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Local divers hoping to confirm their discovery is in fact the Revenge

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By Joe Wojtas
Published 02/08/2012 12:00 AM

Navy boat, Woods Hole staff to join exploration of Watch Hill shipwreck

Stonington – A Navy research boat and staff from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts accompanied local divers Charlie Buffum and Craig Harger Tuesday to explore what they believe is the 201-year-old wreck of the Oliver Hazard Perry ship the Revenge, which the two men say they have discovered on Watch Hill Reef.

The Navy vessel, led by Buffum’s boat, left the Wadawanuck Club dock in the borough at 8 a.m. on a two-day expedition to survey the wreck site using a sophisticated autonomous underwater vehicle from Woods Hole that is equipped with sonar, a magnetometer and a video camera.

George Schwarz, an underwater archaeologist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, said the goal of the trip is not only to use the AUV to map the wreck site but to possibly expand the site by locating nearby pieces of the ship as well. He said divers would return at a later date to explore the site and a subsequent archaeological investigation would determine whether the vessel is indeed the Revenge.

If it is the Revenge, the location would be deemed a protected U.S. Navy site and no artifacts could be removed.

While the wreck sits on the rocky reef, Schwarz said, it is possible that the ballast could be pinning some of the hull to the bottom. For someone who studies early wooden shipbuilding and nautical archaeology, he added, the prospect of exploring a 201-year-old vessel is very interesting.

Buffum, who owns Cottrell Brewing in Pawcatuck, and Harger, who lives in Colchester, have spent six years looking for the Revenge and exploring the wreck. They said they have been looking forward to the trip that could confirm that the ship is in fact the Revenge.

“It’s been a long time coming but it’s been a fun process. We hoped to do this in the warmer months but we’ll take what we can get. The people from Woods Hole said the robot doesn’t care how cold it is,” said Buffum, whose brewery recently released Perry’s Revenge Ale to celebrate the discovery.

Still, Tuesday’s calm, clear conditions offered excellent visibility for the group, especially since the wreck sits in just 10 feet of water.

“We’re just tour guides,” said Harger. “We’ll show them where it is. We have as much experience on that reef as anyone, we dive it so much.”

So far they have found six cannons as well as an anchor. But because the wreck could belong to the Navy, the two men have not salvaged any items.

The Revenge was a 14-gun schooner that sank on the reef off Watch Hill on Jan. 8, 1811, while surveying southern New England harbors, including New London.

Perry faced a court martial over the wreck but eventually was exonerated, and blame then fell on the ship’s pilot. Because of the incident, however, the formerly fast-rising captain could not get command of a ship battling the British along the Eastern seaboard. He had to settle for the less glamorous position of commanding a fleet of warships in the Great Lakes.

Under Perry’s command in 1813, that fleet defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, a major naval confrontation during the War of 1812.

Aboard Perry’s ship, the USS Lawrence in Lake Erie, was a battle flag bearing the now-famous saying, “Don’t give up the ship.” The battle is seen as a turning point in the war and helped change the course of U.S. history.

In his post-battle report to his superiors, Perry wrote another saying that is now famous: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

j.wojtas@theday.com

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Historic Hydrographic Shipwreck Discovery

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17/01/2011

Almost 200 years to the day after her sinking, a couple of Connecticut, USA, scuba divers revealed they had discovered the remains of what appears to be the USS Revenge. At the time of her demise the Revenge was performing important hydrographic survey work in the shallow waters of Long Island Sound. Shrouded in thick fog on that cold winter morning the schooner ran aground on a reef near Watch Hill, Rhode Island.

When the ship went down in January 1811 she was captained by Oliver Hazard Perry, who later become a celebrated war hero.  Perry gained notoriety for his bravery during the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.  Perry became famous for his proclamation, “we have met the enemy, and he is ours”.  He is also renowned for flying a flag emblazoned with the words, “don’t give up the ship”, which is a symbol still in use by the US Navy today.

Perry was court martialled for the sinking, but exonerated during trial when blame was fixed on the ship’s pilot who had assured the captain he was quite familiar with local waters.  Perry’s reputation was tarnished by the incident, but later redeemed by the courage he demonstrated in the Lake Erie battle.  When the ship he commanded was severely hit and taking on water, the captain jumped in a lifeboat with several surviving crew members, rowed to the nearby Niagra, and fought on to victory.

Recreational scuba diver Charles Buffum had always dreamed of finding a “shipwreck”.  When Charlie’s mother gave him a book titled, “Shipwrecks on the Shores of Westerly”, his dream moved one step closer to reality.  While reading about maritime disasters in local waters, Charlie learned about the wreck of the USS Revenge.  Fascinated by the story, he called his friend and diving partner Craig Harger and asked if he’d be interested in searching for a shipwreck.  Harger jumped at the chance.  The pair enlisted the help of another buddy, Mike Fournier to assist in the operation.  Their first step was to acquire a metal detector.  After picking up a JW Fishers Pulse 8X detector, the trio loaded their gear into Charlie’s 20 foot boat and set off for Rhode Island.  From the book’s description of the grounding, they had a good idea where to begin their search.  When the boat finally reached the Watch Hill reef, the guys suited up in record time.  They hit the water with great anticipation and began the hunt.  After two dives their enthusiasm began to ebb, like the heat from the bodies in the cold New England water.  They decided to make one more dive before calling it a day.  Sweeping the bottom with the Pulse 8X, they swam through the thick kelp surrounding the shallow reef.  Suddenly the detector’s audio began to wail.  Craig’s eyes bugged in his mask as he peered down at a small cannon lying on the ocean floor. In subsequent dives the team went on to find more cannon, a large anchor, and other metal objects.

The divers later determined the small cannon first discovered was a carronade, a type of cannon developed in the late 18th century.  Lighter and shorter than a long gun, the carronade could be used on upper decks, and more could be mounted. This gun was well-suited to the broadside battles fought by sailing ships of the day.  The lower muzzle velocity of the weapon’s round shot was intended to create many deadly flying wood splinters when striking a vessel.

The men have contacted the Naval History and Heritage Command, the office that oversees the salvage of Navy ships.  They hope to convince the Navy to salvage the remains, or relinquish the rights so they can raise the money needed to do it themselves.  Their intent is to have the artefacts preserved and displayed at the historical society.

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