YORKTOWN — John Broadwater sits on a boat in the York River, waiting for word from a diver below.
If this were a movie, it would be the perfect time for a flashback. The silver hair on Broadwater’s head would turn dark again, and viewers would be transported to 30 years ago — the last time he was here doing much the same thing. He’s back for a new look at his old shipwrecks.
Last week, for the first time in nearly three decades, archaeologists slipped into the murky York to assess what’s left of the Lost Fleet at Yorktown, a British convoy sent to its doom during the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.
For two centuries, the shipwrecks melted away — swallowed by time, silt and the elements. Alarm bells sounded in the 1970s after a diving magazine mentioned the wrecks, prompting an invasion of sport divers fetching artifacts for themselves.
Broadwater, wearing the official title of state underwater archaeologist back then — he was Virginia’s first — led a team mobilized to study, excavate and find ways to protect the remains.
Plans are to uncover the Betsy by restoring the cofferdam built in the early 1970s, so people on the Yorktown fishing pier can see the ship 50 feet below the York.
In 1988, a 20-page spread in National Geographic detailed their accomplishments — more than 5,000 relics recovered for posterity from one wreck alone, a ship named Betsy.
But state budget cuts came shortly after, and Broadwater’s position was axed. Work stopped on the project, and relics went into storage — many of them uninspected, which led to a scramble just last year, when live hand grenades from The Betsey were discovered sitting on shelves at the Department of Historic Resources in Richmond. That was a new look at an old shipwreck.
After the cuts, Broadwater had to move on. He oversaw the salvaging of the Monitor, the famed Civil War ironclad that went down off North Carolina. Then he helped Jeff Bezos retrieve sunken rocket boosters from Apollo moon missions. Ultimately he worked with movie director James Cameron in the North Atlantic, descending more than two miles to the Titanic, eating his lunch in a submarine perched on the legendary liner’s grand staircase.
But the Yorktown shipwrecks kept calling to him. It was more than just the nagging of a job left unfinished. Last year, Broadwater and two partners — Ryan Johnston and Steve Ormsby — formed JRS Explorations, largely to return to this river.
“The three of us share a passion for this story,” he says.
Now, at 75 years old, Broadwater has come home. He’s working with volunteers — some from the old Betsey days. There’s no hope of getting rich by finding treasure. All relics will belong to the public, a pledge embedded in the company’s incorporation papers.
Sitting on the boat this crisp, spring morning, Broadwater looks pretty happy. The locations of 10 wrecks are known but remote surveying done last spring hinted at some never-before-discovered targets, like the mound of rocks the diver is down there investigating right now. They might be ballast.
Today’s electronics — navigation systems, sonar, sensors — are way more precise than yesterday’s. A magnetometer detected the presence of metal around those rocks. Could be nails or iron from an old ship.
“It feels really good to be back,” Broadwater says, blue eyes shining.
Sandwiched between Yorktown and Gloucester Point, he’s in a natural spot to re-tell the story of what happened here 238 years ago.
“You just can’t make up fiction like that,” Broadwater says. “If anything had gone differently or happened one or two days later or earlier, well, the what-ifs are just endless.”
As he talks, the peaceful setting around the boat seems to fade away. The neat lawns lining the riverbanks. The kids playing with sand buckets on a beach. The whoosh of traffic over the nearby Coleman bridge.
In a movie, it would be time for another flashback.
Six years into the Revolutionary War, the York River bristles with the masts of British ships. It’s the fall of 1781 and the village up on the bluffs is in ruins.
Sixteen thousand troops from the Continental Army and its French Allies are dug into dirt redoubts ringing the town, trading shots with 8,000 British troops trapped against the river.
The bombardment is relentless — cannon, howitzers, mortar — a slug-fest hammering day and night.
But the British commander, Lord Charles Cornwallis, isn’t giving up. He’s expecting reinforcements to sail into the river any day.
Instead, French 74-gun warships show up, having run off the British armada at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Cornwallis has 50 or so vessels of his own anchored in the river, but only a handful of small warships.
One of his best, the 44-gun Charon, has already gone down, set afire by red-hot shot aimed from shore.
Cornwallis tries every move in the play book.
He sets a few of his own ships afire and tries to drift them into the French warships. No luck.
He tries to slip away, loading his men into small boats to make for Gloucester, but a storm roars in and swamps the attempt.
Finally, he resorts to a tactic that’s been used by others: He sacrifices his own fleet.
Cornwallis sends a line of his ships toward the Yorktown beach until they run aground, forming a barrier he hopes will stop the French from landing troops.
1700s painting of Washington and His Generals depicts the masts of ships scuttled in the York to prevent an amphibious invasion by the French fleet.
To keep the rest out of his convoy out of enemy hands — as well as block the river with wreckage — Cornwallis issues orders to scuttle. Holes are drilled or chiseled in hulls and the vessels sink.
It’s not enough. Cornwallis winds up surrendering on Oct. 19, just as a British fleet prepares to sail from New York to his rescue.
It’s a decisive outcome, the beginning of the end. Officially done two years later, the war propels a wave of change that winds up washing around the world.
A yell from the dive boat breaks the spell after his look at the shipwrecks.
Bill Waldrop has been under for about 20 minutes, using a probe to test the bottom around the rocks.
“When you hit something with it, you can tell the difference by the sound of the tap,” Broadwater has explained. “Rock makes a ‘tink.’ Wood makes a ‘thunk.’”
The yell came from Mike Nusbaum, spotting for Waldrop on the dive boat. Waldrop has just radioed up.
“He’s found wood!” Nusbaum hollers.
Excitement flickers through the crew on the boat with Broadwater. Bill Utley, an expert in military history, worked with Broadwater on Betsey. Joshua Daniel, at the helm, runs his own marine survey company.
They all know that finding wood is a promising sign. The next step: search for the telltale humps of ship ribs — evenly spaced, poking up so slightly under their blanket of silt.
Diving in the York isn’t easy. Currents rip and visibility is rarely more than a foot. But if they can locate and measure timbers, they can determine the ship’s size, then scour through old maritime records for a possible ID.
“The idea of going down there and seeing a ship no one has seen for 200 years, and being able to tell its story,” Broadwater says, “now that’s just really something.” It would be the ultimate new look at old shipwrecks.
The hope is to find as many new ones as possible and document any changes in the old ones since Broadwater gave them their last good check in 1990. Research, preservation and artifact display are the priorities. There’s an effort to nominate the area as a National Marine Sanctuary. That would provide a new legal look at the old shipwrecks.
“If you come to Yorktown and only see the redoubts,” Broadwater says, “you’re missing half the battlefield.”
Earlier this year, the state rehired him as the state underwater archaeologist, the first time anyone has filled those shoes since he stepped out of them.
“I’m just hoping I can prove the value of putting someone back in that position full-time,” he says. “In a state like this, it’s just crazy not to have that.”
To do the Yorktown shipwrecks right, Broadwater says, JRS will need a long-haul backer. Government funding is not on the horizon.
“It’ll take a special kind of investor,” he says, “since this isn’t about treasure. They have to be in it for our history.”
If this were a movie, cue that backer for a new look at old shipwrecks.