Thursday, August 18, 2005


Researchers continue to comb bay for wreck of Spanish ship


Myrtle Beach
By Kelly Marshall
August 15, 2005

State underwater archaelogist Chris Amer makes notations
of his findings during his search for the Capitana.

USC team seeks Capitana remains
GEORGETOWN - Five days into a long search for a sunk ship, small blips begin to appear on a laptop computer screen, filled with lines and depths from different parts of Winyah Bay.

It's too soon to tell what the blips could be, but the sight of unknown objects picked up by sensitive magnetic equipment could show items left from a shipwreck of a Spanish galleon that went down nearly 500 years ago.

Using a mixture of modern global-positioning satellite equipment and historical maps and pictures of Winyah Bay, researchers from the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina hope to find what could be the Capitana, the lead ship in an expedition to the New World.

Cutting through the fog at the South Island boat landing, the researchers in the 25-foot C-Hawk set out Friday for another day of combing the water in long rows, looking for the Capitana.

Researchers on board are tracking the journey of Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon, a lawyer from Havana who led about 500 people on an unsuccessful trip to an unsettled country.

By the time the settlers had given up on colonizing America, about 150 people were left and the biggest galleon was lost at sea. Vazquez's expedition had been lost in a squabble over leadership and the death of many people of starvation and disease.

Vazquez died during the trip.

Archaeologists have been unable to find evidence of the time the colonists stayed in Georgetown.
An attempted settlement near Sapelow Island, Ga., also remains lost.

"They don't say why the Capitana grounded," said Chris Amer, state underwater archaeologist for the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. "We don't have the original account. That document still exists, but I'm still looking for it."

The C-Hawk is piloted by Carl Naylor, a former newspaper editor who began working for the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at USC more than a decade ago.

Also on board is Joe Beatty, an archaeological technician who helps set up the equipment and watches for problems with long lengths of cable trailing behind the boat.

Amer, whose equipment is in a small wheelhouse, squints at the computer screen, watching for signs of a "scatter pattern" around sandbars that might indicate objects from the wreck.

If the Capitana is found, the vessel would be oldest documented shipwreck in North America, he said.

Looking for the vessel involves going back and forth in long "lanes," similar to mowing the grass or plowing a field, Amer said.

The boat will cover at least 39 miles a day for the next three weeks.

"The magnotometer system is reading the earth's magnetic field," said Amer, pointing at stripes and numbers on the computer screen. "Anything that disturbs that field will disturb that variation and will give you a different reading. If you get a big reading, it will go crazy."

This time-consuming mapping is done before divers are brought in or any artifacts are recovered.

Divers will return in September to investigate the objects that could be hidden beneath the sand.

On Wednesday, researchers got their first big reading on an unknown object just off the beach at North Island. The information from the magnotometer shows that the object, which could be the size of an anchor, rests in about 2 feet of water, Amer said.

Although the first inclination is to dig for the object, instead the recorded lines will be studied in detail before any object is brought to the surface.

The smaller objects detected Friday are in the area of a shoal in Winyah Bay, Amer said.

The survey work done in the next two weeks will determine whether there are other objects that could be items flung from the ship when it went down.

Divers will not pursue every item that is detected by the magnotometer, Amer said.

The archaeologists are looking for specific signs of the shipwreck and objects that could prove where the boat went down.

"The highest priority for diving is to go where there is a good magnetic field," Amer said. "Diving is very expensive and time-consuming."

The search has been complicated by some rough waves in Winyah Bay.

The researchers already have encountered a wave that broadsided their boat near North Island, Amer said.

During the height of the hurricane season, the research could be slowed by the approach of a tropical storm or gale-force winds.

The search for the Capitana could take years, depending on what is found.

The survey is part of a long-term project to look at shipwrecks throughout South Carolina, Amer said.

The researchers expect to spend many more years taking a survey of what lies beneath the water in South Carolina. The survey in Winyah Bay could reveal the presence of blockade runners and other sunk vessels, but none as old as the Capitana.

"This is the first attempt to find the remains of the vessel offshore," Amer said. "Very little is known about this shipwreck. To our knowledge, there were not many Spanish vessels that came here."


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