Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Wreckage possibly could be sunken British warship


Times Daily
The Associated Press

An archaeological diver from Mobile said he thinks it's possible that a piece of a British warship that was sunk during the War of 1812 has been hiding in plain sight for seven years, standing on display in a historic fort's parking lot on this Alabama barrier island.

Presently, a plaque tells visitors that the hunk of hardwood and corroded iron is the keel of an unknown ship "built in the 1800s or earlier."

Glen Forest, a marine archaeologist who did dive work during the excavation of the USS Monitor, is now working on dry land, trying to conclusively identify the 30-foot ship fragment that has been sitting in the center of Fort Gaines' parking lot since Hurricane Georges heaved it from the sea floor and onto an island house in 1998.

"At the very least, we need to get this thing out of the sun and the rain, and we need to get all the bugs and termites out of it," said Forest, 45, pacing around the fragment's pocked and pitted length. "Of course, nobody will put any money into it until it's been identified. I'm trying to do that."

Forest's theory is that the massive flotsam is actually the top, left, rear side of the British warship HMS Hermes, a sloop-of-war carrying about 20 guns. The vessel was set on fire and exploded during the first of two British attacks on Fort Bowyer in Baldwin County during the War of 1812. This century, archaeologists have launched periodic searches for the vessel's remains and found nothing.

Forest said the fragment was erroneously identified as a ship's keel, the "backbone" that runs along the center of the bottom of a ship's hull.

"It was lying on its side, and from that angle, it looked like a keel. But stand it up on its side, and you can see the futtocks on one side," Forest said. Futtocks are the "ribs" that run from the keel of a ship, upward to the deck. Those, by themselves, clearly show that the fragment is the side of a ship, not its keel, he said.

Mike Henderson, director of the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board, which runs Fort Gaines, said his organization took possession of the huge hunk when Federal Emergency Management Agency cleanup crews threatened to throw it away as storm debris after Hurricane Georges.

"It was in the middle of the wreckage of a house, and they just wanted to toss it, but they knew it must be something historical. We said we'd pay to transport it down to the fort," Henderson said.

He asked the Alabama Historical Commission to have an expert identify the fragment.

Sid Shell, a retired Mobile lawyer who at the time was a member of the Historical Commission's maritime advisory board, said he was one of several commission representatives who looked at the ship fragment.

"I can't look at it and say, 'That's part of the upper stern of the Hermes.' There is nothing that would indicate that to me. I and a number of people looked at it, and we didn't see anything that would indicate whether it was the side walls or the bottom of a vessel or even part of a dry dock," Shell said.

Henderson said he never received an official report from the Historical Commission about the fragment. A group of academics from the University of South Alabama and the University of West Florida visited, and one of them said it looked to him like the keel of a ship, he said.

"It was still lying on its side at the time I think, but nobody knew that," Henderson said. "I took what he said and wrote what appears on the sign now."

Forest, who makes his living as a diving instructor for the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers based in Miami Shores, Fla., said he was giving instructions in this area in May when he saw the fragment for the first time on Dauphin Island.

"I knew the moment I saw it that it was important," Forest said. He quickly found that no one had done an in-depth study to determine what ship it came from, he said.

He then set about analyzing the wreck, seeking to fit it into the complex puzzle of maritime history in Mobile Bay, where 500 years have left hundreds of wrecks in the sand, waiting to be unearthed and tossed onto land.

He determined that it must be the rear left portion of the left side of the hull of a warship - the part that would support the rear left edge of the deck. Above the place where the decking would have laid, a wall would have risen with square gun ports cut into it. It was the height and thickness of its "spirketing" - the railroad tie-like strip of wood that would have been the base of a wall, into which the gun ports would have been cut - that made him think it must be a warship, he said.

"It's better than a foot thick. You wouldn't see that on a commercial vessel," Forest said. He also points to the fact that the ship apparently didn't have traditional wooden "knees" - supports directly under the deck. The Hermes would have had iron knees that supported the deck at an angle from deep in the hold of the vessel.

Forest said he also thinks the fragment's 30-foot length is significant. The Hermes was 100 feet long, and vessel components at the time were often built in lengths equal to one third of the length of the whole vessel, he said.

The wooden tree nails that hold much of the chunk together appear to be red oak or some similar wood, Forest said. That squares with the fact that, after 1820, British ship builders started using white oak and other lighter-colored woods because they were easier to use, he said. He plans to take samples of the wood and have it tested by the National Park Service, he said.

He said he'll also take samples in order to identify the rest of the wood in the fragment.

Museum of Mobile director George Ewert said it's unlikely that such a large piece of the Hermes would travel the seven or so miles from its resting place, presumably about 1,000 yards south of present-day Fort Morgan, to the place it finally landed on the western portion of Dauphin Island.

Jack Friend, a Mobile naval historian, agreed.

"Now, I don't doubt that someone with the right expertise needs to identify that thing, and I hope Glen is successful," Friend said. "But throwing around the name 'Hermes' this early in the game is really sticking your neck out."

Friend was the impetus behind an unsuccessful University of West Florida search for the HMS Hermes in 2000. The project was funded by an $8,250 grant from the Alabama Historical Commission.

Scott Douglass, a professor of civil engineering at the University of South Alabama who specializes in beaches and wave action, said it's possible Georges dislodged a piece of such a faraway ship and deposited it on Dauphin Island.

"There were some weird things on that beach after Georges - giant shells I've never seen diving. A coal barge sank, and the coal washed up. Lots of things that wouldn't float well were on the beach," Douglass said.

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