Amazing Look at 1781 Shipwrecks

During April 9-11, the Watermen’s Museum and a team of volunteer companies to include JRS Explorations, Inc., Abbott Underwater Acoustics, Portunes International, Precon Marine, Inc., InterPhase Entertainment, Patriot Tours and Provisions, and local volunteers made remarkable new discoveries within the Yorktown Shipwrecks National Register District.  Using a fixed, high-resolution Konsberg-Mesotech MS-1000 sector-scanning sonar, a type that had not been previously employed on these shipwrecks in the past, the team established a new standard for underwater archaeology and exploration.

Led by John Broadwater, Watermen’s Museum member, JRS Explorations Vice President and Chief Archaeologist, and an internationally recognized underwater archaeologist, the survey produce spectacular results. John is no stranger to the Yorktown shipwrecks, having spent decades exploring and uncovering their secrets. During the 1980s, John’s team established a coffer dam (steel enclosure) around the British shipwreck Betsy and successfully recovered more than 5,000 artifacts, some of which are on exhibit today in the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (Virginia). Not only has he dove on the Yorktown Shipwrecks, he has participated in numerous prestigious marine archaeology projects such as; serving as chief archaeologist during recovery operations on the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, participating in deep-water investigations of the RMS Titanic with James Cameron, and performing engine recoveries from Apollo’s Saturn V boosters with CEO Jeff Bezos.

We started our survey work with an 8 AM meeting at the Museum’s Carriage House on Monday.  After technical discussions, shipwreck location reviews, equipment assembly and checks, and a safety briefing, we had boats and sonar in the water by 10:30 AM.  Although the weather was far less than desirable on Monday, the sonar and its operators performed flawlessly, providing the team with images of Yorktown’s sunken British ships with unparalleled clarity and definition. The weather improved both Tuesday and Wednesday and the team hit the water at 7 AM both days, working until after 5 PM, followed by a ‘hotwash’ of what we had seen and the plans for the next day.  In the end, we surveyed all the known shipwreck sites to determine the current state of sedimentation and scouring of the boats.

Following the survey, Dr. Broadwater stated, “The results are amazing; if only we’d had this equipment back in 1975 when we first began to search for these sunken ships. The new data will be critical in our efforts to assess the condition of the Yorktown shipwrecks and to launch a new phase of research.”

JRS Explorations’ CEO Ryan Johnston added, “JRS Explorations is grateful to everyone who made this survey possible. The fact that these shipwrecks have been sitting underwater for 236 years is unfathomable. I especially want to thank Precon Marine for stepping in and supplying the vessels for the scan, and Tyler Neese for providing the necessary funds to allow the scan to occur.”

During operation, the sonar sensor unit was lowered from the boat where it scanned areas of the river bottom producing an acoustic image of all objects protruding from the river silt. By moving the sensor unit along a predetermined path, multiple scans were “stitched” together to form a very high-resolution picture of shipwrecks and other objects lying on the riverbed.

It’s important to realize the significance of these wood ship hulls that remain on the bottom of our York River.  The shipwrecks were sunk during the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Yorktown, September-October 1781, the final battle that led to American independence. Investigations Led by John Broadwater during 1978-89 by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources resulted in the discovery of nine wrecks from that battle. Since then, a tenth has been discovered. Historical documents, however, make it clear that at least 40 British ships and captured prizes were sunk during the battle, indicating a high likelihood that more shipwrecks can be discovered. An effort is currently underway to nominate the area as a National Marine Sanctuary to ensure these unique relics are found and protected, while at the same time determining exact locations, freeing up areas that are not historic to be used for educational, tourism, and commercial fishing and shellfish harvesting.

Steve Ormsby, President of the Watermen’s Museum and JRS Explorations, said of the survey, “We view this survey as a first step in a long-term plan for highlighting the importance of the sunken British ships near Yorktown and Gloucester Point. These relics are modern reminders of the cornerstone battle that led to the former British colonies becoming the American nation.  Our efforts will bring new and well deserved attention to these shipwrecks and to the historic events that led directly to American independence; while at the same time providing increased clarity for area use by commercial fishermen and seafood harvesters..”

Since 1990 there have been no comprehensive investigations of these significant wrecks; therefore, their current condition is unknown. It is important to learn if the wrecks are being damaged by storms, currents, or human activity and to quantify that damage. Looking ahead, it is essential to determine the extent of preservation and research potential of the Yorktown shipwrecks in order to develop a new management plan and to support them. Working with our commercial and volunteer team members we are developing a long-range plan for the further discovery, documentation, and excavation of additional Yorktown shipwrecks, to be followed by careful conservation and eventual exhibition of the resulting artifacts and information.  Only by making these shipwrecks and their story visible to the American public can we bring history to life for the generations to come.