by James P. Delgado, PhD, Senior Vice President, SEARCH, Inc.
June 23, 2018
A chance discovery in the submersible Alvin in 2015 by deep-diving colleagues from Duke University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution revealed the faint “ghost” of a wooden shipwreck more than a hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina in several thousand feet of water. Resting on Blake Ridge, the wreck was briefly inspected, with the team in Alvin discovering scattered bottles, a ship’s navigational octant, ceramics, and a pile of bricks.
We returned to the Blake Ridge Wreck with NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer to better understand the site and to create a detailed, three-dimensional “map” of the wreck with our colleagues from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, other agencies, universities, the private sector, and the interested public. The magic of telepresence is the ability to share and connect, and for our team of archaeologists to interact with the scientists from other disciplines both on board the ship and ashore, as we were.
The wreck, while it does not look like the “classic shipwreck,” turned out to be a fascinating site that has begun to tell us some of its stories based on what we saw. While much of the wooden hull has been consumed by marine organisms, we saw uneaten traces of the hull in the bottom sediment, including the outline of frames (ribs) and planks, iron fasteners, and the chainplates that helped hold the ship’s masts in place. It is a small site, no more than 66 feet long, and it was likely a small vessel with a crew of some three to five persons.
Two mounds of rock showed us how the ship was made stable in the water with river or beach-rounded stones used as ballast, and a pile of red bricks marks the location of the ship’s galley, where meals were prepared. Lying close by, in an area where the ship’s cabin would have been, a pile of conch shells suggests a stop in the Bahamas or Florida, where these shells would have been harvested or bought as food for the crew.
There were artifacts we saw that spoke to the people on board – bottles of wine, ceramic jugs and containers for food and other liquids; a small sewing kit with a pile of brass buttons; a slate; a tobacco pipe; and a comb; as well as the octant. We also found a small, elegant vase, probably for flowers. We were careful as detectives, and followed the first rule of archaeology, which is to map, document, and not touch. We recovered nothing but photographs.
What happened here? We may never know, but the wreck lies off the edges of the Gulf Stream, which has been a highway for oceanic traffic for centuries. The ship appears to be a humble, working-class vessel. In that, and given its location, this vessel probably was one of many small ships using that ocean highway to connect to various ports, carrying out trade and serving commerce much as long haul semis do on the highways and freeways of our time.
A long stretch of anchor chain running off into the darkness and the location of the wreck suggest it was lost in a storm, perhaps even an ocean hurricane, that in the end, sent the ship spiraling down as the chain spilled out from the chain locker. I do not suspect that the people on the ship survived.