Thursday, August 11, 2005


Hunt begins off S.C. for Spanish galleon


The State
By Kelly Marshall
August 10, 2005

Search is part of larger effort to map shipwrecks.
GEORGETOWN — In 1526, Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon led an expedition of men, women and children into Winyah Bay aiming to found one of the first colonies in North America.

De Ayllon’s journey to the Georgetown area was short-lived, but he left his biggest galleon behind with treasures modern archaeologists hope to find as they ply the bay bottom with sonar waves to map shipwrecks along the state’s coastline.

Though they don’t expect to find gold, the ship sank loaded with supplies that could provide a picture of settlement life.

Monday, underwater researchers began looking for the Capitana. The Spanish galleon hasn’t seen the light of day in 500 years, since it is believed to have sunk in about 25 feet of water near North Island, said Chris Amer, state underwater archaeologist for the maritime division of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Archaeologists plan to return in September to dive for wrecks spotted by the survey. If the Capitana is found, they may ultimately rescue some of the sturdier artifacts, Amer said.

The survey is part of a long-term project to map about 11,000 miles of inland water and more than 187 miles of coastland in South Carolina to determine where shipwrecks from all eras are located, Amer said. It could locate Civil War-era vessels or other historic wrecks as well, helping archaeologists learn more about the past and protect shipwrecks for future studies.

“Winyah Bay is a very historic area,” Amer said. “We’re trying to cover areas of high probability (for shipwrecks.) We’re also looking for other sunken vessels; anything we find we will investigate.”

The search for the Capitana is being funded by $6,000 in private donations, Amer said. The crew from the Maritime Research Division of the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology will work from a 25-foot C-Hawk research vessel in Winyah Bay for three weeks, then return the last week in September to dive wrecks they find.

Even after the ship sank, the colonists were thought to have settled in Georgetown for a short while, although Amer said the location has not been found.

No sign of the vessel was found on Tuesday.

“The galleon went down at the entrance to Winyah Bay,” Amer said. “I doubt that they salvaged very much. There is a very good possibility that the vessel was beaten apart, but the heavier things would remain; including anchors, ceramics or a load of olive oil. They had a lot of trade goods.”

During the search for the Capitana, archaeologists could also find evidence of other ship wrecks, including ones from the Civil War. The Grand Strand was home to many blockade runners, which were boats used to ferry supplies past the Union forces.

More money is being sought from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continue the research in Winyah Bay next year.

De Ayllon’s expedition came to Georgetown shortly after the country was discovered by Christopher Columbus. The Spanish had conquered Mexico and had established plantations in Cuba, said Jim Spirek, deputy state underwater archaeologist. The Capitana could have been about 120 feet long, and possibly carried men, women and children, as well as vital supplies
“This would have been a fairly large galleon,” Spirek said. “It was a big bulky ship that would have been used to carry general merchandise and cargo.”

Historic documents show that the passengers escaped, Amer said. The ship probably did not contain large supplies of gold or weapons but was possibly carrying tools and food, he said.

De Ayllon’s expedition moved south in 1526, where another settlement was established, possibly in what is now Sapelow Island, Ga. But that colony also failed after the colonists and de Ayllon died of a fever.

A second explorer’s attempt in 1559 to establish a colony near Pensacola, Fla., was unsuccessful, Spirek said. The first successful Spanish colony in America was established in 1565 in St. Augustine, Fla.

If the Capitana or any cargo is found, very little will be brought to the surface at first. Some sturdier objects that could prove the identity of the vessel could be recovered, but the rest will remain underwater.


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