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LAKE CHAMPLAIN: Historic wrecks beckon divers
29 September 2004

BENEATH BURLINGTON BAY, Vermont (AP) - Many of the bricks the canal schooner O.J. Walker was carrying when it sank a century ago in a Lake Champlain gale are still on deck today, stacked in recognizable, if falling over, piles.

Some are scattered off to the side of the boat in about 60 feet (18 meters) of water. The handcarts used to move the bricks and other cargo lay undisturbed on the muck alongside the boat. The boat itself sits upright, providing an underwater look into the 19th century commercial history of Lake Champlain. It's accessible to certified divers as part of a Lake Champlain underwater historic preserve, run by the states of Vermont and New York.

The wreck site is marked on the surface with a yellow buoy. The anchor chain leads to a concrete pad and from there another chain leads to the wreck itself, where divers are greeted by a sign that warns them to stay out of the wreck and that it's illegal to take artifacts off the wreck.

Art Cohn of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum helped create the underwater preserve and considers it to be an integral part of the ever-expanding system of museums and exhibits that can explain the long and rich history of Lake Champlain.

"Every one of these underwater sites connects us to a historic period and specific circumstances that is a really unique connection to the past," Cohn said.

The wrecks are owned by the states of Vermont and New York and it doesn't cost anything to dive to them. But divers need to register prior to using the underwater preserve and reserve a time slot in advance before exploring the O.J. Walker and the Water Witch, a barge that was carrying iron ore when it sank in an 1866 storm off Diamond Island in southern Lake Champlain.

Four of the eight preserve sites are near Burlington harbor, in the 19th century one of the most important commercial waterfronts in the country. Three others are in Vermont waters; one is in New York.

Cohn estimates there are about 30 additional wrecks in Lake Champlain that could eventually be added to the preserve system.

For scuba divers, the water in Lake Champlain isn't as cold as the North Atlantic, but it's not the Caribbean, either. Divers need a complete, cold-water wet suit that only leaves small parts of the face directly exposed to the water.

But the need for cold water diving gear means lake diving is as good in May or October as it is in July or August, when, for non-divers, the lake is not at its most swimmable.

The preserve opens in May and closes at the end of October when the buoys that mark the wrecks are pulled from the water.

Cohn, who has been diving in Lake Champlain for more than 30 years, said October was his favorite time for diving.

"There's nobody on the lake. The water is still warm," Cohn said. "The visibility is usually at its best and the foliage and grandeur of the surrounding environment is as good as it gets anywhere in the world."

The underwater preserve first opened in 1985 after Cohn and others realized that people would dive to the wrecks anyway and it would be best to control it.

"We were the first program in the country to provide mooring systems to make access to these sites safer, easier and less destructive to the wrecks," Cohn said. Since dive boats can tie up to the buoys, they don't need to drop an anchor that can damage the wreck. "I have to say that the dive community here has been extraordinarily supportive of this approach," Cohn said. "It was largely designed to run on good intentions by the dive community. Almost 20 years later I can say that that has been successful."

The O.J. Walker was carrying its load of bricks from Malletts Bay to Shelburne Farms in 1895 when it was caught in the gale. Rather than being piled in the hold, the bricks were stacked on deck, a labor-saving device for the crew that ended up costing them their boat.

The stresses of the top-heavy load caused the Walker to spring one of its planks. The boat partially capsized, spilling part of the load into the lake and then righting itself before sinking. The wreck now rests upright about three-quarters of a mile (a little more than a kilometer) off the Burlington waterfront in about 65 feet (19.5 meters) of water.

The masts of the O.J. Walker still crisscross the deck where they fell when the boat hit bottom. Most of cargo was rectangular building bricks. Others are round, hollow drainage tiles.

The Walker was one of the vessels used by Cohn and the Maritime Museum to design the Lois McClure, the just-completed canal schooner that is once again plying the waters of Lake Champlain as a modern ambassador of 19th century commercial life on the lake.

In an ironic benefit to scuba divers, nonnative zebra mussels that are covering Lake Champlain and threatening the existence of the wrecks, are keeping the lake clearer than it used to be. Millions of zebra mussels strain the water.

It's not uncommon to find visibility of 30 feet (9 meters) to 40 feet (12 meters) on the Walker, unheard of before the mussels were first discovered in 1993, Cohn said.

But the zebra mussels are also covering the wrecks, prompting fears their weight could eventually collapse them. The process is accelerated by a chemical reaction caused by the mussels that is eating away at the iron pieces that hold the wooden boats together.

The General Butler is another wreck in the underwater preserve system. It's a canal schooner similar to the O.J. Walker that wrecked on the Burlington breakwater in an early winter storm in 1876. It's an easy dive, in only about 40 feet (12 meters) of water.

Farther north, off Colchester Shoal, lays the remains of the Phoenix, one of the first steamboats to sail on Lake Champlain. It caught fire during an overnight run between Plattsburgh, New York, and Burlington in 1819 and then was run up onto the shoal. Six people died.

After the accident, the Phoenix settled on the shoal where work crews managed to salvage the boilers. Cohn said it's believed that ice moved the Phoenix off the shoal to where it sank and rests today.

The stern of the Phoenix lies in more than 100 feet (30 meters) of water and at that depth Lake Champlain is dark. But the burn marks on the ribs of a vessel that sank more than 180 years ago can transport a diver back to the early 19th century.

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If You Go...

LAKE CHAMPLAIN DIVING: Divers can register to use the Lake Champlain Underwater Preserve at the Burlington Community Boat House, at the foot of College Street, 645 Pine St., Suite B, Burlington ( www.enjoyburlington.com/boathouse.cfm or 802-865-3377) or at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 4472 Basin Harbor Road, Vergennes ( www.lcmm.org or 802-475-2022).

BURLINGTON-AREA CHARTER OPERATIONS:

Waterfront Diving Center, 214 Battery St., Burlington; www.waterfrontdiving.com/ or (802) 865-2771.

Victory Sports, 165 Heineberg Drive, Colchester, www.victorysports.net or (802) 862-0963.

Jones' Aqua Sports, Willsboro Bay Marina, 71 Klein Drive, Willsboro, New York, (518) 963-1150.

Champlain Dive Center, Snug Harbor Marina, 4013 Route 9, Plattsburgh, New York, (518) 562-3483.
 

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Archaeologists find graveyard of sunken Roman ships

ROME, July 23 (Reuters) - A team of archaeologists using sonar technology to scan the seabed have discovered a "graveyard" of five pristine ancient Roman shipwrecks off the small Italian island of Ventotene.

The trading vessels, dating from the first century BC to the fifth century AD, lie more than 100 metres underwater and are amongst the deepest wrecks discovered in the Mediterranean in recent years, the researchers said on Thursday.

Part of an archipelago situated halfway between Rome and Naples on Italy's west coast, Ventotene historically served as a place of shelter during rough weather in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

"The ships appear to have been heading for safe anchorage, but they never made it," said Timmy Gambin, head of archaeology for the Aurora Trust (www.auroratrust.com). "So in a relatively small area we have five wrecks...a graveyard of ships."

The vessels were transporting wine from Italy, prized fish sauce from Spain and north Africa, and a mysterious cargo of metal ingots from Italy, possibly to be used in the construction of statues or weaponry.

Gambin said the wrecks revealed a pattern of trade in the empire: at first Rome exported its produce to its expanding provinces, but gradually it began to import from them more and more of the things it once produced.

In Roman times Ventotene, known as Pandataria, was used to exile disgraced Roman noblewomen. The Emperor Augustus sent his daughter Julia there because of her adultery. During the 20th century, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini used the remote island as a prison for political opponents.

Images of the wrecks show their crustacean-clad cargoes spilling onto the seafloor, after marine worms ate away the wooden hull of the vessels.

Due to their depth, the ships have lain untouched for hundreds of years but Gambin said the increasing popularity of deep water diving posed a threat to the Mediterranean's archaeological treasures.

"There is a race against time," he said. "In the next 10 years, there will be an explosion in mixed-gas diving and these sites will be accessible to ordinary treasure hunters."
 

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Wreckage of five ancient ships found off Italy: report
25 July 2009
Agence France Presse

Archaeologists have found the wreckage of five ships dating back to the Roman era along with their cargo of ancient jars and vases off the coast of Italy, ANSA news agency reported on Saturday.

The ships found around the small island of Ventotene, off the coast of Naples, date from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD, the agency reported.

Their discovery shows the area was an important crossroads on the maritime route used by ancient ships, and a "real underwater museum exists all around the island," said Annalisa Zarattini, one of the archaeologists.

Search teams found the ships about 100 metres (330 feet) underwater as part of a research project begun in August 2008.

The oldest ship is 18 metres long and dates to the 1st century BC, according to the archaeologists' estimates. The others range between 13 and 25 metres long and still contain cargo of Spanish and African jugs.
 
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