Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Famous Florida Shipwrecks


By J.R. English

It is said the sea never gives up her dead. Often, that's true. The coastal waters surrounding Florida have been the final resting place for many ships over the past four centuries. Ships and crews over the years have found themselves to be casualties of hurricanes, coral reefs, shoals, and even pirates. Many entered Florida waters and have never been heard from again.

Quite a number of Florida shipwrecks have been discovered however, and many of those are in waters shallow enough to be excavated. These shipwrecks have become not only popular diving destinations, but reflect a rich history of Florida's maritime importance - both in early European trade, and in the colonial expansion.

During the Spanish colonial period, the Florida Straits were a popular passage way for ships seeking the Gulf Stream currents when returning to their homelands across the Atlantic.

The captains and crew also knew these were treacherous waters however, both due to the harsh conditions of constantly shifting shoals and coral reefs, and because of much lore about sea monsters in the area. In truth, pirates posed a much more significant and real threat to these ships than did fabled monsters.

Marine salvage was a profitable enterprise in Florida by the time it became a U.S. territory in 1821. Florida Indians and crews from Havana often competed for salvage rights to downed vessels in Florida waters.
Famous Florida Shipwrecks

The Emanuel Point Wreck: Eleven ships were lost in 1500 when Spanish colonists planned to settle on Pensacola Bay. A hurricane swept the area before the ships could even finish unloading. The majority of the ships were lost, as were a number of the settlers. The colony lasted only about 60 years.

The Trinite' was a French ship lost in a storm in 1565 while preparing to attack Spanish colonists along the northeast coast of Florida. The attack on the colony (now known as St. Augustine) was aborted after the ship's loss.

The Tierra Firme fleet sailed from South America heading home to Spain laden with a cargo estimated at more than $250 million in 1622. The fleet, made up of 27 ships, lost two ships - the Atocha and the Santa Margarita in the Florida Keys during a hurricane. Three hundred and eighty lives were lost in the the wrecks of the two ships. The fleet later lost additional vessels in the Dry Tortugas.

The Henneta Marie was lost near Key West in 1700. She was a slave trader who left her cargo of slaves in Jamaica to work the sugar plantations. She is the oldest known wreck of slave trading ships to be identified by name.

In 1713, the Urca de Lima, a Spanish ship, ran upon a shoal during a hurricane off Florida's Atlantic Coast. She was one of 10 ships lost in the storm; but as she was grounded and did not sink, the 1500 surviving crew members of the fleet were able to utilize her as a supply ship. Over a thousand lives were lost in the storm, and the only surviving ship of the fleet was a French vessel who had been accompanying them.

The San Pedro was one of the last ships to cross the Atlantic from the New Spain fleet. She was grounded in the Florida Keys in 1733 along with several other ships in her flotilla during a hurricane. Ships from the fleet were strewn over 80 miles throughout the Keys. The Salvage operation was a Spanish one, and the San Pedro's remains were burned to the waterline to prevent looting by pirates.

The Mentor is a known, but as of yet undiscovered shipwreck near Pensacola. She was lost in 1781, when sent to assist the British in defending Pensacola from the Spanish. She was capsized in a storm, and after removing her guns to Fort George, the crew burned the hull to keep her from the Spanish. No remains of her have ever been located.

The Maple Leaf was lost in 1864 on the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville. Her cargo was Union baggage during the Civil War. She sank after running up on a stationary torpedo placed in the river by Confederate troops. Reportedly, there were very few casualties of the wreck.

The Copenhagen, a British Steamship was transporting coal from Philadelphia to Havana in 1900 when she ran aground near Pompano Beach. Her cargo was salvaged, and no lives were lost in the grounding.

The USS Massachusetts was sank off Pensacola during target practice operations in 1921. She had been one of the first steel battleships built by the navy after the Civil War. She had patrolled the Caribbean during the Spanish American War, and was used as a training vessel during WWI. She was decommissioned and sent to Pensacola to be scuttled. One of the incidents which brought World War II closest to the American continent was the sinking of the Gulfamerica off the Florida east coast in 1942. She was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The Gulfamerica was a tanker carrying full cargo. She exploded from the torpedo impact and burned. Twenty two of her crewmembers were never found alive.


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