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Grounded ship provides plunder aplenty

In a scene reminiscent of the bygone “wrecker” days when waterfront dwellers plundered the remains of shipwrecks, hundreds of people this winter descended on BranscomeBeach in South Devon, England, to haul off motorcycles, oil paintings, bibles and car parts from containers that floated ashore from a cargo vessel aground on a nearby shoal.

The British-owned 900-foot Napoli was deliberately run aground in January about a mile off the southwest England beach after it was damaged in a storm and began taking on water, according to England’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The 26-person crew was rescued unharmed by Royal Navy helicopters in 40-foot seas and 60-knot winds.

As oil leaked from the ship, about 100 of its more than 2,300 containers fell off, the agency says. A number of the containers sank, but about 50 washed ashore. British television showed people rummaging through the containers and carting off merchandise, some reportedly using gurneys and tractors to carry away their booty. Numerous items were later reported to be for sale on eBay.

But finders aren’t keepers, local authorities say. A public notice was issued warning people that the merchandise taken from the beach is not legally theirs and to return it immediately or face prosecution. Under England’s 1995 Merchant Shipping Act, both contracted and volunteer salvors by law must report any merchandise they find.

As of mid-February, teams were working to remove the containers still on board the Napoli and cleaning up 10 tons of oil that leaked from the ship. Authorities with England’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch were investigating whether a yacht that capsized off Devon had hit a submerged container from the ship. A man sailing the yacht died.