Tuesday, January 03, 2006

 

Divers plan plunge to spill shipwreck's secrets

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Palm Beach Post
By Rachel Simmonsen
December 30, 2005


A team of divers plans to meet near Stuart as early as April, scouring about 7 miles of ocean floor with high-tech metal detectors and state-of-the-art sonar scans.

If they're lucky, they may just find some nails or a pile of wood.

The seemingly insignificant finds could help historians finally pinpoint the exact spot of the Reformation, the barkentine that wrecked three centuries ago off the coast of Martin County and was made famous in Jonathan Dickinson's journal.

"If we can find where it went down, it can put the journal into perspective," said Renee Booth, development director for the Historical Society of Martin County. "We could learn more about where the Ais Indians' settlement was. We could establish a trail that followed where Jonathan Dickinson walked."

The group has garnered about $41,000 in state money, as well as the donated labor and equipment of divers from across the country, for a two-week survey of historical shipwrecks on the Treasure Coast.

Though organizers say they'd be happy to find remnants of any ship, the Reformation would be, as Booth says, "the icing on the cake."

Shortly after the ship ran aground during a storm in September 1696, Ais Indians burned it to the waterline. Dickinson, his family and the ship's crew continued, mostly on foot, on a 230-mile trek to safety at St. Augustine, a journey detailed in Dickinson's journal, God's Protecting Providence, Man's Surest Help and Defence.

During the more than 300 years since, no one has found any evidence of the ship. Not yet.

On Thursday, a group of divers and shipwreck enthusiasts met at the Elliott Museum in Stuart to hash out logistics of the two-week dive, which probably will take place between April and June.

Based on descriptions of the landscape in Dickinson's journal, the group probably will focus its search in the Atlantic near Peck Lake, south of the St. Lucie Inlet off Jupiter Island.

But the nagging question is how far from land the divers should look. The shoreline could have shifted as much as a half mile since the ship wrecked, said Val Martin, who reprints historical books and persuaded Booth to seek state grants to find the Reformation.

There's also the question of just how much of the ship might have survived.

If what wasn't burned has been buried under sand for hundreds of years, it's not unlikely that the divers could uncover well-preserved timbers or nails. Historians may be able to trace the type of wood or fasteners to a certain location, giving a hint as to where the ship was built. Oak, for instance, was common in ships around the time of the Reformation.

But despite the great detail Dickinson included about his capture and trek through Florida, he didn't say much in his journal about the weight or the length of the ship or where it was built.

Organizers of the survey still hope to discover those details in historical records, perhaps in Philadelphia, where Dickinson moved after his travels to Florida.

Divers at Thursday's meeting were the first to admit how daunting their challenge is, but all are optimistic.

"Given the number of shipwrecks in this area, I would be surprised if we don't find anything," said Gordon Watts, founder and president of the Institute for International Maritime Research, based in Washington, N.C. "And what you end up with at the end of it is not always what you were expecting."

Whatever the survey turns up, Booth said, the relics will be protected, though not necessarily put on display at the Elliott Museum, which has plans to expand. Rather, the shipwreck sites could be declared underwater preserves.


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