Saturday, September 25, 2004


Revealed by Isabel, mysterious shipwreck emerging piece by piece

By JASON SKOG, The Associated Press

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The big crane scooped out a soggy helping of muck from the bottom of Lynnhaven Inlet, then dumped it onto a barge. Nothing. Just sand.

Then another scoop. More sand.

It looked like a typical dredging operation Wednesday morning - an unremarkable start for an intriguing effort. The goal is to raise the remains of a mysterious shipwreck, perhaps 250 years old.

Slowly, the scoops started to change. A hunk of wood came up. Then a ballast stone. By Thursday morning, the gunky debris took up one-third of the 100-foot barge. The mystery was slowly revealing itself. Keith B. Lockwood scrambled over the piles, happily pulling out artifacts.

"Now we're looking down on top of it," he said, grinning after flipping over a 150-pound section of the keel. "That's pretty cool."

Lockwood is an environmental scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the recovery mission.

The operation is as much about creating a safe passage through Lynnhaven Inlet as it is about uncovering the past. Last year, Hurricane Isabel exposed the wreck, putting it in the path of passing boats. Once the wreck is removed, the corps will straighten the channel.

The shipwreck is on the western edge of Lynnhaven Inlet, roughly 2,300 feet north of the Lesner Bridge. The channel makes a sharp turn to avoid it, creating sandy shoals and a hazard for boats.

The abandoned wreck belongs to the commonwealth. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources agreed in May to let the corps remove it.

Crofton Construction Services of Portsmouth is doing the digging. Two barges work side by side to dredge an area, 100 feet by 100 feet, where most of the shipwreck remains.

Over the next few days, material will be hoisted to the barge's deck and the remains will be shipped to Craney Island in Portsmouth for cleaning and closer examination.

Because the wreck already is in small pieces, the operation is more concerned with recovery and discovery than preservation. It is basically a forensic exploration, akin to an episode of "CSI" on water.

David Whall is one of the lead detectives on the case. As a marine archaeologist with Tidewater Atlantic Research Inc. of Washington, N.C., he dived on the wreck last summer and helped map it.

On Thursday , he spotted pieces he remembered seeing on the inlet's floor. "It's easier to see the details when it's on the surface," he said. "But it's not together anymore, so it's a jigsaw puzzle."

The crane released another load.

"There's a section of the keel," Whall said. "So he's all the way to the bottom."

Whall hopped down with a roll of bright, orange plastic ribbon and tied it around a timber. Later, he grabbed a hunk of wood he had spotted 15 feet away and dragged one piece to the other.

"The puzzle sort of fits together," he said, lifting the smaller piece and dropping it into a notch in the larger one. "Like that."

If enough pieces fit together, the corps hopes to determine the name, age and origin of the vessel, how it was used and how it went down.

For now, they suspect the ship was either a sloop or schooner built in the late 1700s or early 1800s. It might have been a merchant ship, sailing goods along the coast, or a lightship that guided mariners. Perhaps it was a casualty of the War of 1812 - a Navy gunboat or an armed privateer licensed to raid British vessels.

Last summer, divers spotted parts of the hull and keel, a cast iron cannon shot, a shoe heel fastened with wooden pegs, a pewter spoon bowl, three wooden casks and parts of a lead bilge strainer.

On Thursday, four more lead bilge strainers were pulled up, along with a cannonball, bits of a wooden barrel and a bucket, a wheel to a pulley system, possibly used in sail rigging, and "bar shot" - two cannonballs linked by an iron bar designed to tear down enemy sails and lines.

None of it helped Whall learn anything for certain.

"We're getting a lot of info, and we may be able to narrow things down," he said. "It may open some other doors, too."

Strategic pieces of wood will be marked and sent to a lab. There, scientists might compare samples to known species of wood or put slices under a microscope.

Only part of the lower hull remains, and it rests in an area 35 feet long and 9 feet wide. The biggest pieces raised are less than 5 feet long.

Lockwood said he expects to be over the wreck site through Saturday, but that depends on what they find. "We'll keep going and going until we don't hit anything," he said.

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