A tale of online diving, three-masts long-haul, copper ores and streaks of luck and misfortune.

By Morgane Mahaud, Dublin, Ireland, March 2021


Hello, readers. I’m a French archaeology enthusiast and Dublin Bay diver. I used the time out of water this year as an opportunity to become a NAS member and participate to the Welsh Wreck Web Research Project (WWW). I figured that if I could not physically access wrecks, I was going to explore their digital remains.

The WWW project, led by Malvern Archaeological Diving Unit, aims to list and identify wrecks remains in Cardigan Bay. To that purpose, volunteers gather details about the circumstances of the wreck, information that could help identify the remains and the general story of the vessel and its crew. Among the five reports I wrote (or am currently writing) for the project, this is the story of the Equateur, a French three-masts bark of Bordeaux, lost the 13th January of 1879.

The search began with the initial information given by Ian Cundy, of MADU. Ian himself got them from two books about wrecks and rescues around Welsh coast. I completed the data with simple engine searches, then, when that didn’t work well, by consultation of other WWW reports for methodology inspiration.

The Lloyd’s Register archives (https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk and https://archive.org) gave no information about the Equateur, which was half expected for a French vessel. I checked the Welsh newspapers archives and used the project access to British Newspaper Archive to gather articles about the wreck. That list of articles was confirmed and completed by Chris Holden, who had previously looked for the Equateur.

Records of the wreckage and details about the Equateur are already substantial at this point.

But I’m sure I can get more about the ship history before the incident. Can I access the crew register? A good part of Bordeaux merchant navy documents were burnt in a fire in 1919, including most likely the Equateur’s.

Knowing that it is important to keep documents in at least two independent places I wondered if I could access other registers entries. Thankfully, the answer was yes.  The Equateur can be found in the American Lloyds Register and a few unscathed Bordeaux registers (https://gallica.bnf.fr).  

Take note of that last URL, because it is a treasure trove of ancient maps and illustrations, fully free of access. I used Gallica and it’s partner site Retronews to compile around 250 newspapers entries about the Equateur whereabouts. I was able to reconstruct the ship entire timeline and get additional details about the wreckage.

Let’s begin our tale.......


February 1868, the Equateur sails out of La Roque shipyards, near Bordeaux. This ship is a beautiful three-masts of 530 tons, in oak, reinforced with copper and iron. The owners, MM. Barbe and Roux, bring it to Bordeaux, where they advertise it in the local newspaper la Gironde for chartering. The Equateur leaves the city the 3rd of April 1868 with Captain B. Morin, full of 300 caskets of red wine and 220 kg of roman cement.

Equateur reaches Montevideo by the end of July and switch the cargo for mules to bring to La Reunion and Mauritius. The ship continues sailing the Indian Ocean up to Pondicherry with a brief stop at Pointe-de-Galle. It finally leaves Indian coasts in December, with 9000 bags of sesame and 19 crates of indigo for Marseille. The path for home passes via Cape Hope and Gibraltar, as the Suez Canal is still under construction (and not the most practical for sailboats).

For the Equateur’s second voyage, it travels with Captain Victor Nadeau and passes Cape Horn for the first time. Marseille, Buenos-Aires, Valparaiso, Callao (Lima) then directly back to Bordeaux with a load of guano. The captain’s report of the travel back is published in la Gironde and described as rather uneventful. The full journey had taken a bit more than a year.

After this journey, the Equateur stayed stuck in the harbour from the 15th of July 1870 to the 8th May of 1871. A good opportunity for the owners to get some hull repairs and a streak of luck for us, as we get a probable photo of the ship.

A series of photos of Bordeaux was taken in 1870, giving us almost a 50% chance the Equateur was present at that time the photos were taken.  La Gironde publishes regularly the positions of the ships in Bordeaux harbour. Our vessel is in the second line closest to the quay, second place in direction of the sea after a corridor devoid of ships.

Let’s place the anchor point on a contemporary map, and match it with the photographs:

 Fig.1: Map of Bordeaux, 1871, approximate anchoring point of the Equateur in red, source gallica .bnf.fr/BnF


Fig.2: General view of Bordeaux harbour, 1870, the Equateur may (50% chance) be one of the ships in the background, source gallica.bnf.fr/BnF


Fig.3: View of Bordeaux harbour, 1870, the Equateur may (50% chance) be one of the ships in the background, source gallica.bnf.fr/BnF


Back to our tale.

As the ship is resting, La Gironde publishes increasingly pressuring messages from the owners, inciting the shippers to load so the Equateur can leave. After over 3 months of delay, the Equateur finally undertakes a return voyage to Mauritius in the second half of 1871, with Captain Mangin, bringing sugar and rum back to Marseille.

Loading shenanigans occur again in the beginning of 1872. The owners bring the broker to court to forbid migrants and crates of acid to be load on the ship. With that a new occasion for the Equateur’s hull to be repaired and for us to play a little game of “Where in the port is the Equateur?” .


Fig.4. View of Marseille harbour, 1872, but can we find the Equateur ? source gallica.bnf.fr/BnF

But let’s be honest, the chances the Equateur figures on the photo are very slim this time. The owner’s end up losing their case and Captain Mangin sailed both cargo and passengers to Buenos-Aires. Return path to Marseille passed by Mauritius and La Reunion again for a load of sugar.

The loop journey of France -> Montevideo -> Mauritius/La Reunion with mules -> France with a cargo of sugar, become the Equateur’s most frequent route. It sails it for its 5th to 7th voyages, with Captain Mangin, and her 8th voyage with Captain Pierre Ménard. Marks of age start to show, as Captain Ménard arrived in Montevideo with 2 feet of water in the hold.

The Equateur breaks the regular loop for its 9th and final voyage with Captain Ménard. The ambitious plan is to load copper ores in West Mexico and bring them to Liverpool to be processed. Plan start falling apart even before loading copper. The Equateur reaches the mouth of the Californian gulf in a bad state. Bad enough for the captain to ask and wait for owner’s instructions. Barbe and Roux decide to send the ship for San Francisco for repairs. The careening is done in summer 1878 and the Equateur go back in California Gulf in August


Fig.5 Equateur final voyage, map of main commercial routes, 1868, source gallica.bnf.fr/BnF

The Equateur loads 160 tons of copper ore there, brought by mules down Providentia and Purgatorio valleys. The ore most likely come from Boleo mines, which are just starting to be exploited. The ores present a high percentage of copper as a part of complex mixture of oxides and sulphides. They sometime include boleite mineral, whose name come from the mine.


 Fig 6: A particularly fine specimen of copper ore with boleite from Boleo mines. Source www.crystalclassics.co.uk

With the ores on board, the ship departs for Liverpool. Nothing in particular is reported about the voyage, until the 11th of January 1879. That day, off Cape Clear, Ireland, the crew spots some driftwood. A bit later they come across the lifeboat of the Linguist, a Liverpool steamer on her way to Rangoon, that had sunk some hours ago. The 14 survivors were hauled up with their lifeboat. Captain Ménard give them up his cabin for what remained of the route.

However, luck is inconsistent, and the Equateur met its own demise two days later. During hazy weather, it ran against St-Patrick Causeway, an infamous shallow-depth in Cardigan Bay that has caused many wrecks, as the WWW project showcases. Crew and the Linguist survivors launch the lifeboats and steer north. They reach the Welsh coast of Pwllheli a few hours later where they are well received by the locals.

The ship sinks by 9 fathoms of water (around 18m), close to the causeway. The sails and some gear are salvaged and sold by the Receiver of Wreck. A wire from Barmouth mentions the ship will probably be blown up as the area is busy. The Equateur appears in the news one last time in 1883: the owners have brought a case to court once again. They have changed insurance company during the last travel and there is some conflict about who had to pay for the ship lost and for the money advanced for San Francisco repairs.

That last article give confirmation that the Equateur was a complete loss and the copper was not salvaged. As far as I can tell, the exact location of the ship is unknown and the copper still there. So, if by a streak of luck, on your next dive in Cardigan Bay, you happen to stumble upon a massive pile of greenish ores, know that you have probably found the Equateur.

Here ends our tale for now. You can find more details in the report on MADU website here.

It was very fun to investigate the ship history. I hope this little tale will give you some motivation and tools to lead your own online investigations.


[1] http://www.madu.org.uk

[2] https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk

[3] https://archive.org

[4] https://newspapers.library.wales

[5] https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

[6] https://www.persee.fr/doc/bec_0373-6237_1918_num_79_1_460792

[7] https://research.mysticseaport.org

[8] https://gallica.bnf.fr

[9] https://www.retronews.fr

[10] https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b12001756/f24.item

[11] http://www.madu.org.uk/Images/www%20Project%20-%20Equateur.pdf