Thursday, November 25, 2004


Cannons from shipwreck "HMS DeBraak" restored

By Molly Murray

The News Journal/GARY EMEIGH
Ed Gillespie (left), Manny Carrar and Claudia Leister,

all from the state Division of Historical and Cultural
Affairs, check out one of the recently restored cannons
from the HMS DeBraak. The cannons had been covered
in 500 pounds of growth and grime.

HMS DeBraak guns, under water nearly 200 years, now look like new
When they left Delaware two years ago in a truck, four cannons from the British shipwreck HMS DeBraak were encrusted with so much rust, sea life and crud they each looked like one-ton chicken nuggets.

They came back Tuesday in near-mint condition, rid of rust and grime and about 500 pounds of weight.

The cast iron was black and revealed tiny details from the cannons' days aboard a warship in the British Navy, providing new lessons about the ship that sank off the coast of Lewes in May 1798.

The restoration uncovered a broad arrow on the side of the cannon, foundry numbers and the gun's weight etched in the iron.

"Wow, this is cool," said Charles Fithian, a state archeologist who has studied and worked on the restoration of the DeBraak artifacts for more than a decade. The cannons were returned to the state Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs.

Fithian pointed to a small plug of rope wedged in the side of the cannon. State officials had no idea it was there when the cannons were sent off to northern New Jersey two years ago for restoration.

The rope plug filled a vent in the side of the cannon, Fithian said. On British ships, the cannons were supposed to be loaded and battle-ready at all times. The plug was pushed in the hole to keep the powder dry, he said.

Until now, the cannons were so covered with debris that no one could see what they were like. Fithian said he and other historians now have "a lot of research to do."

In all, 16 of the Debraak cannons will be restored in a joint effort by the state and Delaware River & Bay Authority. Each paid $250,000 to restore the large iron artifacts from the shipwreck.

Along with the cannons, anchors, an iron plate that protected the ship's bow and dozens of cannonballs were restored.
The last large remaining piece of the DeBraak to be restored is the massive hull section, which is housed at an undisclosed location in Lewes under a sprinkler.

Before money was set aside to restore the artifacts, state historians feared the cannons were in danger of flaking away.

They were stored in seawater in large casks before they were taken to Gary McGowan, who owns Cultural Preservation and Restoration in Newton, N.J.

Painting depicts the DeBraak under sail.

McGowan and his staff went through the long and tedious process of drying the cannons and then slowly and carefully chipping away the rust and debris that had accumulated during nearly two centuries at the bottom of the ocean.

"We had to literally create the tools to work on the cannons," McGowan said. "You can't go to a store and get Ye Old Cannon Cleaning equipment," he said.

As McGowan and his staff scraped away the debris, they found that some of the iron in the cannons had turned to graphite - the soft material used in pencils. They treated the cannons with specialized coatings and wax, but the final product remains fragile and will need to be kept in low humidity, he said.

The four cannons delivered Tuesday were the first to be returned to the state. McGowan is working on others and planned to take more back to his shop. Each cannon weighs about a ton after it is cleaned.

The cannons and other DeBraak artifacts will stay in a secure warehouse until they can be brought together for a display, said Dan Griffith, director of the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.

Griffith said the state is designing a display area that would be in Lewes. The biggest issue is finding, or building, a structure that would house the 40-ton hull section, raised from the ocean floor in summer 1985.

Griffith said the hull would be the focal point of the exhibit. A sampling of the 20,000 DeBraak artifacts are on display at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes. A second display is at Legislative Hall in Dover.

The ship capsized in a wind storm off Lewes in May 1798. About half of the crew, including Capt. James Drew, died. Drew is buried at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Lewes.

The British attempted to salvage the ship shortly after it sank, but failed.

Over the years, the DeBraak became known as a great treasure ship that sank in part because her decks were so laden with gold.

There were several unsuccessful attempts to find and salvage the DeBraak.

But in summer 1984, a team of divers and treasure hunters, under the name of Sub-Sal, used sonar to locate the ship just off Cape Henlopen in about 60 feet of water. They spent two summers bringing up thousands of artifacts, including a section of the hull.

In the end, the booty amounted to about 600 gold and silver coins.

For state officials, who have owned the collection for more than a decade, the collection has provided important insights into life in the British navy.

The collection includes a well-preserved woolen hat, dozens of pairs of leather shoes and many of the little things that would have been found on a naval ship in the late 18th century.

"It's a world-class collection," Griffith said. "The shipwreck of the DeBraak is a textbook. It is a time capsule."

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