Underwater Dig Continues
By L. Todd Spencer, Virginian-Pilot
Researchers scouting the York River for Revolutionary War shipwrecks believe they’ve found another one — complete with cannons, “a historic diver’s dream,” said one of the explorers.
Like most of the 10 wrecks previously discovered, this one is entombed in the muck, a ghostly witness to America’s fight for freedom, shrouded with a mound of silt and oyster shells.
The wrecks are a reminder that Yorktown played a pivotal role in our country’s first chapter.
Sure, Philadelphia can claim the Declaration of Independence, adopted there on July 4, 1776.
But this small town on the York River was the scene of the bloody bookend, the last major battle of the war. The wrecks are the remnants of Lord Charles Cornwallis’ fleet, sunk in 1781 during the Siege of Yorktown, a 25,000-man slugfest that finally broke the back of British rule in the colonies.
As many as 40 British ships were lost here, forgotten for hundreds of years. Explorations in the 20th century located the bulk of the known sites, leading the area to become the first underwater listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
But with no comprehensive surveys done in decades, it’s been a long time since any new discoveries have been made, especially ones including cannon.
“It’s just incredible,” said Ryan Johnston, one of the partners in JRS Explorations, a Yorktown-based outfit created to try to map and preserve what’s left of the ships.
Only a few of the known wrecks have yielded any kind of cannon. When these were found June 19, Johnston said, the team could only think “you’re kidding me.”
The wreck, tentatively identified as the remains of a troop transport named the Shipwright, was first detected when sensors scanning the bottom indicated a likely target in about 23 feet of water near the Gloucester side of the river.
Divers descended two weeks ago. Feeling their way along in near-zero visibility, probing into the river bed, they discovered a partially-buried iron cannon measuring more than 7 feet long.
“We kind of stumbled into it,” Johnston said. “It’s so encrusted you can’t even put your hand in the muzzle.”
They found another, and possibly a third buried even deeper. They also detected what they think is the hull of the ship, resting a foot or more down in the mud.
An excavation, which must wait for the proper permits and conservation plans, is the only way to be certain of the ship’s identity. But every wreck in the river tells its own piece of the Yorktown story. Several clues point toward this one being the Shipwright.
Old records provide a decent accounting of Cornwallis’ vessels, not to mention the battle that consumed them. Dozens were intentionally scuttled by the British commander to keep them out of enemy hands or blockade the harbor. Three are known to have gone up in flames.
The most famous of those: Cornwallis’s largest warship, the HMS Charon. French batteries firing heated shot hit the Charon, setting it ablaze. The blow wasn’t as bad as it sounds, since most of the Charon’s 44 guns had already been moved ashore to support the ground battle. But when the fire burned through the ship’s anchor rope, it drifted into two large transport vessels, compounding the loss. All three burned to their waterlines.
The Charon, one of the first wrecks ever located in the York, was excavated in the 1930s. The site of the other burned ship has also been long known.
This wreck is close enough to those two to be the third, the Shipwright. Transport vessels were known to carry a few cannon for self-defense.
The clincher: Divers brought up a chunk of charred-looking wood.
“It literally still smells like fire, believe it or not,” Johnston said.
The Yorktown shipwrecks belong to the state. The quest to save them is largely volunteer. New finds provide priceless fuel.
“It’s an inspiration for the crew,” Johnston said. “Geez, we’d be happy to find even one cannon. This is huge.”
Buying a Sailboat
Chris Beardsley of North Point Brokers put me on to a couple from Raleigh who were looking to buy a Beneteau 38 from him. Zach Hamm and Laura Geller were looking for something big to sail in the meantime to get the feel of a boat. We went out on a light day that began to build by noon.
Zack Hamm said, “I like the 38 because it’s the first boat that I can stand up inside. I’m 6-4 and have to bend over in other boats.” I regaled him with the benefits of big boats, namely range. “That’s good,” he said. “We’re looking to Southport NC because it’s on the Intercoastal but close to the Cape Fear River and the ocean.” He tacked downriver six times in a magnificent easterly and then we flew the spinnaker going back. They’re going to love sailing.
More Underwater News
While taking friends sailing on a light day, we encountered a barge and tug that looked unusual. Instead of an oil barge waiting to offload at the Colonial Pipeline terminal, we saw a dredge barge that seemed to be filled with gravel or shells. A fire hose from the tug washed the material into the water, and the barge moved around toward shore. A small motorboat accompanied the tug. It appeared to be part of an operation to salt the coast with finely ground oyster shells for a new oyster field. After washing off all the shells, the barge and tug proceeded under the Coleman Bridge for a refill somewhere.
I tried to reach the tug Johnny C. on Channel 16, but he was operating on radio silence. The next day, Johnny C. came chugging under the Coleman Bridge, and this time I was able to reach him on radio. He said the ground shells came from a site at Camp Peary up the York, and now he was headed around to the James River for more.
The nearby VIMS explains the idea of building the reefs:
“We’re all familiar with tipping points, when crossing what might seem a minor threshold can lead to drastically different outcomes—the Super Bowl favorite that falls to last place with injury to a single lineman, a tomato seedling that surges skyward the moment it tops the shadowy confines of its clay pot.
“Now, a study by researchers at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science identifies a tipping point in oyster restoration efforts, wherein reefs rebuilt to reach a foot or more above the bottom develop into healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems, while those rebuilt at lower heights are quickly coated and then buried by sediment.”
Sailing Past a Casino
Jeff and Diane Ruby of Remington VA took their grown children sailing on a lovely day with stead light winds. I casually asked their son Jonathan if he was in school and he replied, “No, I’m a dealer… at a casino.” Whew.
He works the Pennsylvania riverside casino in Pittsburgh. “I work poker, craps, blackjack, Baccarat, you name it. Baccarat is probably the hardest to learn and to play, since it has 1,156 permutations of bets — not to mention split payouts.
“My job is really in sales since I have to make people happy even when they’re losing. The biggest tip I got was $10,000, but I had to give up $498,000 to the guy in winnings.”
I asked about card counting. “People try it in blackjack, but it’s hard to do well when a shoe has six decks of cards in it. The trick is to realize the shoe has over 300 cards, of which 24 are tens (10, jack, queen, king). Focus on the tens.”
Do people cheat? “They try to by ‘taking shots.’ By that I mean they are testing the system. A guy playing blackjack asked that I issue his second card face down. Okay. I turned up mine first and he followed, and we both busted. He claimed to win because I turned up first, but it doesn’t work that way. The floor manager had to explain it to him.”
Do retirees go into dealing? “Oh sure, I’ve got a guy who worked his whole life in the mill and always wanted to become a dealer, ever since he was a kid. I’m training him now.”
What about the sports book? “In Las Vegas they’ll bet anything, even during the game. I saw one with odds on how many players would show up in red shoes. It’s crazy.”
Can he play? “I can bet, but not in my own casino. It used to be you couldn’t bet anywhere in the state, but they dropped that. Vegas pays dealers better, but they’re more experienced. My casino is very good to all of us. I got a personal note from my manager about my good work.”
What about volume? “Not a million dollars a day, but maybe a million a week. People love to gamble. Me too.”
Jon’s parents seemed as mesmerized about the casino business as I was. You learn a lot sailing.
On a serene afternoon of light winds, a New Jersey couple took their son sailing for everyone’s first time. It seemed at first a challenge for Carolyn Kaiser, but she got the hang of it quickly.
“I’ve wanted to do this because I’m an English teacher at the Marine Academy of Science & Technology. They invite me out once a year on their research vessel, so it’s good to know what I’m doing.”
She tacked masterfully under the Coleman Bridge as we drew closer to the Naval Weapons Station. A lone Navy Patrol gunboat followed our progress and variously approached and fell back. There wasn’t a Navy ship in port, perhaps they were bored. I steered Carolyn on a tack toward the north shore. “Pick out a house,” I said as a directional target. “Any house?” she joked. “Are you offering us a free house?”
Bill and Carolyn used to run a small motorboat on the Raritan River, near the Naval Weapons Station of Earle, NJ. “Once, I ran inside their security zone and they came at me,” Bill said. “Never again.” Carolyn said, “I had a student once who turned into a drug dealer. He rode across Raritan Bay to New York City with a stash and ran out of gas on the way back. He spent the night clinging to a buoy before getting rescued the next morning.”
Suddenly a drone descended on us from the other shore. It hovered over the stern and drew close as if to take photos. Then it rose and approached again. Weird. Then, ever so briefly, we spotted a dolphin in the distance.
Because the wind was light, her husband Bill and I deployed the spinnaker on the bow while their son Max ran the spin sheet. We sailed in the range of the Weapons Station, which led the patrol boat to point our way once again. Eventually the wind died and we motored back under the bridge. Up high we spotted a fellow walking the catwalk, which I’ve never seen in my 20 years on the York.
Let’s Go Sail
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