A First Visit to an 1800's Shipwreck
 September 3, 2003 -- Jean Thornton

How could I refuse such an exciting opportunity? Pat Clyne invited me to go along to do some preliminary archaeology work on a newly discovered shipwreck near the Atocha. Archaeologist Jim Sinclair was coming to Key West to take some measurements and record significant data for his first report on this new (old) wreck. This experience was a first for me. Although I've always enjoyed ‘treasure hunting,’ one of its main thrills for me is the act of uncovering the past - being the first to touch and help unravel the clues to a part of  history that has been long-lost and all but forgotten.
Five of us were going out to the new site: Jim, Pat, Gene Lewis (admiralty attorney), Dana Langolf (Pat's assistant and 'Golden Girl-in-training'), and me. After about an hour and a half boat ride we arrived at the new wreck site and prepared for the dive. Jim, who had previously been diving on this site once before, tentatively identified the ship as being from the late 1800's and gave us a briefing of what to expect. He drew a layout of the site: the three huge anchors, the large chain, and the enormous winch (windlass), which was the most recognizable remains of the ship. He explained that he would go in the water first and put a baseline down the midsection of the ship as a point of reference. All  measurements would be taken from this baseline. Everything would eventually be drawn and measured and on that dive we were to specifically look for and measure the large U-shaped brackets that supported the ship's timbers and would help give us an idea of the exact size of the ship and ultimately help us discover its identity. Jim was also looking for some type of artifact that could provide more clues to this ship.
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When we finally arrived and anchored at the site, everyone was hot and ready to gear-up and jump into the water. With five people on a relatively small boat, this was no easy task. To further complicate the dive, this wreck lies in fairly shallow (25 feet) water and like the Margarita site, which is also a shallow wreck, the current here was quite strong.
Jim and Pat were old pros at this. Jim was in the water first while the rest of us were still getting ready. Gene was the most inexperienced diver in the group, complicated by the fact that his borrowed weight belt and BC didn't fit, and we were all trying to make sure that he got in the water safely. Out of kindness and respect to all of the divers, myself included, I won’t make any comparisons to ‘Curly, Larry and Moe’ in describing this whole ungraceful scene, but we were all in the long run, successful, despite the current and other obstacles.
Eventually I made my way down and swam into the current until I began seeing bits of encrusted wreckage scattered along the sandy bottom. I followed the wreckage and began to recognize parts of the ship: pulleys, brackets, and links of huge anchor chain. I followed the chain to two of the anchors and then made my way to the largest bit of shipwreck material remaining, the windlass. Even though the current was so strong that I had to hold on to keep from being swept away, the wreck was a beautiful site. There were lots of fish and a couple of rays and barracudas swimming about. The water was clear blue and the visibility was good. When I found Jim, he had finished putting down the baseline, filled his slate with professional-looking drawings and notes and was heading up for a new tank of air. He left his tape measure with me, gave me a few hand signals, pointed to the baseline, and swam away.
Okay, this was it - my first big chance at underwater archaeology! Let me tell you right now that tasks you could easily perform on land (take measurements, write down details, and make simple sketches) is a totally different can of worms when you are fighting a strong current underwater. Even though my slate was attached to my BC, it kept trying to drift away from me, and my drawings looked like the scrawlings of a preschooler. I was trying my best to measure the pieces of the structures while avoiding the fire coral and not disturbing any part of the wreck or surrounding marine life, all the while being tossed about by the current. My pencil lead broke, and I felt I had made a major accomplishment just to get out my dive knife and sharpen it. Curious fish swam by and wondered, I'm sure, what this awkward-looking creature was doing in their world. Dana worked diligently, her blonde ponytail flowing gracefully in the water, taking measurements and looking as professional as Jacqueline Bissett in The Deep. After some initial trouble with his ears and equipment, Gene finally made it down to the wreck and was totally awestruck by the underwater world that he discovered there. He learned a valuable lesson about fire coral and why some of us choose to wear dive skins when working near any type of underwater wreckage. Jim continued his work, taking measurements, making drawings and laying a grid. Pat swam about with his video camera, capturing the entire wreck and all of us at work.
All in all, the trip was a success. Jim collected invaluable data which will provide more clues as to the identity of this mystery ship. He commented that this would be a perfect wreck for training archaeology students, and I, for one, would love to go back and do some more training here. Unfortunately, Dana’s drawings and measurements drifted away in the current on her dive slate, but her assistance above and below the water was priceless to us all. I was able to copy my crude drawings and notes to hopefully provide a little more information for Jim’s report. Gene became much more comfortable with the undersea world and got a better understanding of how the archaeological data gathered on site is so valuable to successfully presenting admiralty claims in court. Pat, as usual, enjoyed the experience and brought back some excellent video footage. For me, the day was just about as good as it gets, and I hope to get back out to this site to further my underwater archaeology experience soon!


 
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