Skip to comments.Shipwreck in the Gulf Clings Tenaciously to its Mysteries
Posted on 01/28/2003 12:34:32 PM PST by vannrox
January 28, 2003
Shipwreck in the Gulf Clings Tenaciously to its MysteriesBy KENNETH CHANG
BOARD THE RYLAN T, off Louisiana Those who believe in ghosts might conclude that those aboard a shipwreck at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico do not want to be disturbed.
For nearly two centuries, the ship has lain under a half-mile of water, forgotten until ExxonMobil, by infinitesimal chance, bisected it with an oil pipeline two years ago.
Marine archaeologists at Texas A&M University saw it as an opportunity to use undersea technology to uncover maritime history. With robotic submarines able to dive thousands of feet, the treasures of shipwrecks are now well within reach.
The Gulf of Mexico wreck, a 65-foot-long wood sailing ship that appears to date from the early 1800's, would be the first one explored by archaeologists in deep waters off the United States coast.
Last year, the Navy contributed its nuclear research submarine to the effort.
Brett A. Phaneuf, the Texas A&M scientist who is coordinating the expedition, was confident that he would put a name and history to the shipwreck by the end of last summer. Mr. Phaneuf (pronounced FAN-if) still says he will unearth its identity. But he also talks jokingly of the curse of the wreck.
"There's bad voodoo out here," he said. "Everything that can go wrong has."
In mid-January, Mr. Phaneuf was back on the water for a third attempt to bring up artifacts porcelain, pieces of metal, something that could tell its origin and age. If he had been lucky, he might have even picked up something with the ship's name on it.
On this trip, Deep Marine Technology Inc. of Houston, which carries out underwater work for oil companies, offered the use of its ship, equipment and crew. The ship, the Rylan T, arrived at the site 30 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi late on Jan. 14. The crew immediately began preparing the robotic submarine for the first dive.
"I'm getting stoked," Mr. Phaneuf said. At 11:52 p.m., the sub splashed into the water. Not much bigger than a riding lawnmower, the sub remains attached to the ship by essentially a very long extension cord a 5,000-foot electricity-carrying cable. When it approaches the bottom, the craft disengages from a docking station at the end of the cable and flies around on a leash up to 300 feet long.
Watching a video monitor, Mr. Phaneuf counted down the distance to the wreck, as the rover descended at 100 feet a minute.
A half-hour later, the gremlins appeared. The hydraulic system in the docking station, which draws the leash in and out, balked. The project manager for Deep Marine, Mark C. G. Stiger, yanked the sub up and down like a yo-yo, trying to tighten the leash. Glitches also infiltrated the electronics. Whenever the thrusters fired, the video monitor in the control room blanked out.
Two hours later, with the leash problem solved, the sub reached the bottom, 2,650 feet down. The crew soon spotted the oil pipeline and followed it.
"There's a piece of timber," Mr. Phaneuf said. "See how it's speared in the bottom? That's weird."
Then the sonar failed. The operators rebooted the software and the computer. They turned the systems off and back on. The sonar still did not respond. Because the ship was in view, the crew decided to proceed anyway, even though the camera's zoom and focus had also stopped working.
"You're not going to put this on the news, are you?" Mr. Stiger asked. "My name is Barney Rubble." He pointed at the man next to him, adding, "And his name is Fred Flintstone."
The operators tried to peel a copper sheet off the hull using the robot arm. The copper is the most intriguing clue about the ship. In the late 1700's, the British Navy began sheathing the hulls of its warships with copper plates to repel wood-eating creatures. The costly practice spread to commercial vessels and disappeared in the mid-1800's, as builders shifted to less expensive copper alloys.
Because irregular holes in the sheets indicated they were hand-nailed, the researchers said they thought that the ship was built around 1810. That raises the possibility that it may have sunk in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.
Somewhere on the copper sheet is probably a mark of the coppersmith who hammered it. But as the sub backed away, the sheet ripped, leaving just a small scrap snared in the claw.
Mr. Stiger asked for the ship to move 100 feet on a heading of 310 degrees, roughly to the northwest, to put the sub more directly over the site. The captain, however, heard 110 degrees, almost the opposite direction, yanking the sub away. With the sonar broken, the people in the control room gave up and pulled the rover up. It was close to 4 a.m.
"The curse of the wreck continues," Mr. Phaneuf said.
In July, when the NR1, the Navy's 145-foot research submarine, and its support ship, the Carolyn Chouest, worked at the site, the researchers launched an identical robot sub off the deck. As soon as it entered the water, the rover veered right, out of control. The tether caught in the propellers, whipping the rover against the underside of the ship.
All anyone ever saw of the rover again were pieces of foam that floated to the surface.
On the sea floor, the 12 crew members and one scientist aboard the NR1 completed their work, making sonar maps of the site and shooting hours of video. Its robot arms, however, were too short to reach the artifacts that the researchers wanted to pick up.
At the end of the week, the captain of the NR1 managed to use a robotic arm to grab the wreck's stern post where the rudder once hung. Mr. Phaneuf said that piece certainly had some identifying marks.
As the submarine rose to within 100 feet of the surface, a hydraulic system failed. The arm went limp. The stern post slipped out.
"We spent two days looking for that," Mr. Phaneuf said. "Never found it again."
Later in the summer, a research ship in the Sustainable Sea program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offered to stop by the site for a day to pick up artifacts. The first time the ship left port, a piece of debris snagged in a propeller, and the ship returned. The second time, the propeller locked, and the ship ended up in dry dock for repairs.
Because of the delays, the federal researchers went to perform other tasks first but said they would stop by the wreck on the return leg. They did not get that far.
"They break a prop shaft," Mr. Phaneuf said. "It goes out the back of the boat, floods the engine room, almost sinks the ship. And they had to call in a Mayday. That brings us up to date."
On the Rylan T, technicians worked through Jan. 15 to repair the rover. Sea water had leaked into the hydraulic and electronic systems, squeezed in by the water pressure of 1,200 pounds a square inch.
At 11:45 a.m., the rover was back in the water, this time carrying a box to collect artifacts. In 45 minutes, it was at the wreck site again and set the collection box on the sea floor.
"Everybody ready?" Mr. Stiger asked. He stepped out to go to the bathroom and get another cup of coffee. When he returned, the sub had blacked out, dead.
When it was dragged back aboard, the technicians finally located the leak in the electronic system. A ragged shred of insulating wrapper hung limply. The 1,500-volt cable had vaporized.
About all they have from their explorations this year is the copper scrap, 11 by 6 inches, brought up on the first dive.
"There's nothing on it," Mr. Phaneuf said. "No good."
Despite the hours of video and carefully constructed sonar maps, the only fact that the researchers learned conclusively in the last year was that the ship had two masts, knowledge deduced from parts of the rigging on the sea floor.
The second half of the expedition proved less cursed. Technicians repaired the remote-controlled submarine again, replacing the cable and fuses as the Rylan T sailed to a second shipwreck, one that had not been examined. All anyone knew was its location, its depth and the one sonar image that discovered it.
The researchers sent the rover down twice. Because that wreck was in shallower water, 1,300 feet, a sub big enough for one crew member also went down for a look. The subs worked in tandem, flawlessly examining the well-preserved wreck, nearly 200 feet long.
"You could see the ribs on both sides," said Mitch Seil, the sub pilot.
Curiously, there were no signs of cargo.
Mr. Phaneuf phoned Dr. Jack B. Irion, a marine archaeologist with the federal Minerals Management Service, to describe what they had seen.
[Days after that phone call, Dr. Irion found a report of the sinking of the Western Empire, carrying a load of lumber, on Sept. 18, 1876, in that vicinity while en route from Liverpool, England, to New Orleans.
[The cause of the sinking is listed only as "the ship sprang a leak which could not be stopped."]
As for the "voodoo wreck," Mr. Phaneuf said he would be back. "We're due to have some good luck," he said.
Jan. 14, 2003, 9:36AM
Steve Ueckert / ChronicleTexas A&M University oceanographer Brett Phaneuf looks over a piece of copper sheathing recovered from a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship is believed to have sunk about 200 years ago.
The scientists will be able to study the mysterious wreck and bring artifacts to the surface because of a Houston company's remotely operated submarine that can dive to the site a half-mile below.
It will be the deepest full archaeological exploration ever conducted in the Gulf.
The wreck, named Mica for the oil field in which it was found, is about 75 feet long and has a copper-lined hull that suggests a military, rather than commercial, purpose. Some of the wood resting on the silt sea floor appears charred.
Did the ship meet a fiery death? Researchers hope the remains can answer that question, identify the vessel and crew, and perhaps even shed light on a naval conflict almost two centuries ago.
Located about 30 miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River under 2,650 feet of water in an area known as the Mississippi Canyon, the wreck is beyond the reach of divers. It was found after Exxon Mobil accidentally laid an 8-inch pipeline through the site in early 2001.
Scientists were working with the U.S. Navy in that mission but lost control of the Navy's remotely operated vehicle. The ROV's tether became entangled in the ship's propeller, which destroyed the vehicle.
The archaeologists have brought up small pieces of copper plating from the shipwreck but hope to collect larger sections as well as other objects clearly visible on the sea floor.
"A lot of the artifacts are now just waiting for us to pick them up," said oceanographer Brett Phaneuf of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University.
The copper plating, in two-foot strips, is important because several full sheets containing the same maker's mark would allow scientists to pinpoint the ship's origin. Because the plating appears to have been nailed to the hull by hand, researchers are confident the vessel was built before 1815, when ship-builders began using copper plates perforated by machine.
B.C. Oren / Chronicle
"There's a lot of interesting history at this time (in the Gulf) around New Orleans," Phaneuf said.
He is headed back out to the Mica wreck today with the support of Deep Marine Technology, a Houston company that is donating equipment and expertise to the venture.
This is "far and away" the deepest Gulf of Mexico wreck studied in detail, said Jack Irion, a marine archaeologist with the Minerals Management Service and an authority on Gulf expeditions.
Researchers say the entire Gulf is teeming with wrecks.
In Texas waters, which extend about 10 miles off the coast, the state has recorded about 1,700 wrecks, said State Marine Archaeologist Steven D. Hoyt.
Among the most famous are La Belle, which dates to 1686 and was used by the French explorer La Salle, and three Spanish treasure ships that sank in 1554 near South Padre Island.
In deeper waters, one of the most notable wrecks was found two years ago.
While scouting a deep Gulf pipeline route, BP and Shell Oil Co. found the wreckage of the World War II German submarine U-166, lost for nearly 60 years. It was lying in the silt under 5,000 feet of water about 45 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Phaneuf said the Gulf of Mexico does not get enough respect from some archaeologists because it is not considered as old a travel route as other areas, such as the Mediterranean Sea, and has many oil rigs.
But he said that should not diminish the history in the Gulf's waters, which he believes eventually may yield information on seafaring habits of the Aztecs, Mayans and other civilizations.
The federal Gulf database includes precise locations for more than 200 wrecks, with about a dozen discovered every year. Phaneuf said he would like to explore up to six a year.
Deep Marine Technology's founder, Paul McKim, said his company will help when it can. In addition to the ROV, the company is trying to commercialize one-person, untethered submersibles that are far more maneuverable than an ROV.
One such unit will be used this week when Phaneuf and McKim move from the Mica wreck to a site about 60 miles away.
A 110-foot, narrow wooden wreck awaits beneath 1,400 feet of water. Although still deeper than any other wreck carefully examined before, it is shallow enough for the one-person submersible to get a close look.
In July, when the NR1, the Navy's 145-foot research submarine, and its support ship, the Carolyn Chouest, worked at the site, the researchers launched an identical robot sub off the deck.
I had the pleasure of doing some repair work on the Carolyn Chouest a little while back. I'm sure they have some interesting missions.
Time will tell. I think we'll be suprised.
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