Container Ship Booty The Night of the Treasure Hunters

It's like one big self-service party. Thousands of people have turned up at Branscombe beach to plunder the washed up goods from the grounded MSC Napoli. The police can only stand by and watch helplessly.

By in Branscombe, Britain

It was Garret Tipping's lucky day. The young man drove down to the beach on Monday after hearing that containers from the grounded MSC Napoli had been washed up on the shore. A few people had managed to open one of the big metal boxes and made off with boxes full of dog food. Dried feed made in England, which had orginally been heading for South Africa. Tipping could use some dog food, so why not head to the beach and see what else was lying around.

At first only a few curious onlookers came to Branscombe beach to see the cargo ship that had been abandoned on Thursday due to storm damage and was towed to the bay on Friday. In fact the ship was originally supposed to be brought to Portland Harbour, but the weather just wouldn’t cooperate. Now the boat lies listing a few hundred meters out from the coast off Branscombe. It is surrounded by a beautiful wild landscape -- Britain's first World Heritage Site.

Eventually a few people discovered a few containers, opened them and carted home some dog food. The next morning more people arrived, and found nappies from Arabia, shoes from Cyprus, and perfume and wine from France, as well as empty French wine vats which were supposed to be filled with wine in South Africa. That night thousands of people arrived at the small village, usually home to just 500 people.

Of the 2,394 containers that were on the ship, 200 went overboard and most of them now lie scattered along a few hundred meters of Branscombe beach. The local people believe the current was being good to them.

Tipping says he had only heard about the dog food. He ignored the first container that he saw and strolled along the beach -- one he has known since his childhood -- shaking a container door here and there. He jiggled at the door of one of the metal boxes a bit more intensively -- one that stood a bit off to one side. "Not deliberately," he says, "just because there were no other people standing there." The door sprang open -- and Tipping found himself standing in front of a brand-new BMW motorbike. "I thought I would fall over," he told some journalists who he happened to meet in front of a café in Branscombe. Tipping is now the proud owner of two of the bikes.

Branscombe -- a sleepy village

"When I drove it up from the beach I registered it correctly with a form I got from the police, who were already monitoring the beach." He believes, therefore, that he has nothing to fear, and gives his full name and isn’t shy of talking to reporters. No one is going to take the two motorbikes away from him. Asked if he knows how much they're worth, "around £20,000 each (€30,539)," he estimates. "I'm not sure though." Tipping then starts to seem a bit uncomfortable, he stresses that he only went to the beach once and didn’t return to look for valuable goods. He ends the conversation pretty abruptly and heads off -- on foot. He's already brought the two bikes to a safe place.

Branscombe is an enchanting village: friendly people, who live in little white cottages with thatched roofs, the streets so narrow that two cars can only pass each other with difficulty. The nearest big town, Sidmouth with around 15,000 inhabitants, is a quarter of an hour away by car. "It’s a very prosperous rural area," says Sally, who has made a one-and-half-hour car trip from Cornwall with her husband Paul, in order to be on Branscombe beach tonight. "A lot of people with money move here when they retire," she says.

Sally and Paul saw the television images of the motorbikes being discovered -- and spontaneously decided to drive down to the southwest coast. It's as if the British are intoxicated -- everyone wants a piece of the treasure. The concerns about the ship breaking up, the oil danger, the fishermen's fear for their livelihoods, the threat of an environmental disaster, the police warnings about the approaching tide, the stormy weather and the icy, possibly poisonous water -- that is all irrelevant to them -- today it’s a self-service party. The hundreds of police officers on the beach are powerless. They amicably point out the dangers -- and stand aside. "They have to know for themselves what they're doing," says one, and smiles gently.

This morning a few people are still heading for Branscombe. They continue to peacefully rummage through mountains of rubbish and goods -- it's hard to tell the difference. "This place has probably never seen so many people as tonight," says an old man who lives in one of the pretty little houses. The narrow street is congested for hours at a time, most people have parked several kilometers away and have to then endure several hours of walking in an icy wind and under a starry night sky.

The booty will be auctioned on eBay

"We just wanted have a look at what was going on," says Sally. "Maybe I'll find a bottle of perfume," she admits. A young woman from London who has picked up ten bumper boxes of nappies says: "The nappies weren’t worth the four-hour drive. But then you only see something like this once in a lifetime, don’t you? This is an extraordinary experience."

Lissy is 67 years old and persuaded her 39-year-old son to embark on a six-hour drive -- from Nottingham to Branscombe. It's now around midnight and she is perched on a wooden palette, next to one of the many campfires, while her son rummages through one of the containers.

A gearbox lies in front of her -- one intended for a big BMW limousine. "I reckon my son will auction it on the Internet," she says and laughs. She looks exhausted. "Hopefully David will be finished searching soon, we will sleep in the car and then driving back to Nottingham in the morning." The families that just came to look at the ship have long since left the beach.

At 2 a.m. hundreds of youth are still dragging BMW gearboxes, steering wheels and other car parts for the several kilometers between the beach and their parked cars. One has discovered a still-intact rear window, which he is carrying on his back. A few people even rented cars, thinking the plunder would be worth the expenditure. Most have no idea what they will do with the car parts. "eBay" is the most frequent answer. Anyone who is looking to repair their BMW should now have no trouble finding the spare parts on the Internet. "It’s a pity the motorbikes are gone already," says one man. "We'll have another look tomorrow. Maybe something new will have been washed up. Or we'll go out in a boat and look for a container."

Looters will "very probably" be allowed keep booty

One of the men, in his early twenties, suddenly starts yelling like a man possessed. He has found a BMW off-road vehicle -- and now he's lying on its roof and is being washed over by high waves: it's too late to save the car. He looks around. Maybe there is still a car around that could be roadworthy? Another man cries out -- while he was rummaging through a container he'd forgotten about the tide. Now he can't get back to the beach. "Climb up on the container and wait until the tide goes back out," an irritated police man calls out to him and rolls his eyes. "Idiot!" he mutters.

At around 3 a.m. the police come and demand that people finally leave the beach. "They'll catch their death. It's cold, for God's sake!" says one police officer. All the paths to the beach are to be cordoned off, and a group of young men from London are annoyed that they are no longer allowed onto the beach. "We set off on the long trip after work, and now you say it was all for nothing?" one shouts at the policeman. In the end he waves them through anyway.

All visitors to the beach are supposed to be gone by morning. A cleaning company has been hired to remove what the nocturnal treasure hunters have left behind. A police officer says that the plunderers will "very probably" be allowed to keep everything they have taken. "As long as the legal owners, such as BMW, don’t demand the goods back within a year, they will belong to the finders," he says. Anyway, the officer says, the companies won't suffer such heavy losses: "It's all insured."


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