Sunken history: Ponte Vedra Beach shipwreck presents snapshot of centuries-old maritime customs

From The St. Augustine Record

By Colleen Jones

Brendan Burke has been studying shipwrecks for years — dozens of them in different pieces and conditions.

Archaeologist Brendan Burke will speak about wooden shipwrecks at 7 p.m. September 12, 2019 at Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience.

But when a shipwrecked hull, the ribs of its frame almost fully intact, washed ashore south of Ponte Vedra Beach in late-March 2018, Burke had the chance to study a historical vessel in depth and from the ground floor up.

In the last year and a half, Burke and a team of researchers with the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program, along with Dr. Lee Newsom of Flagler College, have been piecing together a puzzle they believe most accurately tells the story of the boat, its origins, its path of travel and other indicators.

The local shipwreck, dubbed the “Spring Break Wreck,” seemed to capture people’s imagination from the first reports that came out about the find, with thousands flocking to see the 48-foot-by-12-foot remnant drudged up on the beach.

What made the wreck so unique was the way it seemingly came out of nowhere, with nothing seemingly special about the water currents at that time, Burke said.

“And to see the craftsmanship of our ancestors,” Burke said, “And it looked almost brand new, it was like looking into a time capsule.”

Burke will talk about his work as a maritime archeologist and the Spring Break Wreck on Thursday at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience as part of the facility’s lecture series. The event, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m.

The process of analyzing the shell of a centuries-old ship, Burke said, is like processing a crime scene, with the more information gathered helping to form an eventual composite picture.

A crowd inspects the Spring Break Shipwreck that washed up on shore in South Ponte Vedra Beach in March 2018.

“Studying a shipwreck to get bits of data is like hunting clues at a crime scene,” Burke said. “And it takes a lot of clues to be able to put together a conviction.”

In the first days after the ship washed up near Ponte Vedra Beach, the LAMP team collected as much data as it could, and took measurements and photos. That helped it create a 3-D model of what the ship likely looked like before the wreck and after.

Researchers surmised first, that vessel was likely a commercial cargo ship on a route to or from the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard.

“This is one of the thousands of ships that built the backbone of our maritime industry and the rest of our economy,” Burke said.

They also believe that “based on the saw marks and how the wood was processed, it was constructed post-1880,” Burke said, adding that it didn’t appear to have been crafted at a large shipbuilding yard, but more of a mom-and-pop type operation, likely on the U.S. Atlantic Coast.

The ship contains wood samples of beech, spruce, pine and white oak and does not appear to have repaired parts or have a re-coating of copper on its bottom, leading Burke to believe it probably went down in whatever way it did not very long after it was first made.

When not in the lab, Burke can be found aboard LAMP’s research vessel, the Empire Defender, exploring Florida’s waters for historic shipwrecks. The group’s next mission will take off next week.

Ships, for people, hold a kind of universal curiosity, Burke believes.

“Just about every human has some tie to the maritime industry, so it’s a great connecting force,” he said. “You’re taking archeology and looking deeper into societies to find the voices of those who maybe didn’t have a chance to write a memoir … to tell their stories.”

Read the story at staugustine.com here

IF YOU GO

What: Evenings at Whitney Lecture Series — “Wonderful Wooden Wrecks and the Mysteries Within,” a talk by Brendan Burke, part of the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program team that analyzed the “Spring Break Wreck” discovered in Ponte Vedra Beach in 2018

When: Thursday at 7 p.m.

Where: Lohman Auditorium at the University of Florida Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, 9505 Ocean Shore Blvd., Marineland

More info: The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call (904) 461-4000.