Artist's Statement: Simon Faithfull on creating a coral reef from a fishing boat sunk by fire off the coast of Dorset
“It’s been a long process, three years. I guess the most insurmountable part, initially, was getting permission to do it.
© Simon Faithfull. Photo: Gavin Weber
It was commissioned by Fabrica, in Brighton. The plan was originally to sink it off the coast of Brighton, but to be allowed to put something on the sea floor is a really complicated bureaucratic process with government agencies and crown estates and all sorts of things.
Everybody responded well to the idea, but we very quickly realised that it was gonna take five or six years to obtain the licence.
© Simon Faithfull. Photo: Gavin Weber
It’s a labyrinthine process between lots of bodies who aren’t used to this kind of a request, and it’s the same whether you’re constructing an oil rig or a ferry terminal. It was quite Kafkaesque.
Fabrica, luckily, found a company who already had permission to put things on the sea floor. We piggy-backed on their licence.
I had to find a boat, so I bought the Brioney Victoria on eBay. She’s a cement concrete hull: part of our licence was specifically about that, but finding it was relatively easy.
She’d been quietly rotting in a boatyard in Canvey Island, in Essex, for decades. We built a wheelhouse for her.
© Simon Faithfull
Before the sinking we had to work out how to get signal back to the shore. There are five cameras looking at various aspects of the boat.
Visibility comes and goes but they’re much clearer images than we expected. She’s connected via umbilical cable to a solar-powered buoy and transmits by radio waves to the shore and on to the internet.
I was the last person left on the ship. There are four big seacock valves. A fire was made to start on the boat and I turned them on so the water was flooding in.
As smoke was billowing out of the engine room I jumped off the back and swam away. Retrospectively it’s very surreal, but when you’re in the heat of the moment – literally – you don’t have time to think about that.
We thought it would take about 12 minutes to go down. Actually she hung on much longer.
The initial drama faded into this very quiet, melancholic thing of this boat gradually getting lower in the water until the waves were lapping at the scuppers. That took about 40 minutes.
Once the water level was over the deck she keeled over and disappeared beneath the waves in about 15 seconds. Then for another couple of minutes there was this big, boiling sea of air bubbling up to the surface.
The interior space in the boat emptied. That was quite mournful and surreal as well.
The point of an artificial reef is that it increases the biodiversity. The ocean floor is quite a bland environment – there’s not much growing there because there’s little for plants to purchase on to.
If you put a structure there, plants start to feed on it and then fish feed on the plants. Very quickly you have a whole ecosystem around it.
The boat’s sort of left our timescale and entered a more geological one. It’s going to be there forever, basically.
Plant life – algae – will start to cover the surfaces in a matter of months, but it will transmit live for a whole year. It’s totally amazing.
I wasn’t expecting the images to be so good so quickly, or ever. It’s really working amazingly well – you can still see the wheelhouse and the windows.
The visibility in English waters is not like the Red Sea. But you really get a sense of something from our world that has crossed over into another realm through this murky, strange water.
It’s strange to work feverishly on something for the past two months or so and then see it disappear from view forever. It was quite a magical moment.
It’s just amazing that it’s worked. The things that we need to tinker with, luckily, are all in the buoy. Everything down below seems to be working perfectly.”
- Visit reef.launchrock.com to find out more and watch the live stream. REEF: Simon Faithfull is at Fabrica, Brighton from October 4 – November 23. The Brighton Photo Biennial runs October 4 – November 2, visit bpb.org.uk.
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