Friday, May 05, 2006


Search is on for Jonathan Dickinson's sunken ship

By Suzanne Wentley
May 02, 2006

HUTCHINSON ISLAND — Aided by two years of research and a very detailed journal, shipwreck experts today will begin a search for perhaps the most historically significant sunken ship in the state.

Two archaeologists from the Institute for International Maritime Research in North Carolina arrived in Stuart on Monday to prepare for two weeks of surveying seven square miles of Martin County's southern coastline, with the goal of finding the remains of Jonathan Dickinson's ship.

The fate of Dickinson's Reformation, which sank in 1696 after crashing on a reef, led the Quaker pioneer to write a journal that became the earliest known documentation of the Ais Indians, who once inhabited the area. Dickinson and his family had been traveling from his native Jamaica to Philadelphia, where he planned to open a branch of his merchant business.

But with dozens of wrecks along the Treasure Coast over the centuries, it will be difficult to determine if surveyors find Dickinson's ship, volunteer researchers and local historians said.

"Our problem will be finding so much that we may not be able to identify it," said Renee Booth, director of development for the Elliott Museum. "There are shipwrecks on top of shipwrecks."

If the winds calm this morning, Gordon Watts, the institute's director, and institute archaeologist Raymond Tubby will take their 25-foot boat as close to the coast as possible — between Pecks Lake and the St. Lucie Inlet — and use equipment that will record the location of magnetic objects under the sand.

They will also take pictures of the ocean floor to see if a ship hull, cannon or pile of ballast stones is visible.

If the winds continue to push the surf above four feet, they will use hand-held equipment along the water's edge.

The Martin County Sheriff's Office also plans to patrol the survey site and offer divers if necessary.

Tom Fenley, a volunteer researcher from San Antonio who summers in Vero Beach, said they did not expect to find anything beyond historical artifacts or burned sections of hull.

But bits of ceramics or a square nail could be enough to identify the ship, although "not much" is known about the Reformation — including what was used as ballast or where it was built, Fenley said.

The $40,000 survey, funded by a state grant and scheduled to last two weeks, could create a list of wrecks that might be worth investigating further, Watts said.

If the Reformation is identified, any artifacts from the wreck would be preserved by state experts and displayed in an exhibit at the Elliott Museum. Plus, the Jonathan Dickinson trail — outlined in detail in his journal — could be marked and preserved as part of local history, Booth added.

But on Monday, Watts and the shipwreck experts were just hoping the winds would calm so the difficult work could begin.

"If we get a break in the weather, we have the stuff to find it," he said.


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