Sunday, September 05, 2004


Archaeologists believe shipwreck is former Presidential Yacht "Despatch"


Shawn J. Soper
Staff Writer

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND - Scientists and archaeologists are now "practically 100 percent certain" the scattered and eroded remains of a shipwreck found off the coast of Assateague belong to the former presidential yacht "Despatch", which foundered off the southern end of the island in 1891.

Undersea archaeologist Dr. Susan Langley of the Maryland Historical Trust and her team of scientists and divers located what they believed to be the wreckage of the "Despatch" back in June, but poor visibility and the illness of some crew members curtailed their research.

The team returned two weeks ago to finish what it started and is now almost certain the remains are part of the glamorous presidential yacht that ran aground and broke up just off the coast of Assateague in 1891.

"We went back out there and confirmed what we believed all along," said Langley. "We had a successful week, and we have confirmed the wreck is the 'Despatch' as much as it can be confirmed after 113 years. Unless we find a nameplate with Despatch on it, there's no way to be 100 percent sure, but I'd bet a paycheck on it."

Langley and her crew also found another wreck in the vicinity they believe to be the British ship "Oakdene", which went down the area many years ago, as well as two other as-yet unidentified shipwrecks.

"That's four good wrecks in the same area from Maryland's perspective," she said.Since its 1891 demise, what is left of the "Despatch", which was the official yacht of President Benjamin Harrison and several of his predecessors, has languished at the bottom of the sea not much more than 100 yards off the coast of the southern tip of Assateague.

Historians and scientists have long suspected where the shattered shell of the ritzy presidential yacht lies, but only recently has any real evidence of the remains of the ship been revealed.

Langley and her crew were diving off the coast of Assateague in June at the request of the National Parks Service, which is attempting to identify and catalogue shipwrecks and determine which should be protected from for-profit treasure hunters and salvage operations. Using high-tech research equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and side-scan sonar, the crew was able to identify the remains of the "Despatch" despite the murky conditions.

"It's really uncomfortable diving," said Langley. "There is very little visibility. It's not exactly the crystal clear blue water of the Caribbean."Now that Langley and her crew are certain the wreckage they've identified belongs to the "Despatch", the next step is to work with the parks service to determine what should be done with it.

Langley said she is recommending to the parks service the "Despatch" and other wrecks in the area be preserved for their historic value and for research and field study, and not be allowed to be pillaged by salvagers and other treasure seekers.

In any case, Langley said recreational divers, historians and scientists should have access to the wrecks provided they don't tamper with the historic ruins. "It's highly unlikely Maryland would issue permits for salvage, but the wrecks should be able to be accessed by the public," she said.

It could be difficult to determine just what entity owns the rights to the wreckage, which is scattered off Assateague just over the Virginia side. Virginia claims jurisdiction to the ocean floor out to the three-mile international waters mark, while the federal government claims ownership of the water column above the ocean floor.

In Maryland, state and federal agencies share joint jurisdiction over both the water and the land under it inside the three-mile border.

The issue of who owns the rights to shipwrecks has been well established in Virginia following a protracted legal battle over the rights to a pair of Spanish wrecks found off the coast in the 1990s. Virginia issued permits to the salvage ship "Sea Hunt" to explore the wreckage and take possession of their contents, but Spain declared it had never abandoned the ships and argued it still owned them. A federal judge ultimately ruled in favor of Spain on the issue.

The "Despatch" wrecked off the coast off Assateague on October 10, 1891 in a disaster accounted for by maritime officials at the time as the absence of a lightship at the Winter Quarter Shoal. According to a report on the incident from the era, the steersman mistook the lighthouse at Assateague for the missing lightship and made a course for it, causing the ship to run aground in the shallows.

Langley said she was pleased with the results of the research off Assateague and hopes to expand on it in the future. "The next step is to get together and talk about where we want to go from here," she said. "We could certainly do some more work on the 'Despatch', but we have to decide what else can be gained from that. We're leaning toward taking a closer look at the Sinepuxent side.

"Langley said the offshore research could become a routine practice in the future. "It could be done every year because things tend to change out there," she said. "It scours out at certain times of the year and buries again at other times based on a variety of factors. For example, a storm like Isabel last year can cover up things and expose others."

Read the article here.

A brief history of the loss of Despatch.

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