Lost at Sea: The Sunken Cargo of the Tokio Express

By Helen Butcher

lego blocks

On February 13, 1997, a rogue wave just 20 miles off Land’s End in South West England hit the cargo ship Tokio Express, washing 62 cargo containers overboard. Inside were almost five million Lego pieces, which fell into the ocean and have been turning up on the English beaches of Cornwall ever since. Among the pieces were many sea-themed items from pirate and underwater Lego sets, which makes them doubly fun for beachcombers to find. Tracey Williams is the author of Adrift, the upcoming book about the cargo spill. Helen Butcher caught up with Tracey this fall to learn more about the lost cargo.

HB: When you first found out about the spill, did you have any idea it would impact you personally?

TW: No! It started out as a bit of fun. On family holidays in Cornwall as children we’d have treasure hunts on the beach, with lists of things to find: a mermaid’s purse, a bit of blue sea glass, a cockle shell, etc. Later, my parents moved to an old house perched on the cliff tops in South Devon and I’d take my own children beachcombing on the beaches below. We’d have treasure hunts, too, with Lego added to the list of things to find. We found hundreds of the smaller pieces—the flippers, the spear guns, the sea grass, and more. Dragons were more elusive, but we did find some. Lego octopuses were the Holy Grail of discoveries from the spill, though.

HB: How far and wide have pieces been found?

TW: Some oceanographers believe the Lego could have travelled all the way around the world by now. It’s always difficult to tell whether a single find is from the spill or just a random piece left behind by a child at the beach. We tend to look for “patterns” of finds, e.g., Lego flippers, scuba tanks and flowers washing up together or being found on the same beaches. Someone in Galveston, Texas found a Lego octopus a few years ago.

HB: Are you tracking your finds?

TW: Yes, I’ve been logging finds for over 20 years. After a 2014 BBC article on the cargo spill, lots of beachcombers got in touch to share their memories and tell us about their discoveries. We’re hoping to include some in the book.

HB: Do you have a favorite piece you have found?

TW: Finding a Lego octopus still makes me gasp aloud! They’re so scarce. But finding one of the bright yellow Lego life rafts was significant too—I’ve only found one in 23 years of searching. The day after I found mine, a fellow beachcomber found another in almost exactly the same place. I’d love to know where they all are—very few have been found. One was discovered on a beach in the U.S., but whether it’s from the spill or not it’s difficult to tell. It would be interesting to know if more have been found there.

lego pieces from container spill on english beaches

HB: Is there a piece you are still hoping to find?

TW: Yes, lots!

HB: Are there any elusive pieces on the ship’s manifest that haven’t been found washed up yet?

TW: There are. We’re still unravelling the mystery of what was on the ship, but we are hoping to include a comprehensive list in the book.

HB: Any advice for would-be Lego hunters?

TW: I’ve found most of my Lego whilst picking up plastic on the beach, so my advice would be to grab a bag and a pair of protective gloves and head to the beach to see what you can find! Very often we find the smaller pieces, such as the flippers, while picking up nurdles from the sand.

lego lost at sea book beach found container spill

HB: Please tell us a bit about your book, which is soon to be released.

TW: It’s a book about the changing nature of beachcombing, Lego hunting, plastic in the ocean, and the lingering legacy of a cargo spill. Its 23 years since the Tokio Express lost its containers, but the Lego is still turning up.

Check out more of Tracey’s collection on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @legolostatsea.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2021 issue.

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