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Mystery Shipwreck Identified

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The Fortuna II, a 65' long shrimp boat owned by the Versaggi family, came to grief on this stretch of Ponte Vedra Beach during a fierce north wind and "mountainous seas" in 1938. LAMP archaeologists recently discovered the remains of a shipwreck here, and our working hypothesis is that probably the wreckage is all that is left of this 38-ton shrimping vessel.

Many of you saw that LAMP was in the news two weeks ago for our most recent shipwreck discovery. At the time we thought the wreck could date to as early as the 1800s, though as is often the case more investigation was needed in order to gain some more clues and firm up the wreck's identity. In this case, further investigation did the trick, but in the library, not in the surf.

This is a tricky shipwreck to assess because it is squarely in the surf zone, constantly battered by waves, and it is also continuously covered and uncovered by sand with the changing tides. So it is hard to get a look at more than a meter or two of wreckage at a time, and most of the wreck is buried and out of our reach. But we did note what appeared to be iron frames, and a section of iron plating--we assumed that this was part of the hull of an iron ship. We also noted wooden planking, which could represent decking if it was an iron-hulled ship, or outer hull planking if the ship was wood and the iron plating was related to machinery on board. Of course, its hard to learn even the basic nature of a wreck in such conditions, with the wreckage disappearing and reappearing from view and especially when the archaeologists themselves are ripped off the site and thrown forcibly on the beach by the incoming waves!

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The wreck is right in the waves, which makes getting a closer look difficult.

This wreck was first encountered by Benjamin Boots while he was out surfing. He is an officer with the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and we have struck up a great relationship with him and his fellow officer Steve Bacon. Part of their mission is to enforce the laws protecting shipwrecks such as those we have excavated offshore. When he came across a strange object while surfing, which appeared to be stone or iron, he paid us a visit and told us how to find the object. Others had reported this object to LAMP staff years back before our tenure here, but previous LAMP archaeologists couldn't relocate it. We did, and soon realized it was a shipwreck of interest.

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LAMP archaeologists Brendan Burke and Chuck Meide pose at the Mickler's Landing beach access after the discovery of the shipwreck nearby.

After battling the surf on two separate site visits, we turned to the laboratory. Our volunteer Tim Jackson was assigned with the task of searching the LAMP Shipwreck Database in search of a likely candidate for this mystery wreck on Ponte Vedra Beach near Mickler's Landing. It wasn't long before he came up with what appeared to be a match: the Fortuna II.

All we knew about the Fortuna II was that she was a 38-ton vessel, which we figured would make her somewhere between 50 and 70 feet long. Our database also indicated that this ship had oil-burning engines, was built in 1907, and had stranded 16 miles north of St. Augustine on February 1st, 1938. This basic information in our database came from a standard reference, Steven Singer's Shipwrecks of Florida. This is a great reference, but unfortunately the author does not provide very clear citation information for most of his shipwreck entries. For example, for the Fortuna II he cites the National Archives, without giving any more specific information to narrow down literally millions of pages of archives!

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Jessica Clark of First Coast News interviewing Dr. Sam Turner on the site of the shipwreck now believed to be the Fortuna II.

But despite this dead end, it does give us a place to start looking. The most logical choice is the local newspaper archives. Our volunteer Tim Jackson was planning on hitting the St. Augustine Historical Society's archives to search through old editions of the St. Augustine Record, and Ken Jones who teaches the Maritime Archaeology Research Class at Pedro Menendez High School told us he'd have his students search through old issues of the Jacksonville paper, the Florida Times-Union.

Our plans were accelerated when our friend Peter Guinta, senior writer for the St. Augustine Record, called me yesterday wanting to do a follow-up story on the wreck. I gave him the latest information and told him our next step was to do this research in the archives in order to learn more about the Fortuna II. Since he was at the Record's headquarters, he offered to look through the paper's archives for the week of February 1st, 1938, and lo and behold, he found the article giving us the full story.

Peter wrote up the story and it appears in today's edition of the Record.

What does not appear at that link is the original 1938 Record story, which I've included below:

SHRIMP BOAT FORCED AGROUND; IS UNABLE TO GET ACROSS BAR

May Be Total Loss; Two Others Kept Outside By Heavy Sea

Unable to cross the dangerous bar off of Anastasia Island because of a mountainous sea, the Fortuna II, one of the largest of the local shrimp boats, sprung a leak and was beached by its crew south of Ponte Vedra late yesterday afternoon.

The 65-foot fishing yawl, owned by Versaggi and Sons of this city, was trying to fight its way through a driving wind and high sea to the Fernandina port when it began to sink and the crew had to beach the craft and swim for their lives.

The shrimper, valued at around $8,000, was being pounded by a heavy sea today, and it is feared that it will be totally wrecked.

Two other shrimp boats, one belonging to Versaggi and Sons and one owned by the Salvador interests here, were also caught in the stormy weather that is now engulfing the coast and have been riding at anchor off of Anastasia Island since yesterday morning, shrimp dealers stated. Unable to cross the bar, the boats are in danger of sinking and the lives of the crews are imperiled.

The Fortuna II tried to reach port yesterday morning but the crew found it impossible to cross the local bar because of a high, rolling sea. The mouth of the channel off Anastasia Island is so shallow and dangerous that weather conditions must be near perfect for boats to cross the bear even on high tide.

Most of the local shrimping fleet make trips outside that last several days and cannot be warned of the approach of stormy weather. Fortunately, shrimp dealers here reported today that their boats, outside of the ill-fated Fortuna and the two craft now riding the sea, reached port safely before a sweeping north wind began to blow Monday night.

When a craft sinks it is a great loss to the shrimping industry, for no insurance can be secured for these fishing boats.

Local boat owners and fishermen are living with the hope that the proposed new channel across the North Beach point will be approved, so that St. Augustine may have a safe harbor and thus protect from disaster the fishing industry in St. Augustine.

St. Augustine Record, Wednesday, February 2, 1938

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1963 photograph of a St. Augustine shrimp boat that would have probably looked similar to the Fortuna II.

While at this time we do not have definitive evidence linking our wreck to the Fortuna II, all of the evidence we have to date suggests this is a likely identification. Further research on the site may help confirm this circumstantial evidence--one idea would be to probe the area around the proposed wreckage, so see if we can ascertain the length of the buried wreckage and compare that figure to the known length of the Fortuna II: 65 feet.

Another avenue of research would be to interview some of the Versaggi family members or surviving crewmen who might provide some more details of the wrecking event. We have already been contacted by the niece of Dominic Versaggi. Dominic and his wife Rosalie attended the grand opening of our outdoor shrimping exhibit at the Lighthouse and we are eager to hear if they have more stories for us about the loss of the Fortuna II. One of our primary interests here at LAMP and the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum is the history of the shrimping industry, and we are really delighted to have discovered a wreck directly related to this important historical activity.

Meanwhile, we will continue to conduct our research, in the surf, in the library, and in our community. We'll keep you posted on the latest information on our mystery wreck, now believed to the be Fortuna II.

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Brendan and Sam walking into the sunrise, the best time to visit the wreck.


Comments (2)

I found a weird shipwreck caught with google earth! For those who are interested visite,
http://www.caughtfromabove.com/page137.html
I hope you enjoy ;)

I thought I'd share with our readers that we have moved away from our hypothesis that the Mickler's Landing Wreck is indeed that of the Fortuna II. The iron hull members in the surf suggests this vessel had an iron hull or perhaps a composite hull (iron interior framing and wooden exterior planking). A large mass of iron plating exposed during our site visits also suggests the possibility of an iron hull. The first steel-hulled shrimp trawlers in our region were built in the late 1950s, and they were never particularly common here. The traditional St. Augustine wooden trawlers were built of wood with no internal iron framing. It seems unlikely that the wreck of the Fortuna II would display the iron features that we have observed on this shipwreck.

The mystery continues!

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