For many, shipwrecks yield buckets of booty


September 12, 1993|By Audrey Haar | Audrey Haar,Staff Writer

In 1918, the U.S. naval tug Cherokee was no match for the coast's storm-tossed seas. The ship sank, leaving behind only nine survivors and joining hundreds of other wrecks entombed in the deep, gloomy waters from Ocean City to Lewes, Del.

Today, these ships lure divers, historians and others who are captivated by the untimely plight of the crews and passengers and, of course, whatever treasures remain.

"I look at the beach at night and wonder what it would be like on a ship going down. Drama, death, pain. It's a lot of drama and pathos," says Charles J. Adams III, who has written several books on the subject with David J. Seibold.

"They are all relics of history," he says. "One fateful incident sent that ship down."

For some, wrecks are a hands-on experience. Gene Hastings, owner of Old Inlet Dive Shop in Dewey Beach, Del., likes to get an up-close view.

He says he can't decide which is more of a thrill -- finding a gold coin or a wreck.

At the site of a new discovery, he says, the fish, which have never seen a diver before, will bump right into you.

He says that diving wrecks often starts as a pastime, but "then you get gold fever, and it's in your veins for the rest of your life."

'Delving into history'

Mike Miculinic, owner of Sunsports, a dive shop in Ocean City, is also hooked on wrecks. "I like the feeling that I'm delving into history by holding something used 200 years ago," Mr. Miculinic says.

He likes to return to the same diving site several times, since, "because of shifting sands, it changes from time to time."

Novices can't just jump in the water and start searching for buried treasure, however. They have to take an 18-hour certification course, Mr. Miculinic says. While some dive boats will take passengers for a fee, the most interesting sites are below the surface, he says.

One local wreck that has yielded a steady supply of booty over the years is known as the "china wreck." According to the book, "Shipwrecks, Sea Stories & Legends of the Delaware Coast" by Mr. Seibold and Mr. Adams, the wreck is assumed to be the Principessa Margherita di Piemonte of Naples, Italy, which sank on March 12, 1891, off Cape Henlopen, Del.

Bound for Philadelphia, the Principessa was sailing from Plymouth, England, loaded with china. Mr. Hastings says he has collected pottery from the wreck.

The 'coin beach'

Over the years, he says he has found buckets of 18th-century coins from the "coin beach" that stretches from Rehoboth Beach to Fenwick Island. It is thought that the money came from a British ship that was carrying the payroll of soldiers based in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Hastings also notes that coins with a hole drilled through them are usually authentic. He says they came from the personal pockets of sailors who put holes in the coins so they could hide their savings by sewing it inside their clothing.

Both Mr. Hastings and Mr. Miculinic say that most divers tend to keep their finds in private collections.

"Because you risk your life to get it, you don't want to give it up," Mr. Hastings says, although he does contribute items to museums such as the Ocean City Life Saving Station Museum and the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, Del.

The Ocean City museum, located at the southern end of the boardwalk, houses relics from area wrecks such as pottery from the "china wreck" and personal items such as a leather wallet recovered from the Moonstone, which sank in 1943. (Not all of the wrecks happened centuries ago. During World War II, hundreds of ships were sunk off the Maryland and Delaware coast by German subs.)

It is also sobering to see a brass shaving kit from the Cherokee that is complete with case, razor, blade case and blades that even have the original paper wrappings.

A wreck on land

For a look at an actual wreck on land, there are remains on display at Assateague Island National Seashore Park between the north and south ocean beaches. The wreck, which was

found in waters near Virginia Beach, was donated to the U.S. Park Service.

It is thought that there are many shipwrecks in the waters off Assateague Island, but they haven't been documented yet, says Carl Zimmerman, resource management specialist for Assateague Island National Seashore of the Park Service.

"It's one of the things we know the least about Assateague," he says. "There isn't a lot of good solid information and there are a lot of unknowns."

Gathering information about the shipwrecks is on the wish list of the Park Service, but doing an archaeological excavation is an expensive project, says Brooke Blades, an archaeologist with the Park Service in Philadelphia.

"You have something akin to a time capsule, and you can find remarkable things," Mr. Blades says. It isn't uncommon to find metals, glass, textiles and books at shipwreck sites that reveal clues about life and society in another era, he says.

The general position of the Park Service, though, is to cover and protect shipwreck sites from being damaged by exposure to the elements.

Finding the wrecks

It's not always easy for the average tourist to find out where the wrecks are. Sometimes Monte Hawkins, captain of the O. C. Princess, will point out the general location of wrecks during evening nature cruises that sail from the Shantytown Marina in West Ocean City.

But don't ask him to be more specific. Mr. Hawkins guards the exact locations like a mother bear protecting her young. By day, he takes anglers on fishing trips, and the shipwrecks, which provide an artificial reef for fish, are top fishing spots in a competitive business.

He's even been known to try to lose a few boat captains who have followed him. "If I can't shake them, I'll go to one [a shipwreck] that everyone knows about," he says.

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