accompanied by three volunteers from the Nautical Archaeology Society; Pieter Bakker, Debbie Phillips and Sara Trillo, who joined the project to observe how a marine geophysical survey is conducted. It was an early start, but the weather and sea state were perfect, and we were all excited to get underway.

En-route, we conducted a wet test to make sure that all the equipment was working properly and to smooth out any potential problems with the set-up. The volunteers were fascinated to see the equipment; asking us interested and knowledgeable questions, and even helped us with measurements and survey ‘housekeeping’ during this time.

Once on location, we headed towards the most likely wreck position and undertook a reconnaissance survey using the vessel’s sonar (OLEX) system, to establish the likelihood of this being the wreck and the height of the wreck above the seabed. Once we had confirmed the location, we could see how high the towfish would have to ‘fly’ above the seabed and how far they needed to be towed behind the vessel.

We ran the first line in suspense. We knew something was there - but what was it? First, the magnetometer reading rose sharply, and then the image of a wreck scrolled into view. We could tell right away from two clusters of debris alongside the main wreckage that this was possibly the wreck of a paddle steamer. It would have to be confirmed, but this was likely to be the Royal Adelaide! It was a moment of relief for us. Not only was the wreck there, but fine details were also visible in the data, so we had an interesting wreck to show the volunteers.

Sidescan sonar waterfall image of the wreckage discovered

A sidescan sonar waterfall image of the wreck


We continued acquiring data over the site to ensure we had full coverage, were confident with the positioning of the wreck and had enough detail to interpret the wreck features. As we still had some time left, we took the opportunity to survey over a number of other sites of interest in the area. No further wrecks were observed, but some items of debris were visible.

The weather was sunny, and the sea state was calm, and we had a few brief moments to enjoy the sensation of being at sea. The volunteers were also enjoying the day; coming in to look at the data, taking photos and asking questions about the wreck or what we could see in the datasets, as well as relaxing on the deck and taking in the view. At one point a friendly seal was very interested in the towfish and followed us for a while but unfortunately neither of us managed to spot it!

The surveying equipment being towed from the boat in the search for the RMS Royal Adelaide

Equipment being towed from the surveying vessel


Our thanks to Dave Batchelor and Brian Robinson, without whom the survey would not have been so smooth or so enjoyable. Many thanks to Dave the skipper who did a great job of keeping the Neptune on straight lines, allowing us to get good quality data; and to Brian who, when he wasn’t deploying or recovering equipment, was busy making us cups of tea and coffee and even provided cuppa soups!

Our thanks also to the volunteers Pieter, Debbie and Sara whose obvious enthusiasm made them a pleasure to have along, and to Peta from the Nautical Archaeology Society for organising their visit. You can read about their experience on the survey here.

Laura Andrews, Marine Geophysicist