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Mysterious shipwreck from mid-1800s found by accident during NOAA equipment test

Sunken sailing ship from 200 years ago discovered by NOAA

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer made an unexpected – and exciting – discovery May 16 in the Gulf of Mexico: the wreck of what is likely a mid-19th century wooden sailing vessel.
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NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer made an unexpected – and exciting – discovery May 16 in the Gulf of Mexico: the wreck of what is likely a mid-19th century wooden sailing vessel.

A previously unknown shipwreck from the mid 1800s was found by accident as NOAA sea floor explorers were testing equipment in the Gulf of Mexico on May 16, according to a mission report posted this week.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the “unexpected and exciting discovery” was first picked up on sonar, then verified with a remotely operated vehicle sent to the sea floor.

It was found roughly 160 miles off shore along the Florida Escarpment, and sits 1,460 feet down, NOAA officials told the Charlotte Observer.

NOAA explorers say the wreck is a mystery for many reasons, including the fact that nothing was found on the site “reflecting the vessel’s rig, trade, nationality, or crew.”

However, there is evidence it may have caught fire and burned, suggesting a disastrous ending for a crew far from dry land.

It’s believed the 124-foot ship is a schooner or brig built in the mid-19th century, with its hull sheathed in copper. The numbers “2109” are clearly visible along the edge of the rudder, and even nail patterns can still be clearly seen, explorers said.

A stash of gold coins was called the latest bit of proof that a shipwreck 40-plus miles off the North Carolina coast is that of the steamship Pulaski, which took half its wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1838.

“Experts were able to infer the time period of the vessel’s origination based on a number of construction features. However, this information does not indicate the age of the vessel at the time it was lost, which could have been decades later,” said the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration report.

Footage from a remotely operated vehicle revealed the hull is largely “intact up to the water line,” likely due to the protective copper sheathing that still clings to its timbers, officials said.

“However, all structure above the waterline is missing, and during the initial observations of the dive, there did not appear to be many traces of the standing rigging,” the report said.

Multiple timbers seen by a remotely operated vehicle “appeared charred and some of the fasteners were bent, which may be an indication of burning,” NOAA explorers say.

“While the evidence is still being assessed, it is possible that this sailing vessel caught fire and was nearly completely consumed before sinking. This may explain the lack of artifacts from the rigging, decks, and upper works, as well as the lack of personal possessions,” the mission report states.

Emily Crum, a spokeswoman for the NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research, told the Charlotte Observer the main focus of the expedition was to test equipment so finding the shipwreck by accident “was certainly a surprise.”

“Typically when we find/explore shipwrecks, we have some basic information that allows us to search for a target,” she said.

“In this instance, there was no information to suggest the wreck was there. The team just ‘stumbled’ upon it... Because it wasn’t a planned exploratory dive, we had to quickly rally marine archaeologists to join the dive via the live video feeds and they were able to provide some preliminary observations,” she said.

Additional analysis of the video is expected to unravel a more accurate picture of what happened to the ship, she said.

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