Sunday, June 2, 2013

Wide Open Spaces

A few months ago as an April Fool's Day joke, I sent an email out to the students in my Archaeology of Early America class informing them of their underwater archaeology class practicum in Rochester, telling them to show up in swim suits ready to survey the freezing Genesee River. Today we actually had that practicum in the much warmer and clearer waters of Bermuda, thanks to the generosity of my friend Nick and his mate Ian. Armed with lunch and snorkel gear, we set off for the Wild West (i.e. Warwick) to head out by boat to Eastern Blue Cut, out on the western edge of Bermuda's reef. We had a great view of Dockyard as we passed - or rather what little of it we could see peeking out from behind the Norwegian Line cruise ship - before heading out into open water.

Bermuda's land area is 22 square miles. If the sea level dropped 60 feet, however, its area would leap to nearly 600 square miles. This gives you a sense of how vast the reef platform is - the vast slightly submerged topography that constitutes 99% of Greater Bermuda. As we headed out to EBC, the sense of claustrophobia that sometimes sets in through living in a densely crowded place melted away in the wide open spaces atop the reef. I appreciated how the activity of fishing for Bermudians could be far more than simply putting dinner on a table - it provided a sense of freedom and escape from the confines of household life and the scrutiny of neighbors, especially prized by enslaved pilots and fishermen.
Low-lying Bermuda, barely visible on the horizon
This view is the last one many an unfortunate mariner saw (or failed to see in a squall or the dark of night), a point vividly brought home to us by the tour of wrecks that Nick showed us.

Our afternoon was a veritable catalog of the last five hundred years of Atlantic shipping, and how the vessels of different centuries produced different physical wreck sites. Our historical survey started with the Stonewall Wreck, a mid-17th c. Iberian vessel previously excavated by the Bermuda Maritime Museum in the 1990s. Although no structural timbers are visible, its ballast pile is quite distinct in the 20-foot-deep sand hole where the wreck lies. A gouge nearby in the reef and a similar ballast spread shows where the vessel met her sorry end.

Cleft in reef, with ballast stones
The lack of visible hull and scattered remains gave the students a good sense of what many wooden wrecks in the age of sail look like today, far different from the few famous intact and recognizable wrecks popularized in textbooks and documentaries!

We next visited a wooden wreck probably dating to the early 19th century near a funny bit of debris locally called the "Lion's Cage" and (wrongly) thought to have been associated with a documented ship that sank carrying a lion in a cage on its deck - which was reportedly rescued (Life of Pi with a feline twist!) by no doubt quite terrified wreckers. This unnamed wreck lacked a ballast pile but did have faintly visible structural timbers about 25 feet long, with futtocks of about 10 inch square dimensions.
Photo Scale: Figure = One U of R Professor
port paddle wheel
bow section
We then moved forward in time to the Civil War and explored the Nola, aka  Montana, a British-built Confederate Blockade Runner that sank in December 1863. She had been running guns, gunpowder, machinery, uniforms, etc. into Wilmington, NC, through the Union Navy blockade for a while up through 1863 but ran onto the reef on her return, laden with cotton bales. At 263 feet long, she dwarfs the earlier wrecks we'd seen and as a steam-driven paddle steamer, she also reflects the transition from sail to power. Her bow, two boilers, paddle wheels and stern are all quite recognizable, but the hull sections in between have collapsed outward.
boiler and starboard paddle wheel
vibrant coral in the boiler

Our last wreck was right next to Nola/Montana - Constellation, a huge wooden hulled schooner that sank in 1943 carrying, among other things, a cargo of cement bags that set when exposed to sea water. This gives the quite scattered wreck the impression of being covered by a giant pile of pillows! Among Bermuda's more famous wrecks, it was the slightly fictionalized setting for Peter Benchley's novel The Deep.

A fantastic day of hands-on learning - for three of us at least. Unfortunately, the one to two-foot swells and ride out laid Leigh and Anima low. I suppose experiencing seasickness could provide them with historical insights into the sufferings of eighteenth-century sailors and trans-Atlantic passengers, but I'm sure this was a lesson in which theoretical, rather than empirical, understanding would have sufficed. Leigh was so thoroughly soured on snorkeling that she tried to abandon her fins in the boat! But once ashore and fortified with homemade pizza later that evening, I can report that everyone recovered. Good thing we have a day off tomorrow...

A huge thank you to Nick and Ian for taking us out on Ian's boat and for sharing their extensive knowledge of Bermuda's underwater topography and shipwreck locations and interpretations.

Jeff Bolster sighting! Back at St. George's tonight, I ran into Jeff (an old friend) having a beer at Tavern By The Sea - when he's not teaching at UNH or writing Bancroft-prize-winning books, he keeps up his sailing to/from New England and the Caribbean. Although the Atlantic World is huge, it can sometimes be a very small place indeed.

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