Authors: The Sea Hunters II
Tags: #General, #Social Science, #Shipwrecks, #Transportation, #Ships & Shipbuilding, #Underwater Archaeology, #History, #Archaeology, #Military, #Naval
For Barbara, always for Barbara.
For my mother, who raised six children
and dozens of dogs, we miss you.
IN MEMORY OF ...
Ocean pioneer of the first magnitude.
A great researcher.
Exceptional historian and nautical archaeologist.
Who inspired a legion of divers.
Last surviving crew member of PT-109.
The authors are extremely grateful to the kind and gracious people who helped to make this book possible. Their efforts and considerations are deeply appreciated. Ralph Wilbanks of Diversified Wilbanks, John Davis of ECO-NOVA Productions, Bill Nungesser, Wes Hall, Connie Young, Robert Fleming, Richard DeRosset, Emlyn Brown, Gary Goodyear, Graham Jessop, Elsworth Boyd, Carole Bartholmeaux, Colleen Nelson, Susan MacDonald, Lisa Bower, John Hunley, and Wayne Gronquist.
NUMA ADVISORY BOARD OF TRUSTEES
Colonel Walt Schob
Admiral William Thompson
Commander Donald Walsh
Dr. Harold Edgerton*
Kenhelm Stott, Jr.*
WE ALL HAVE A FASCINATION WITH THE SEA AND THE mysteries that lie in the deep. It is still one of the great unknowns. Adventurers climb the highest mountains in order to reach the summits and feast on the horizons fifty miles away. A diver does not share that pleasure. Unless he is diving in the clear water of the tropics, his visibility is seldom more than twenty feet. He can only wonder what lies in the murk beyond.
Men and women have hiked over most of the world’s landmass, and what little we have not encountered has been photographed from satellites. Giant observatories and the Hubble telescope have shown us the wonders of deep space. But the human eye and the camera lens have recorded less than 1 percent of the wonders that lie hidden below the surface of the seas.
The deep liquid void is still a great enigma.
Thanks to mushrooming scientific interest, however, deepwater technology has awakened. Probes have studied everything from bottom storms and the migration of sea life to currents, geology, underwater acoustics, and the increasing bugaboo of pollution. Because of new, sophisticated equipment that can probe thousands of feet down, great shipwrecks of history have been discovered in the silent darkness, after lying centuries in unmarked watery graves.
Men like Bob Ballard and companies like Nauticos have reached and photographed several of these lost wrecks, but many lie there yet, waiting. That’s what we do: We try to find them. The National Underwater & Marine Agency (NUMA) searches for lost ships of historic significance, in the hopes of finding and surveying them before they have deteriorated and are gone forever. Since we are a shoestring operation funded mostly by my book royalties, our expeditions concentrate solely on wrecks in shallow water.
NUMA was formed in 1978 after our first venture—the unsuccessful hunt for John Paul Jones’s
and while we were preparing for our second crack at the same ship. Wayne Gronquist, a prominent Austin attorney, suggested that it would be more advantageous as a legal entity if we incorporated as a not-for-profit foundation. I agreed, and Wayne, who served twenty years as NUMA’s president, filed the documents. And, yes, it is the same name as the government agency in my Dirk Pitt adventure books. The trustees thought it would be sporting to name the foundation after my own fictional creation, so I could say, “Yes, Virginia, there really is a NUMA.”
When it comes to salvage, we leave that to others. No member of NUMA has ever kept an artifact. People who visit my home and office are always surprised to find only models and paintings of the ships we have discovered, never any relics. Any item brought up from a wreck is preserved and turned over to the state in whose waters it was found. For instance, the artifacts from the Confederate raider
and the Union frigate
—both NUMA finds—were preserved by the College of William and Mary before they were put on public display at the Norfolk Naval Museum in Virginia.
My desire is that our discoveries should be followed by federal, state, or local governments; by corporations, universities, or historical organizations with the funding either to raise the wrecks or retrieve the artifacts for exhibit in museums.
In the twenty-three years of its existence; NUMA’s search and survey teams have conducted more than a hundred and fifty expeditions and have discovered or surveyed sixty-five wreck sites. We’ve also searched for a lost locomotive, a pair of cannon, an airplane, and a zeppelin. The successes, I’m sad to say, have been outnumbered by the failures. When you tackle the hunt for a lost object on land or sea, you quickly learn that the odds against finding it are far steeper than your chances of winning at a Las Vegas roulette table.
To look for a shipwreck is at best a crapshoot, and to launch and fund a search, it helps to be the headmaster of the village idiot school or else the kind of stubborn lunatic who tries to walk through walls simply because they’re in the way. I probably fall in the latter group.
You have to live with failure—all too often, it seems. Let me describe just a few of our recent disappointments.
In 2000, we hunted for John Holland’s sixteen-foot, one-man submarine in New York’s East River. Along with his competitor Simon Lake, John Holland is considered to be the father of the modem submarine. Their designs established the underwater navies of Europe and America just around the turn of the century.
Holland’s tiny submarine was thought to be quite sophisticated for its time. Unfortunately, plans and reports on her construction are sparse. She was lost when she was stolen by the Fenian Brotherhood, an early parent organization of the Irish Republican Army, who funded Holland’s early experiments with submarines for the express purpose of putting the British navy out of business. For the Brotherhood, Holland designed and built the most advanced sub of the time, aptly titled the
Though never created to ram a steel-hulled ship, the three-man, 19-ton boat was 31 feet in length, with a 6-foot beam, and was propelled by a 15-horsepower Brayton twin-cylinder gas engine.
Not content with merely developing an efficient undersea boat, Holland conceived and perfected the instrument that turned the submarine into one of the most devastating weapons of warfare. Taking advantage of a missile developed by John Ericsson, the famed creator of the Civil War
who graciously allowed the sub builder to use copies of his experimental models, Holland fitted the missiles to a weapon of his own design in a 6-foot-by-9-inch tube. This gun, as it was called, was fired pneumatically by high-pressure air. The brilliant concept has changed little over the past 120 years.
The sub and its weapon worked incredibly well during tests conducted by Holland, tests that irritated the impatient Fenians. Angered because they felt he was taking too much time with his experiments and trial runs with the ram, the Fenians decided to snatch it. On a dark night in November of 1883, a group of maddened Irish tanked up on good whiskey at a Brooklyn saloon. After becoming properly fortified, they borrowed a tugboat and sneaked up to the dock where the
was moored and towed her away.
Enjoying the moment in an alcoholic haze, they became carried away and decided to make off with the small experimental sub, too. Then they headed up the East River toward Long Island Sound, intending to hide the two subs up a small river near New Haven, Connecticut.
By the time they reached Whitestone Point, the wind had begun to blow strongly from the north and heavily buffeted the small convoy. The Fenians failed to notice that the model boat’s hatch cover on the turret had not been tightened down, and water began spilling through the cracks. Rapidly filling, the little sub foundered in the rising waves, snapped her tow-line, and headed to the bottom, 110 feet below. Unaware of the loss, they calmly continued on their way to New Haven.
still survives in a museum in Paterson, New Jersey.
I took up the challenge of searching for the little sub. Ralph Wilbanks hauled his boat,
up to New York from Charleston, and we stayed on the New York Maritime College cadet training cargo ship in the passengers’ staterooms and ate with the cadets in their cafeteria. I am indebted to Admiral David Brown, dean of the college, whose courtesy and hospitality were a godsend to the project. The college maintenance people helpfully lifted Ralph’s boat in and out of the water and provided space at the dock.
The sidescan sonar revealed many pieces of junk on the river bottom in the area off Whitestone Point, where the sub reportedly sank—though how the Fenians could claim they knew the spot, during a dark and windy night in choppy water in the days before depth sounders, is a mystery to me. I doubt whether they even knew the sub was missing until they reached New Haven.
Many of the anomalies the sidescan picked up were fifty-five-gallon steel drums. We could not help but wonder if one of them contained Jimmy Hoffa. We also recorded a few small cabin cruisers and sailboats on the bottom and imagined them with missing bodies inside. No one was in the mood to dive and find out. The riverbed was littered with so much metallic trash, it was difficult to pick out a small sub under the river mud with the magnetometer since no sign of it appeared on the sonar. After three days of fruitlessly cruising up and down the scenic East River, we packed up and called it a day.
Was the little sub covered over by mud? Did it lie under the Whitestone Bridge, whose steel girders threw the mag into hysterics? Or does it lie farther out in Long Island Sound?
I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I hope to return someday and pick up the search where the river fans out into the Sound.
Continuing my self-inflicted orgy of shipwreck hunting, I then launched a search for the Confederate raider
which had a short but successful career, capturing nine Union merchant ships from 1862 to 1864. Though not quite as fascinating as that of
which we found under the James River in Virginia in 1984, her history made her famous, and, as one of the first sea raiders, her exploits inspired the German raiders of two world wars.
During her cruise, she almost started a war with Morocco, when a group of her officers went ashore and were assaulted by the locals before they barely escaped back to the ship with their bodies still intact. Disturbed by the indignity, the captain of the
ordered the guns manned and brought to bear. He then blasted the Moroccans until they dispersed.
A few months later, no longer considered fit to sail the seas as a raiding cruiser, she was sold and put into service as a mail packet between Lisbon and the Cape Verde Islands, where she was soon captured by a ship of the Union navy as a prize of war and returned to the United States. After a legal battle between the United States and Britain, she was sold to a series of shipping companies, before finally being bought by the Gulf-port Steamship Company for passenger and cargo service between Halifax and Portland, Maine.
When on a passage south from Nova Scotia in January of 1875, the old steamship, still named
struck the rocks known as the Triangles ten miles west of Tenants Harbor, Maine. The crew and passengers took to the lifeboats and rowed through a snowstorm to shore. No lives were lost, but the ship became a total wreck and was abandoned. She was the last of the Confederate raiders to die.
Historian Michael Higgins produced a small mountain of research on
and her grounding, contacted me, and, soft touch that I am, I agreed to arrange a search off Maine for the remains of the fabled ship. After arriving in Tenants Harbor with Ralph, Wes Hall, and Craig Dirgo, we settled into a hotel reminiscent of a Steinbeck Monterey fish cannery. We passed time throwing rocks from one side of town to the other and watching the rails rust at the train depot, before finding an old-fashioned drugstore with ancient white octagonal tile on the floor and a genuine antique soda fountain.
I ordered my all-time favorite from my childhood, a chocolate malt with chocolate ice cream churned in a metal canister by a 1930s mixer. One sip and I was in paradise.
Early next morning, with Ralph at the helm,
swept out toward Triangle Rocks, dodging literally hundreds of colorfully painted buoys attached to lobster traps. Every lobsterman has his own distinct color-coded buoy, and more and more they are being purchased by collectors.
Wes manned the sonar and I watched the magnetometer, and Ralph threaded
in and around the rocks, while Craig kept a wary eye for lobster buoys or scallop divers. Waves were washing over the rocks all around us, but Ralph seemed oblivious to them as he grimly studied the echo sounder. At times, they seemed so close you could spit on them, and yet they yielded no hint of
There were a few small mag hits, but nothing showed on the sidescan sonar. After crisscrossing the Triangles three times, we stared at one another in surprised disappointment. We had come up empty. There was no indication of a shipwreck to be found.
We knew we were in the right spot. The only other rocks were too far out of the area, according to the old reports. Just to play it safe, we checked those out, too. How could an iron-hulled wreck the size of
The answer came from local historians whom we consulted after the unsuccessful hunt. Since urchin and scallop divers had been all over those rocks for many years without sighting wreckage, the only answer was that
had been salvaged. Records from the 1870s and 1880s are sparse, but it was suggested that, owing to the extreme economic hardships of the citizens of Maine at the time, they’d pulled up almost every pound of her, including the keel and boilers, which they sold for scrap.
Curses, foiled again.
Shipwreck junkies that we were, the gang continued on to Saybrook, Connecticut, to take a stab at finding David Bushnell’s famous Revolutionary War submarine, the
This was the first practical submarine in the world at the time—every submarine built in the following centuries owes its ancestry to the
The son of a Connecticut Yankee farmer, Bushnell had a creative mind and was self-taught in his early years. Entering Yale at the advanced age of thirty-one, he roomed with Nathan Hale, who later became America’s most famous patriot-spy. While in school, Bushnell became fascinated with the untried concept of producing underwater explosions with gunpowder. He was perhaps the first in history to devise and build a powder-filled container that had a clockwork timer capable of being exploded underwater. Not content simply to allow his mines to float against enemy vessels, which he accomplished successfully by blowing up a British schooner and a smaller boat whose crew made the mistake of trying to pull one of the mines aboard, he decided the only effective way to sink a warship was to come up with a means of placing the mine directly against the hull.