Salvage History
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Salvage History

   In 1988 the Jamestown Group bought three recovery vessels and a treasure site from Mel Fisher’s Treasure Salvors . They worked this site all spring and summer but had no luck. In the Summer of 1988, they were enlisted by the Kirby Group to help locate and recover an ancient shipwreck at the “Kirby site”. They used an airlift and over a period of weeks, dug many trenches 5-7 feet deep until they finally ran into the wreck. With its Teredo crust being the tell-tale identifying signature they used wrecking bars to punch into the crust and after opening enough of an area, were able to locate a wooden beam of an ancient shipwreck. The timber was pulled from the wreck and brought back to shore for further identification. This evidence on its own, was quite compelling, which leads one to ask, why wasn’t it pursued at that time? 

   Sometime around their discovery, the Fisher Group foreclosed on their contract, ending Jamestown’s ability to pursue anything further. The Jamestown investors were going no further on a timber they knew nothing about. Jamestown left the area and the expedition ended. 

   The Kirby Group received new information on the timber through Edward Wells in late September of 1988. The description given by Walter Zacharchuk, Marine and Ship Archaeologist as to the size and weight of the vessel are in line with Kirby’s research that led him to the site.

Through the nineties the Kirby Group did many different surveys, using magnetometers and a sub-bottom profiling system. They even dove the area using rods to probe the bottom looking for the elusive wreck. The results were all inconclusive and the exact location of the ancient shipwreck remained beyond their grasp. Two major air lift attempts were made in 2002 and 2003 but the holes dug were in the wrong positions. 

   In April of 2005, the Kirby Group was ready for another try. After a year of work in rebuilding their work vessel and many hours of laying out the proper survey search areas, they began. 

   Captain William Rawson, Operations Coordinator Kenny Rose, Mate Andrais Rohrs and Rick Horgan of Sonographics Inc. Fort Lauderdale, Fla. returned to the Kirby site. They began running north south lines 15 feet apart. From line 21 down to line 14, they passed over the anomaly and continued until a reef was reached. Lines 13 through 7 were over the anomaly without the reef to the north and finally the anomaly ended at line 7. 

   This was exactly what they were looking for. The abundance of magnetometer hits, the running east of, and from the reef, were all in line with their information, attained through from Kirby, the original discoverer of the wreck site. 

   Today’s sub-bottom profiler and the associated computer programs are the cutting edge in locating a submerged wreck. The printout of the reflected bottom with the overburden removed is a fantastic view of a wreck that has been totally encrusted with the remains of the Teredoworms which ate her. In the runs where the profiler picked up the anomaly, it penetrated the crust and further showed the bedrock three feet below. All that remains of the wreck is contained below the “Teredo crust”. Between the crust and the bedrock are the remains of an ancient historical shipwreck. 

   Upon the information gathered in April 2005, The Kirby group organized their effort to make discovery in early May. They used Monica (Peter LaQuerre affectionately named the suction airlift from 2002-2003 after Ms. Lewinski) to bein their search based on the NOAA permit granting test holes at the “Kirby Site”. With the same Captain and crew from April, and a few other elite divers from the area they began efforts to remove 5-6 feet of dense claylike mud material from the crust using Monica. On the last day of their three day expedition, the team reached the Teredo crust and cleared enough of an area to punch through it with a heavy wrecking bar. They opened a three inch hole and used Monica to suck out what was inside. Out popped a Butternut, of the walnut family of nuts, most likely used as a food source on an ocean voyage. Also recorded were small fingerlike pieces of wood, none larger than half a pinky in length. 

   May 29th, 2005 began the Kirby Group’s second attempt at the same hole and the same crust. The hole was widened and the area of crust was in turn enlarged. The upper diameter of the hole was aprox.10 feet and the bottom of the hole at the crust area was 4-5 feet irregularly. They began to break apart the crust with chisels and hammers and many tanks of compressed air. 

   The team opened a 2’ by 2’ hole and was able to place the end of the Monica in the hole. Upon checking the debris field of this event, they discovered slag coal, charcoal and anthracite coal pieces all small but identifiable. They placed these pieces in salt water and photographed them, as they had done with the wood and butternut from the previous expedition. 

   A little silver-like container was also found in the debris field from things beneath the crust. There was only a small fossilized piece remaining, measuring about 3”x 3”x I” with no silver content remaining. In the upper middle top, there was what looks like a Spanish cross of ancient times relieved in the material. 

   A sample of the crust was taken Dr. Robert Hillman of Battelle Research Institiute and it was confirmed to be teredo. 

   On their third and last attempt at the hole the Kirby Group tried to widen the base so that a diver didn’t have to approach the crust face down and feet up, as this is a limited and awkward way to work and make progress. The hole at no time allows the divers to see anything and almost all work proceeds by touch as visibility is zero. 

   On this occasion they were joined by two NOAA project managers. They observed the work site and the surrounding areas underwater. They also discussed some of the unusual circumstances of the wreck and the task of salvaging it. The weather turned on the third day and they had to terminate the expedition. 

The 2006 Dive season officially began for the Kirby Group on May 12, 2006 when they joined forces The United States Marine Earth Science and Ocean Research Group to salvage and recover artifacts from the shipwreck at the Kirby site. On May 28th the Kirby group set to sea with divers, Billy, David, Alfonso & Alex, logging 3 successful 35 minute dives. A hole was dug all the way to the teredo crust. The next day the first dive proceeded with 4 divers: Alphonso, Alex, Billy and David. The divers enlarged the hole even pushing mud into the airlift by hand. The digging went fast. A 4ft circle of teredo was exposed at the bottom of the hole with the top measuring about 8ft. During the second dive, the compressor began smoking profusely, and stalled out innumerable times. The group performed their third and fourth dives in a different area of interest. May 30 the Kirby group rented a compressor because the old one (XAS 85 Atlas Copco) blew up the day before. The compressor was installed on the boat and stretched from the fish box to the transom.

June 3rd began with Alex, Dave and Bill all diving together at a depth of 55', with some 5-10’ visibility. Using wrecking bars and 5lb hammers the divers made progress as the crust slowly gave in to repeated smashing. They had two openings large enough to put “Monica” (the 8” airlift) into and proceeded to suck (The airlift sucks out about 2-3 cubic feet of the material that lays below the crust) out whatever lay below. Both holes proved void of any signs of ship’s life. With no sight of what they were looking for, they started digging the hole bigger to the south for another exploration hole into the teredo crust. They probed the hole with a disturbed field metal detector and also ran the detector over the debris field but found nothing.

June 5th they started a new hole just 20’ south of last year’s first and only hole. That hole had yielded the “nut” and tiny silverlike box with the Spanish cross on its top edge. Billy and David did three dives for 48, 38 and 40 minutes. Towards the end, as the water cleared with the current, they had reached the teredo crust and broken enough crust to get Monica in the hole and suck out the 2-3 cubic yards of material from below. This was a total record time for digging a hole and crust busting in one day. This was a far cry from last year’s slow and laborious hole digging fiasco, which took three dive episodes of three days each. Practice and the right tools sure help.

June 8th divers Billy and Damond (a new member of the team) were ready for the expanding and crust busting of David and Billy's one day wonder hole. The water pump on the “Lady Laura’s” Cummins Diesel failed on the way out of the harbor. Thanks to Advanced Auto Parts, They had a new one installed and were on their way by lunchtime. They started the dig at 2pm. The debris field and inside the hole were checked with the metal detector but not a peep of metal was found. They found one sole chunk of soft coal, as big as a fist. Like Christmas in June. The next day they now moved to the more northern area of the wreck site exactly on the J spot from the mag survey of last April 14-15th. This is the start of their 3rd hole and hopefully the lucky one. They found the ropes and corner poles still standing from the Jamestown grid and trench effort from back in 1988. That dig yielded the “Y” or fishtailed floor timber which was the first piece of the wreck found from under the teredo crust. This is just east of the reef and in the northeast corner of the anomaly. After the second dive, they had a good bit of crust showing but with the weather changing decided to return to port. Winds were 20 knots, 3-4’ chop and a bumpy ride home was had by all. There was an air of excitement about this new location which replaced the stench of two dry holes of the past week. We’ll see what the “J” spot brings!!

The first tropical depression of the 2006 rolled in on June 10th. Game called due to rain. When the storm cleared the team recovered Monica and their digging tools on June 14th. On the second dive of the day Kenny found a bit of soft paper stuffed into his ears cut the noise of the compressor 50% while Billy and Dave were down stairs digging away. Their spirits were high despite no finds. The second dive ended on what looked like another dry hole. The third dive with the metal detector proved that theory right! So they said goodbye to the “J”* hole and “bring on the “K”* hole The next day. The “K”* hole was dug in record breaking time of three consecutive 40 minute dives. At three feet below sea bottom they found two heavy chunks of what looked to be oak wood, very soft and crumbly (Size: 12”x5”x2”). Also found was a chunk of soft coal about the size of a baseball. Under the crust and in the debris field, nothing was found! So much for the “K”* hole.

Kenny, Billy, Dave and Alex set out again on June 17th. They were all a bit miffed about the dry holes dug thus far, so they began digging off the teredo crust area to verify that other similar signatures from the survey are in fact not teredo. The crew proceeded to the “ABC” anomaly from 2003’s sub-bottom work. The reading turned out to be rock and not teredo. The process of elimination continued. The following day Fathers Day they dug a 7’ by 7’ hole on the east edge just outside of the crust where a number of the streaked anomaly marks appeared. Above and below the crust they found nothing. It was a depressing, frustrating and exhausting situation for the crew.

Capt. Billy, Dave and Kenny were back at it again on the 22nd. The first dive was good digging. The second dive the crew was visited by a healthy rain squall. Monica and the anchors were all pulled 100 yards to the south. When they finally re-anchored, which was no easy task, Bill and Dave jumped back down with some excitement because the hole had a good feel to it. Third dive they used the hammers, wrecking bars and metal detectors and once again came up dry! Nothing of metallic quality was found in the hole or in the debris field. The next day Billy, Dave and Kenny were at it again. The hole du Jour turned out dry. The only joy they found was in the fact that Dave and Billy dug the hole in a new record time. It took just two dives to dig and crust bust. Kenny began to realize that they needed a “Key” to unlock this whole affair. Then just like magic and thanks to TheLastWreck.com entered a fellow named Tom to save the day. Tom goes back to the days of frenzy (1986-1989) when things were moving a bit too fast for anyone concerned. He, like Kenny Rose and Peter and David LaQuerre go all the way back to the Source, the founder of this 20+ year project Sam Kirby.

The crew with Tom sifted through all information available about the Kirby site and Tom inspired them to try the ole man’s directions on the box as it were. June 25th the crew first located the cleft in the reef that the boat made when it crashed down upon it. Then they then figured out the slide off the reef, taking into account the distance and direction, then bingo they were at their next dig location. Capt. Billy the great navigator and bottom fisherman that he is referred them to the sub-bottom survey roll and pulled a hit or anomaly to match the new location. The area of interest for the day was just outside of the crust.

June 29th began a new direction in hole digging. They had tried a number of holes in the crust at the Kirby site and concluded the crust was a bust! So they began trying to locate the cleft in the reef and the arroyo that is formed by the dog leg that protrudes at right angles to form it. Of course with the usual visibility (2-4ft) that they are stuck with, finding your dive partner can be a daunting task. They began on the south end of the reef which was cluttered with the poles and ropes that they once held taut a grid from past operations. Strewn about were pieces of rebar and pipes from previous probes along with tools and various other whatnots… All the remains of thirty years of futile efforts. Nothing of pertinence was discovered this day. The next day Kenny Rose requested a day of reconnoitering. The reef and its clues remained a mystery but the visibility was better and they took the time to get the whole prospective of the reef. The crew began to realize the importance of the Aquapulse metal detector that they didn’t have at the time. Capt Billy, an artist when it comes to navigation was called upon for a map of the reef with GPS coordinates and locations of all known landmarks. Again nothing of pertinence was discovered.

Divers Capt Billy Rawson, Dave LaQuerre, Alex Corpion with Kenny Rose on the deck set out to sea July 1st. They decided to try a totally new location. They were waiting the arrival of a new Aquapulse nonferrous metal detector to use on the Kirby site. Without it they are just digging holes which were too exhausting, both physically and financially. The crew began looking for a very large magnetometer hit from last summer’s surveys just off of Woman Key. As with all of Rick Horgan’s previous GPS locations they landed right on the money. Billy actually put the marker five feet away from an ancient anchor!!! At last they found something, an eleven foot long, rather ominous galleon anchor. The flukes were almost seven feet apart tip to tip. The ring was two feet in diameter with no chain attached. Upon a search of the immediate area around the anchor they found bar and chain cannon shot laying on or near surface. This was a dump from a major galleon in big trouble because it was already four miles inside the reef and less than a half mile from shore. In an instant the crew moved from treasure hunters into a select group known as treasure finders. Of course cannon balls aren’t gold bars but when you smell smoke you had better get look around for fire… Something of pertinence was found that day!

The Aqua Pulse underwater metal detector arrived and it allowed the team to bring their search efforts to a whole new level. On July 17th with Billy, Dave and Kenny on site the team checked out an old mag hit from last summer at a southern area of interest. There was nothing to be found there so they tried some mag hits just NE of the Kirby site. They dropped Monica in the water for the dig and came up with an ancient Coors beer can. That’s the salvage business. The last dive they went back to the anchor site and the brand new Aqua Pulse decided to go on the whack. After Kenny made a round trip to Key Largo to exchange the Aqua Pulse the crew began the search of the Anchor site. The divers droped on points that allowed a 180’ circle to be swum. These circles allowed a search of the anchor site and hopefully would determine the trail of the wreck. They dove three times and completed two circles. Nothing was found. Spirits were low.

Then on September 1st 2006 The Kirby Group and The United States Marine Earth Science and Ocean Research Group entered into a contract with Deep Blue Marine for the salvage and recovery of artifacts at both its Kirby and Woman Key sites. 



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