Monday, March 06, 2006


A search for historic sunken ship


The Beacon Journal
By Jessica Wehrman
March 05, 2006

DAYTON, Ohio - Steve Libert was just an eighth grader in suburban Dayton when he first became intrigued by the mystery of Le Griffon.

It was one of those times, he said, when he stopped gazing out the window and paid rapt attention. He was riveted by the question of what happened to this ship - the flagship of explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle - that disappeared in mystery in 1679.

"It caught my attention and imagination," he said.

After almost 30 years of searching and researching, Libert, 51, now of suburban Washington D.C., may soon find out.

In 2001, during the last scuba dive of the season and with about three inches of visibility in Lake Michigan's waters, Libert swam into what he believes is the bowsprit of La Salle's sunken ship.

The Griffon - thought to be 30 to 40 feet long and built by La Salle and his men on the banks of the Niagara River - carried no cache of gold and jewels, and its bounty of fur is long gone.

But the shipwreck itself could be a buried treasure. It could provide invaluable keys to what La Salle faced as he embarked on explorations that culminated in him claiming for France land that became the Louisiana Purchase.

The Griffon is not the only piece of history that's captured the imagination of Libert and his team, a group of Dayton-area buddies that include brothers Tom Kucharsky of Dayton, Jim Kucharsky of Centerville and Vance Skowronski of Tipp City.

For them, scuba expeditions to Michigan are the equivalent of other men's hunting or fishing trips - though they're serious enough about this hobby to have formed a company, the Great Lakes Exploration Group, LLC, devoted to working on this particular project.

In the mid-1980s, they found what they believed was the Captain Lawrence, a sunken schooner from the 1930s thought to have gold aboard. A legal fight with the state of Michigan prevented Libert from salvaging that wreckage.

For clues about the Griffon, Libert scoured the journals of La Salle associate Father Louis Hennepin and used his experience as a government intelligence analyst to come up with fresh theories on where the ship might be.

The Griffon was designed as a commercial vessel to haul furs and explore the Great Lakes. It disappeared on its maiden voyage.

Libert's prey was elusive. But during that last dive of the season, with his oxygen tank running out of air, he came upon a piece of timber sticking from the bottom that could be the underwater equivalent of the elusive 30-point buck.

He marked the spot and returned the next spring to examine the pole again. This time, he brought an infrared video camera.

He showed his evidence to Scott Demel, a curator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, who was intrigued enough to visit the site in 2003 to take samples of the pole for carbon dating.

The test found Libert's discovery has a 33 percent probability of dating back to 1679.

Demel said even without overwhelming test results - carbon dating is better at tracking dates thousands of years ago than hundreds of years - other evidence is promising.

The bowsprit appears to be hand-hewn, or made with an ax, as it would have been in the mid-1600s. It appears rough enough to have been made under duress, which is consistent with records that American Indians threatened La Salle and his men as they crafted the ship.

And a series of pegs on the timber are spaced 12.8 inches apart - the pied, an old-fashioned French version of the foot.

Demel said the strongest evidence, however, is the wreckage's location, which appears consistent with Father Hennepin's account of the Griffon's final days.

The ship had set sail from Niagara on Aug. 7, 1679, and journeyed across Lake Erie before ultimately stopping on the shores of what is now Green Bay, Wis.

On Sept. 18, La Salle sent the ship, with a crew of six and 6,000 pounds of fur, back to Niagara. He never saw it again.

Libert's discovery launched another legal battle with Michigan. The federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 gives states the power to manage abandoned wrecks in state waters. Michigan believes it has the rights to all abandoned wrecks in its waters.

But under international maritime law, the discoverer has the right to abandoned shipwrecks. Libert claims as the discoverer, he should have salvage rights to the French-owned ship, if it is the Griffon.

A federal magistrate has asked Michigan and Libert to try to work out a deal.

Nate Bailey, a spokesman for the Michigan attorney general, said the state will abide by the court's order and try to work with Libert. One of their beefs, he said, is that Libert has asked to explore a large swath of land around where the pole was found.

"He could've found a simple timber," Bailey said. "But he asked for a very large swath of land as opposed to something quite specific."

Libert said he has waged the battle not for money, but for recognition.

Thirty years of searching, he said, should entitle him and his friends to at least some of the credit of discovery. He worries if he gives Michigan the precise location of the bowsprit, the state will claim credit, and he will be little more than a footnote.

"I'm not going to give up on this, that's for sure," he said. "It's been too long. It's been way too long."

Though the team will return to the site in May, the next step in the project happens in July, when a team of French archaeologists and Canadian archaeologists will go to the site with him, Demel and their team.

Libert hopes it will be first phase of a two- or three-part process that will include identifying the wreckage, then, if it is the Griffon, recovering and preserving the ship.

The first phase alone might take up to two years and could involve studying the lake floor to see if other wreckage is scattered around the bowsprit.

Libert said he's prepared for the possibility that the wreckage could be from another wreck which would still likely be of archaeological significance.
"It's worth a look," he said.

Demel said if the ship is the Griffon, it could help historians further understand the fur trade in the new world and the early colonization of the United States. And because it's all underwater, it's more likely to be preserved than on land.

"It's a time capsule," Demel said. "It gives a real clear window on what's happening at that time.

Libert meanwhile, has talked to a number of producers who would like to turn his story into a documentary or a film project.

His wife, Kathie, is trying to bolster his efforts by designing a Web site on his expedition and helping to organize fundraisers to offset some of the cost of exploring Lake Michigan.

But selling film rights, Libert argues, isn't what has him and his friends going back to Michigan year after year.

If the wreckage is the Griffon, they might find a place among other Daytonians, like the Wright brothers and Charles F. Kettering, who have done something special.

"We'd go down as discoverers," he said.


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