University of Delaware researchers have discovered that a shipwreck near the coast of Cape Henlopen, Del., is a 215-foot-long sailing vessel destroyed by a hurricane more than a century ago.
Scientific surveys and historical records indicate that the wreck is the W.R. Grace, a three-masted ship that ran aground on Sept. 12, 1889.
“It was not something we expected to be as old as it was,” says Arthur Trembanis, associate professor of oceanography and geological sciences in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.
Trembanis’ research group came upon the shipwreck two years ago while training undergraduates to use remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and other ocean surveying equipment along the coast of Cape Henlopen State Park near Lewes.
This past June, Trembanis partnered with a commercial marine surveyor to revisit the site and obtain better images with side-scan sonar and video technology. They pinpointed the location, orientation and size of the wreck, which sits about 23 feet (7 m) below the surface.
Oceanography graduate student Carter DuVal cross-referenced field findings with historical clues, poring through books on shipwrecks and newspaper accounts about the ship’s fate—reportedly one of more than 30 vessels in the area sunk by the horrific storm.
The massive ship apparently had difficulty navigating the shallow waters around Cape Henlopen. After dropping anchor to ride out the storm, the vessel drifted and lodged into the sand. An account in the Baltimore Sun tells of the crew’s heroic rescue by area life-saving station staff.
The vessel was carrying 7,000 empty petroleum barrels from France to refill in Philadelphia and ship to Japan. With the W.R. Grace a loss, operator Flynn and Company sold the barrels at auction.
Although today it is covered in blue mussels and frilled anemones, forming an artificial reef, the vessel appears to have been previously buried. Trembanis says. A 1995 study did not reveal the wreck, yet the ship’s outline did appear on a 2007 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey (the results were not included in the public database). So either the wreck was uncovered sometime between 1995 and 2007, Trembanis says, or it has undergone periods of burial and exposure.
A scuba dive investigation could reveal more details, state archaeologist Craig Lukezic says, but there are probably no artifacts left since the contents were salvaged before the ship submerged. Such a dive would need to be conducted in cooperation with the state, as the wreck is protected by law under the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, and the currents make diving in the area treacherous.
For now, the ROV and sonar findings can be used to better understand the ocean dynamics that impact wrecks, compare the site to other reefs and study how the ocean floor changes over time.
“We’re in an exciting time for this kind of exploration,” Trembanis says. “In our own backyard are some exciting new discoveries.”