All posts by Brendan

Life on the Beautiful Lower Atchafalaya

A huge truck nearly ran me off the road, whizzing past only inches away. As the horn blare tapered off, I realized rubbernecking on this stretch of road is a full-contact sport. Late September found me on one of the most industrial roads in America, yet deep in the heart of the bayou.

Highway 1 winds south from the Mississippi River, tracing through Belle Rose, Thibodaux (don’t pronounce the ‘h’), Galliano, Golden Meadows, and finally to Grand Isle. The farther south you drive, land gives way to water. The world becomes water sprinkled with dry spots and cut channels. Bayou Lafourche Canal is one of the channels and parallels Highway 1. On dry patches, only inches above the tide, are construction yards, supply depots, welding shops, shipyards, and fenced lots full of giant prehistoric plumbing components. The road is a major artery of the oil business, although a new, raised version of the road flies well above the bayou like a giant concrete millipede.

En route to Patterson, Louisiana for an oral history interview, my schedule changed and I ended up with a day in-limbo. Reconfiguring quickly, it was a rare opportunity to explore the sponge-like coast of Louisiana. I armed myself with tips and tricks from friends who knew the area, and who knew where to eat. Visiting Louisiana, especially Cajun Country, without intending to feast is like a pencil without a lead. Pointless.

Years ago, I was invited on a trip to Patterson to meet the Felterman family. Related to the Versaggi family of St. Augustine, and a dynastic family of the commercial shrimping industry, the opportunity to meet, and record Felterman family history was more than tempting.

“You’re a fool Brendan, it’s the peak of crawfish season and we’re going to be in the middle of the action.” said Grace Paaso, my invitee and one of the Versaggi family keepers of the flame. Continue reading

We Get By With a Little Help from Our Friends

This month we focus on two great guys and two great boats that helped us move forward this summer. Mike Potter and Kevin Carrigan are supporters who literally help our research stay afloat. If you haven’t seen us around town, or offshore, here’s the skinny on our boat ops from the summer of 2016.

Each summer, the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), research arm of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, heads out to sea for a field season of shipwreck discovery. Our field laboratory floats on the Atlantic Ocean, packed with researchers, volunteer assistants, equipment. Each day it sets out in the soft amber light of a Florida summer sunrise. During this part of the year the St. Augustine inlet settles down into a somnolent state, rarely raising its head in anger. I guess even an inlet needs to take a break from shipwrecking. Only occasionally does a far-flung storm from well over the horizon raise and send us a sea that prohibits work, or sometimes an unseasonal trade wind that dipping into the Atlantic bight runs its invisible hand over the sea to rake up haystacks. But for the most part, our summers are defined by a rhythm of heading to sea at sunrise, mooring on a shipwreck site while the sun is well above the yardarm, and getting underway for home sometime in the late afternoon.

Our laboratory, for the past seven years, has been a steel trawler named Roper. Most of you reading this are familiar with Roper as she has become part of our research family, as much as 17 tons of steel and iron can. But, this year she played only home games, plodding the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay in the name of science. That left us without a research vessel – a commuter bus, pickup truck, office, wet lab, and dive platform all rolled into one. While Roper had important work to do, stopping fieldwork for lack of a research vessel meant losing more than a decade of momentum, allowing the beating heart of research to pause. As with most near-crises, friends of Museum came to the rescue.

Mike Potter

With water streaming down the outside of the windows and lightning flashing outside, it was a dark and stormy night last November that found LAMP Director Chuck Meide and myself in a pizza joint in Cocoa, Florida. Our friend, Mike Potter convened a dinner to bring like-minded divers together. During the meeting we told Mike that Roper’s dance card was completely full in the Chesapeake for 2016 and that she wouldn’t be available for a Florida cruise. Without hesitation, Mike jumped at the opportunity to fix a problem, he volunteered his own boat. As a boat mechanic, he is used to looking at problem and seeing solutions. Sandra, Mike’s wife, sat by us quietly noting the conversation. She is full partner in their adventures. While she doesn’t dive, Sandra is the ‘sanity on the surface’ and has relentlessly supported Mike’s SCUBA mission, always ready to host out of town divers, never wincing at repair or equipment bills, ever-vigilant when the boat is out. She is Mike’s Mission Control.

A homeboy from Cocoa, Florida, Potter has always immersed himself in the sciences of the Cape, a place where rockets flew to the moon during his boyhood and the area code is still ‘321’. Like many people with a sense of adventure, Mike was called by the sea. Through the 80s and 90s, he grew into the diving community around the Cape and became a leader in new technology that allowed humans to explore deeper into Davy Jones’ locker. The diving club he was part of wasn’t your typical fish and reef folks, dives over 200’ were as common as breathing helium mixtures to prevent decompression sickness. Their dive sites were shipwrecks, scattered around the waters of Florida’s only Atlantic cape.

On a routine 240’ dive one summer, Mike explored the silent remains of Cities Service Empire, a 465’ tanker torpedoed in the Battle of the Atlantic. The twisted steel of the wreck rested at such a depth that artifact looters had yet to work it over. Portholes, ceramics, everything seemed to lie in and on the wreck; the place was almost untouched. Mike and his friends had occasionally brought up artifacts from the wreck as souvenirs, medals for having penetrated the deep and come back alive. During the dive, Mike thought of his father, who served in the Naval Armed Guard during WWII when Empire was sunk. He thought of the fifteen men who lost their lives in a burning sea, a backwater of the war that Nicholas Monserrat described as

“a private war. If you were in it, you knew all about it. You knew how to keep watch on filthy nights, and how to go without sleep, how to bury the dead, and how to die without wasting anyone’s time.” 

Mike knew that a twist of fate could have put his father on this ship and ranked him among the perished. The wreckage Mike and his friends were diving became grail to this quiet battle, a dark and cerulean crypt patrolled eternally by barracuda. Beginning his ascent to the surface, Mike was a diver reborn -a defender of the Empire –  and a man who takes shipwreck protection as seriously as his faith. Today Mike has led efforts to protect the wreck from disturbance and cautions any diver to “have reverence when you go there. If you don’t have the respect and the reverence, stay home.”

Dockside, Empire Defender shows off her sharp entry. The 31’ dive boat has served as LAMP’s primary research platform for the 2016 field season.
Dockside, Empire Defender shows off her sharp entry. The 31’ dive boat has served as LAMP’s primary research platform for the 2016 field season.

Empire Defender – A lot of story.

Freetime was built in 1978 by Stuart Angler as part of 10 commercial hulls marketed to snapper fishermen and charter outfits. Based on a northeastern-style lobster boat, she was built with a round but shallow bottom and a very fine entry.  For years, Freetime explored the waters of Key Largo as one of Dive World’s fleet of charter boats. Her owner, Capt. Corky, was instrumental in bringing the ex-Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane to the Keys. Sometime in the late 90s Freetime ended up in Tarpon Springs where she went un-loved and ended up sinking in a marina. Continue reading

450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey: Measuring the Invisible

As we begin to move into our 2016 field season, we are excited to introduce the results of the 450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey, that the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) carried out over the 2015 field season. The “450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey” was a project carried out as part of LAMP’s multi-year First Coast Maritime Archaeology Project, which has been ongoing since 2007. The 450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey, named in honor of St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary which occurred in 2015, was funded by a State of Florida, Division of Historical Resources Small Matching Grant (No. S1604).

Previous Post: Welcome to the 450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey

Archaeologists use a lot of interesting tools to get the job done.

From spectroscopy, a method of getting an elemental fingerprint from archaeological remains, to phytolith analysis, a way of determining exactly what plants made up a long-lost environment, the archaeologist’s toolkit has become much more technological through the past several decades. In this modern technocracy, the simple trowel and screen form only part of the science.

Likewise, searching for shipwrecks at sea has increasingly relied on technology to go beyond visual survey. So much of the oceans, rivers, bays, lakes, even streams flow with waters too cloudy to see through, or are too deep to access with simple SCUBA technology. Besides, our job is to search for a shipwreck because of its historical value not just because it is in clear, warm water. And so to find these, we break out the gear.

Here we see two thirds of LAMP's remote sensing suite: the side scan sonar (left) and the marine magnetometer (right)
Here we see two thirds of LAMP’s remote sensing suite: the side scan sonar (left) and the marine magnetometer (right)

LAMP uses a fairly typical suite of remote sensing gear. ‘Remote sensing’ means any tool that can recover and record data from an artifact, a feature, or a site. This data may help archaeologists find site locations or simply learn more about a site like where to dig next.

Our remote sensing gear consists of a sidescan sonar, a subbottom profiler, and a marine magnetometer. The magnetometer is the focus here, the real star of the show.

Magnetometery is not something typically associated with shipwreck hunting. However, it is one of the most useful tools. The basic theory rests on the fact that most historic shipwrecks have a magnetic field around them that disturbs the earth’s natural magnetic field. Continue reading

Wreck at Shipping Point

Earlier this year, St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum Archaeologist and Maritime Historian Brendan Burke traveled to Virginia to assist in research on a Civil War shipwreck. The following is excerpted from his report on the wreck.

Guns on the Potomac

MapWashington D.C. was never far from action during the American Civil War. Almost immediately after war was declared in 1861, a struggle erupted between U.S. and Confederate forces to control strategic points throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Confederate forces quietly placed heavy artillery along the Virginia banks on the Potomac, strategically placed on commanding heights.

By the fall of 1861, batteries were ready for duty at Shipping Point, Possum Point, Freestone Point, and Cockpit Point. Washington was cut off by water, and the navy from one of its most important naval yards. Confederate guns controlled river line access up and down the river, only on a moonless night could ships pass the blockade.

The reality of strategic isolation and embarrassment spurred the U.S. Navy into action. Assaults were launched against the Confederate batteries In September of 1861 a battery at Freestone Point was engaged by the screw sloop Seminole and gunboat Jacob Bell but without effect.

In January of 1861, a second assault was led by Anacostia and Yankee on Cockpit Point. The action was largely inconclusive and Yankee suffered the only damage when ball passed through her hull and wounded a sailor. By March of 1862 the Potomac Blockade was entering its seventh month. A third operation was launched, again by Anacostia and Yankee, but with the addition of a landing party.

A lithograph from Harper’s Weekly depicting Confederate batteries at the mouth of Quantico Creek. Ships running the blockade of Washington D.C. are shown under fire. For five months, the nation’s capital was cut off from all waterborne access.

Confederate General Joseph Johnston was, at this time, pulling troops back due to a well-publicized and pending assault on Richmond by U.S. Gen. George McClellan. This withdrawal of forces coincided with the March assault, effectively disarming Confederate batteries along the Potomac. Continue reading

Shifting tides at the Lighthouse

Autumn brings the smell of wood smoke, washed sunlight, and relief from the oven of summer. Around St. Augustine, wood smoke as often indicates a backyard campfire as someone smoking fish. Mullet are on the beach, we’ve had our first fall Nor’easter, and all seems to be about right here in the Ancient City.

high tide
Fall brings high tides every year, but 2015 has been exceptional. Check out this picture taken at high tide on the 27th of September, the day of the super moon.

October is a big month for the St. Augustine Lighthouse, it’s our birthday.

On the evening of October 15, 1874 Keeper William Russell lit the wick in the new lighthouse, transferring the flame from the old Spanish tower. Continue reading