Erosion likely to increase at site of pirate's ship

Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge, sank nearly 300 years ago

December 10, 2003|By Dave Schleck | Dave Schleck,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Sea currents have tossed around pirate Blackbeard's flagship for nearly 300 years. But now the game is getting treacherous for the sunken Queen Anne's Revenge, according to research conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

The ocean's coy pursuit started in June 1718, when the heavily armed pirate ship ran aground in Beaufort Inlet about a mile off the coast of central North Carolina. The rest of the story is told centuries later by geologists like Jesse McNinch, a VIMS professor who recently returned from a research expedition studying the sandy bottom around the wreck.

In 1996, divers found a mound of cannons and anchors in about 25 feet of water near Morehead City. They suspected it was the Queen Anne's Revenge, a former slave ship that Blackbeard stole from the French.

But one fact perplexed archaeologists. Written reports from the 18th century indicate that the Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground. So why was it found in relatively deep water?

"They found this wreck at a much deeper location than what they expected," said McNinch, who got involved in the project in 1998 when he worked for the Institute of Marine Sciences, which is affiliated with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His associate is John Wells, a geologist with the institute.

Protected by sand

After Hurricane Bonnie five years ago, McNinch used sonar and other equipment to measure wave heights and currents and to map the seafloor around the wreck. He found that the hurricane had washed away sand around the wreck, essentially creating a hole for the ship to settle into.

He surmised that the Queen Anne's Revenge was once in shallower water, but a cycle of storms have caused it to sink with the sea bottom over the years. After each storm, the partially buried wreck was exposed, but then new sand gradually settled on top.

"In essence, it protects this wreck," McNinch said. "That's probably what happened in the past 300 years."

That explained why the ship's wooden hull was in such good condition. Since the wreck keeps getting buried, it's shielded from wood-boring worms. It also explained why the coral on the ship was relatively young.

But if the ship was buried in sand most of the time, why was it found in 1996? Pure luck?

"The reason is underlying geography," McNinch said.

McNinch recently got a chance to study the wreck site and the effects of Hurricane Isabel. He used an underwater derrick system to core five sand samples from around the wreck. Sonar penetrated the ocean floor with sound waves and produced a computer map of the makeup of the sand.

McNinch's research found that the Queen Anne's Revenge is now sitting on a denser, erosion-resistant layer of sand. The sonar images showed that pieces of the wreck were more exposed now than they were after Hurricane Bonnie.

The ship must have run aground on a 15-foot thick layer of soft, unconsolidated sand that storms have washed away over the centuries. But the cycle of sinking and reburying has ended. Instead of sinking, some of the ship's artifacts are being blown away from the wreckage by currents.

Process runs out

"It really does look like the wreck site is becoming more and more in danger of exposure to the elements," he said. "That process that has protected it has run out."

Archaeologists who were already nearly convinced that the wreck should be recovered from Beaufort Inlet now have even more reason to take action. But first they must raise money and wait for McNinch to finish his report, said Mark Wilde-Ramsing, project director with the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History.

Excavating the entire wreckage site, one of many options under discussion, would take more than three years and cost more than $3 million.

McNinch wants to develop his sonar computer mapping into a model that can predict future underwater erosion around this and other wrecks. His research should indicate areas within the wreckage that are most in danger and need the quickest attention, Wilde-Ramsing said.

"It's been invaluable," he said about McNinch's research. "Any archaeologist knows the most important thing is understand the environment they're working in."

Dave Schleck is a reporter for the Newport News Daily Press, a Tribune Publishing newspaper in Virginia.

About the wreck

History: Queen Anne's Revenge was a French-owned slave ship captured by Blackbeard in 1717 and converted into a heavily armed, 40-cannon pirate flagship. Historians believe Blackbeard named it Queen Anne's Revenge because he was once a privateer during Queen Anne's War. It was part of Blackbeard's blockade of Charleston, S.C., in 1718 before running aground in Beaufort Inlet just off the coast of central North Carolina later that year. Blackbeard abandoned the ship and was later captured and killed. Divers found the wreck in 1996.

Location: In 22 to 25 feet of water over an area about 90 feet wide and 200 feet long; the ship sank with its bow toward shore and at some point in its sinking heeled over on its left side, spilling its cannon and deck cargo

Excavation: Less than 2 percent of the wreck is excavated, including a bronze bell dated 1709, a rigging hook, and ballast stones used to balance the ship

Information: Artifacts are at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, 252-728-7317, www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/sections/maritime

Web sites: www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/qar/, www.blackbeardlives.com

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