What’s next? It’s a big ocean full of wrecks, and as I write this, The Sea Hunters team is planning to return to Chile to dive on the flagship of the Chilean Navy, Esmeralda, sunk in combat during the War of the Pacific in 1879. That war, between Chile and Peru, was a bloody struggle largely forgotten by the English-speaking world. It is not forgotten in South America. The captain of Esmeralda, Arturo Prat, is buried in a place of honor on Valparaiso’s harbor front, and his name lives on many buildings and streets. Prat died when his wooden warship was rammed by the Peruvian ironclad monitor Huascar. He leapt from the decks of his sinking ship onto the prow of Huascar to inspire his men to follow him and try to take the Peruvian ship. Instead, he was shot down and died, sword in hand, a hero honored by both sides. Esmeralda’s wooden hulk is still intact and holds the bones of many of her dead sailors more than a century after the battle.
We will also journey to the coast of Vietnam to explore the history-rich waters off the ancient city of Hoi An. Located at the silted mouth of a river, Hoi An was a port of the seafaring Cham empire. The Cham, an Indo-Asiatic people, were traders who built magnificent cities of brick, which rivaled nearby Angkor Wat, up the rivers in the heart of Southeast Asia. The Cham empire ultimately fell in the late fifteenth century as a result of warfare with the people of Angkor and the rising power of the Da Viet people of the North, but Hoi An lived on. In the sixteenth century, Hoi An served as Vietnam’s major port. Centuries later, trade shifted to a nearby bay just off the port city of Danang.
As a result of the centuries of trade, storms and warfare, the waters off Hoi An and Danang are filled with shipwrecks. Medieval wrecks laden with trade goods—mostly pottery—have been discovered by fishermen. Unfortunately, some of the wrecks have been salvaged and their artifacts sold to feed the voracious international antiquities market. Our trip to Vietnam has more than one purpose. We will work on the wrecks of Hoi An to find a suitable site for scientific excavation so that its contents and story can form the basis of a new maritime museum there. Operated by the Vietnamese, the new museum, we hope, will become a centre for Vietnamese archeologists to work to study and recover their country’s rich underwater heritage, and not let it be taken away and sold. Our partner in this new venture is George Belcher, the discoverer of the U.S. brig Somers, who has created the Asia Maritime Foundation to fund the museum and the training of Vietnamese archeologists.
Then we’re off to the coast of Normandy, where, in June 1944, the greatest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare breached the walls of Hitler’s Fortress Europa on D-Day. Colleagues from the U.S. Navy and Texas A&M University’s Institute of Nautical Archeology have surveyed the wrecks of D-Day’s Omaha beach, site of the American landings. We’ll go there to complete the survey at Juno beach, where Canadian troops poured ashore under heavy fire on “the longest day.” Earlier surveys have found sunken ships, landing craft and tanks just offshore, and we expect to find even more—fallen warriors who never made it to the beach sixty years ago, in a battle that literally changed the face of history. All the more significant is the fact that in the waters of the English Channel, those remnants of battle lie exactly where they fell, on a raw submerged landscape of war that is very different from the manicured lawns, memorials and museums that commemorate D-Day ashore.
In the years to come, there will be many more adventures and many more encounters with shipwrecks and the relics of the events that shaped the world we live in. But as I write, I think of one particular dive with The Sea Hunters. We were surveying the depths of Lake Ontario, on the Canadian side near Point Petre, a graveyard of ships. It is also the site of a 1950s Canadian missile range, where the rocket-launched Avro Arrow test models we were hunting for had been shot out over the lake. A sonar survey of the lake bed by Mike Fletcher’s friend, Dave Gartshore, had discovered a rocket and a two-masted wreck.
The rocket turned out to be the remains of a Canadian-built missile used to test launch a Velvet Glove air-to-air missile, the weapon being considered for use in the Avro Arrow. This remnant of testing at the Picton range, while an indirect link to the Avro Arrow program, was not what we had come looking for. Them’s the breaks in sea hunting. Sometimes you find what you seek, and sometimes you don’t.
The unexpected treasure is the shipwreck, which turns out to be a completely intact two-masted schooner. She lies nearly upright and the masts rise out of the deck to reach for the surface, just like Vrouw Maria’s. Unlike that fabled Finnish shipwreck, however, this mystery schooner as yet has no name. But we can say, based on the equipment and the way it is built, that it seems to date to just around 1865, and may have sunk within twenty years of its launch. It may even be older, built around 1850 and updated, as some of its fittings are from that earlier time.
The quarterdeck at the stern served as the roof for a small cabin, probably the captain’s. The sliding hatch that led below is gone, but looking inside, we see the top of a small iron stove and scattered furniture. Close by, the ship’s wooden wheel sits waiting for a helmsman. The cargo hatches gape open, their wooden covers lying off to one side. The schooner was heavily loaded with coal, which indicates that she had loaded the cargo on the American side at Oswego, New York, the principal coal port on the lake in the mid-nineteenth century.
A forensic look at this intact wreck tells us even more. This ship sank suddenly, probably in a winter storm. Fresh water, driven by the wind, will quickly ice up decks, rigging and masts, weighing down a vessel. The position of the gaffs, boom and mast hoops suggests that the schooner was scudding along the lake on a storm-tossed crossing with very little sail set—“close reefed” in sailor parlance—and perhaps, in a gale or a snowstorm, with very little visibility. The location of the wreck, very close to shore, but turned away from it, suggests that the crew suddenly realized that they were driving onto shore. Not surprisingly, the rudder is angled sharply to starboard, literally stopped in time in the middle of an incomplete turn. Experienced mariners would turn about and head back out to deeper water, perhaps to drop anchor and ride out the storm. The anchors do look as if the crew was in the midst of trying to drop them when the ship sank. The davits for the ship’s boat are empty at the stern, indicating the boat may have been launched; but, in heavy seas, it was probably carried away. Then schooner slipped beneath the waves, leaving the sailors suddenly alone in the cold dark water, struggling until their thick clothing and heavy boots pulled them under.
We don’t know the name of this ship or when she sank. Perhaps, based on our discoveries, researchers will ultimately learn what it is we found and perhaps just what happened. This wreck and its story will not rewrite history or enlarge our understanding of the past, but they serve to remind us that when we go into tombs, dig in the ground or dive into the sea, what we are really seeking is a connection to everyday people whose experiences and lives make up the rich fabric of history. That’s why we keep on exploring.