Exploring underwater treasures

William Thompson

November 19, 1990|By William Thompson

SHIPWRECKS OF DELAWARE AND MARYLAND. By Gary Gentile. Gary Gentile Publications. 200 pages. $20.

NOTEBOOK ON SHIPWRECKS: MARYLAND AND DELAWARE COAST. By H. Richard Moale. Family Line Publications. 266 pages. $17.50.

HAD NOT the sobriquet already been bestowed upon the blue waters off North Carolina, the ocean coast of Maryland and Delaware easily could reign as the ghostyard of the Atlantic.

ARuins of so many vessels litter the barren and sandy Mid-Atlantic bottom that no one knows for sure just how many are down there. And because the shoreline changes with every storm, there are other wrecks, too, hidden beneath the very beaches where vacationers spread their blankets and surf fishermen cast their lines.

Fortunately, disasters at sea have grown less common with improved ship building and maritime skills. But considering that vessels of many sizes and styles have plowed the often treacherous Atlantic for nearly five centuries, it may be even more incredible that the ocean bottom isn't a junk pile of ships scuttled by storm, war, mishap and human incompetence.

Yet the size of the Mid-Atlantic's submerged fleet comes as a surprise to many landlubbers. Except during special circumstances, where treasure is believed to be aboard a sunken ship (salvage of the 18th century HMS De Braak is a recent example) or when nature produces tragedy (as when the oil tanker African Queen broke apart in 1958 off Ocean City), most beachgoers have no notion of what lies fathoms below the sea surface.

Two new paperback books provide long-overdue data about the wrecks off Maryland and Delaware. While both display the fruits of extensive research and a first-hand knowledge of how the underwater ruins appear today, one is not a duplication of the other. They are compatible volumes of such value to local marine historians and divers that both are recommended equally.

Gentile, a dive specialist and adventurer known throughout the scuba world, keeps his attention on 42 wrecks, ranging from the wooden De Braak to the fiberglass hulled Muff Diver, a charter fishing boat that sank a few years ago in 228 feet of water.

Gentile's anecdotes about how the ships met their fate in the Atlantic and about diving on their ruins are accompanied by plenty of rare photographs -- taken both on and under the ocean. Additionally, Gentile's book, which is the second effort in his "Popular Dive Guide" series, includes scores of loran coordinates needed to locate the wrecks.

Moale, a Maryland-based professional surveyor and recreational diver, offers less color but more information about more vessels -- 250, in fact -- that sank within a 50-by-50 mile grid off the Maryland and Delaware coasts between 1664 and 1975. Although the precise locations of all the wrecks is unknown, Moale limited his research to ships he believes are diveable.

Gentile is a professional diver with more than 900 decompression dives, 70 alone on the Italian liner Andrea Doria. His latest book is the logical product of his work. Moale, on the other hand, represents that small group of sports divers who are driven purely by intellectual curiosity to document the wrecks they have explored or heard about.

Underwater ruins are mute; there are no historic markers to describe the circumstances by which they were swallowed by the ocean. Even dive captains who lead scuba parties to the sites are grossly uninformed about the wrecks they frequent. So little is known about many of them that extemporaneous names are given to the submerged vessels. A wreck identifiable mostly for its large propeller, for example, becomes either the Prop Wreck or the Screw Wreck to divers.

Both Gentile and Moale have done much to clear up, pardon the expression, the murky waters surrounding our underwater teasures.

William Thompson covers Annapolis for The Evening Sun.

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