Friday, May 06, 2005


Watery graves surrendering ships' secrets


East Volusia
By Michael Reed
May 05, 2005

ST. AUGUSTINE -- It didn't look like much, but the wooden beams protruding from mud after almost two centuries under water were exactly what the archaeologists came to find.

The eroded wreckage in the Guana River north of St. Augustine belonged to the keel of a ship from the early 1800s, built locally and designed to maneuver in shallow water. They said the 30-foot boat was the first of its kind to be discovered. "Very cool," said John William Morris III, executive director of the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, "but very, very basic."

Morris and his crew worked recently to preserve the vessel, which they will eventually reconstruct. The wooden remains are resting in fresh water at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum so they don't deteriorate further.

Other ghostly remains of sunken vessels lie in the waters around St. Augustine.

Archaeologists know of 272 shipwrecks off the city's coast, and they have 160 more "targets" -- possible shipwrecks -- they want to identify. Each of the sunken vessels can help shed light on what life was like through the ages in the nation's oldest city, experts say.

"Basically, you have ships lost here from every period in American maritime history," Morris said.

The no-name working-class boat the archaeologists examined last month was likely discarded and junked on the river's edge when its owners were through using it. But that didn't matter to Morris -- he was fascinated by its design. The keel had a technological advancement called a centerboard, which pivoted up and down, and kept the boat from running aground and getting stuck in shallow water.

"It is such an effective design that it is still used today," Morris said.

St. Augustine is a magnet for shipwrecks because people have lived here for 440 years and its inlet has dangerous currents, shifting sands and underwater shoals. Morris said these conditions prevented the town from becoming a major port like Miami or Jacksonville.

"The inlet's pretty bad," he said. "It's one of the worst on the East Coast, and it has been bad for a long time."

But when Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded the city in 1565, he thought St. Augustine would become one of the busiest commercial hubs in the Americas.

"He saw this place as being the next Cartagena (Colombia) or Havana," Morris said.

Morris, 47, has found several doomed vessels under water off St. Augustine's coast.

Five years ago, his team explored the Industry -- a 100-foot British sloop that sunk in 1764 with a load of supplies for the area's settlers. The ship was full of priceless weapons, tools and other artifacts.

Morris doesn't dive for gold and treasure. In fact, he said he'd preserve it in a museum along with the rest of the ship if he ever found any. And not every suspected shipwreck site pans out. Archaeologists have found a variety of metal junk that has been dumped and buried under water in recent years.

"I found a steel hubcap from a Plymouth," he said.

When a possible site is identified, Morris' team methodically surveys the area with sonar and a magnetometer, which detects metal anomalies. And then comes the fun part.

They dive on the site and probe the sand with rods to see how deep the wreckage is buried. Morris said divers disturb the target as little as possible, and they only bring up what they can preserve.

Because of limited funds and museum space, Morris' team just maps the wreckage most of the time. The sand protects the ships like a tomb. When pieces are brought to the surface, metal rusts and wood decays when they react with oxygen in the atmosphere.

Kim Eslinger, a member of Morris' team, said the ships are like a time bomb the minute they're brought out of the water.

"It's got to stay wet in fresh water," Eslinger said.

The 28-year-old uses desalination and electrolysis techniques to preserve the ships and their artifacts. Then the pieces are displayed at the Lighthouse Museum, allowing the public to see what tools and equipment early settlers used.

Shipwrecks have occurred through the years in places farther south, such as Daytona Beach, but they haven't been systematically surveyed and mapped like they have in St. Augustine, Morris said. And he wouldn't expect to find as many, because St. Augustine has had more traffic around a dangerous inlet.

However, one ship was unearthed after Hurricane Jeanne swept through New Smyrna Beach in late September. Morris and his team were called to investigate.

That ship turned out to be a British vessel from the 1700s that carried timber. Morris said it was interesting because its distinct construction held clues to the evolution of British shipbuilding between 1760 and 1780.

As more pieces of the ship were unearthed, residents from New Smyrna Beach collected the debris to protect it. To Jim Humphrey, 71, the ship is important because it connects the city with its past as a colony started by Dr. Andrew Turnbull.

"It's our heritage," Humphrey said. "It's our history."

Morris sees shipwrecks as another way of understanding the past.

"When you work on a shipwreck site, you're part of that ship's history," Morris said. "You're the last crew she had."

Did you know?
While the St. Augustine coast offers a collection of shipwrecks, Central Florida waters also serve as an aquatic home to a few downed vessels.

Two large chunks of the steamship, the City of Vera Cruz, lie on the ocean bed in 66 feet of water, 30 miles off the coast. The 30-foot tall smokestacks that helped power her from New York City to Cuba to Mexico now lie on their sides.

The steamship split in half Aug. 28, 1880, and sank after barreling into a hurricane. Only about 10 people survived. About 125 feet away from the steamstacks, the other section of the ship can be found.

In 1897, the Commodore carried a wealth of arms for Cuban immigrants seeking independence from Spain. The ship left Jacksonville on New Year's Day but struck a sandbar in the St. Johns River. The Commodore later sank in 80 feet of water, about 12 miles off the coast of Ponce Inlet.

The storm that sank the Commodore killed or injured every member of the crew, but not author Stephen Crane, whose frightful night aboard a wavering dinghy inspired the short story, "The Open Boat."

Burdened by 700 gallons of scallops, the Santo Rosario was weighted down July 23, 1984. When the last load of raised scallops slid to the port side, the boat flipped, capsizing 30 miles off New Smyrna Beach.

Within minutes, the pilot of the companion vessel - the Captain Ed - found three crew members in the water. They lived, but a fourth crew member did not. The Coast Guard later found the ship in 146 feet of water, the victim at the steps leading to the deck.

SOURCES: News-Journal archives; National Transportation and Safety Board


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