July 18, 2008 – Friday – Exposing the Black Rock Wreck

By Donald Keith

It is late afternoon on the last day of the second week of the expedition. Grant and I are on the sun deck of the Explorer pounding a quick-disconnect fitting into a tight, non-collapsible dredge hose. We stayed back on the Explorer today to get our 6-inch dredge ready to deploy on the Black Rock Wreck. We’ve spent the last 5 days exposing various parts of the wreck using our four smaller, more nimble induction dredges, but the time has come to call in the cavalry.

From where the Explorer rides at anchor outside of the reef to the West of Drum Point, I can just make out Levardo’s catamaran, “T T Anwar,” on a three-point mooring over the Black Rock Wreck. Having the 33 ft. cat out there is a big improvement over previous seasons when we had to work out of 14-ft inflatables all day. T T carries our dredge pumps, provides space for coolers, fuel, tools, spare parts, dive tanks and other diving equipment, and is large enough for a normal work force of 8 divers to congregate for lunch or strategy meetings under the shade of its tarp. For this and other reasons we accomplished more in the last three days than in a whole week during the 2006 season.

TT Anwar w/Equipment

So what, exactly, are we doing out here? Once the magnetic survey finds targets, or “anomalies” (mag-man speak for disturbances in the earth’s magnetic field that could indicate the location of a shipwreck), they are checked one-by-one and test-excavated if they look promising. So far, only the Black Rock Wreck has been deemed worthy of excavation.

We started by putting four dredges and eight people on the site to clear the sand from a trench running transversely across the wreck from the keel out to a “knee,” an L-shaped timber that originally supported the ship’s deck. The placement of the trench was carefully chosen to expose the ship’s “mastercouple,” the widest part of the hull. This enabled us to closely estimate the ship’s beam (maximum breadth), the depth of its hold, and the shape of its hull. It also revealed that the ship had an unusual set of construction features with respect to the way in which its frames (or “ribs”) were fashioned.

Black Rock wreck site Plan

Because the historical record tells us that everyone on board Trouvadore survived the wreck, it is clear that the vessel carried over the reef and “sank” in the shallow waters between the fringing reef and the beach. Mortally wounded, it sat on the bottom, deck awash, allowing everyone to escape to shore. “Wreckers” subsequently stripped Trouvadore of everything that could be salvaged, the value of which, according to official correspondence, was slightly more than 71 pounds Sterling. Battered by wind and the sea the ship came to rest in the sand pocket where it now lies, pinned down by its stone ballast. One side of the ship’s V-shaped hull became embedded in the sand. The other side, exposed to the elements, was destroyed down to its garboard (the hull plank connected directly to the keel). All time and the sea have left us is part of one side of the vessel, and we still have to find the ends.

Measuring Timbers

Our obsession with the ship’s construction features is more than merely academic. According to the skimpy descriptions of Trouvadore in the historical record, it was “a brigantine of 111 tons” and, if the details of a newspaper report of the time are accurate, Trouvadore may have been capable of carrying as many as 300 Africans and crew members. In the absence of artifacts such as manacles, chains, arms, hatch gratings, and African trade items such as elephant ivory, all of which would have been stripped from the wreck by salvagers, we must compare the hull remains of the Black Rock Wreck with the historical record. To that end, long before the expedition began Toni had compiled a table of features and dimensions for known slave ships and brigantines of the period against which we can compare those of the Black Rock Wreck.

On our list of construction details to check are the Black Rock Wreck’s length and location of its mast steps (the places where the heels of its masts were set into mortises in the keelson). Determining the ship’s length is easier said than done because one end of the keel seems to be broken off near the south end of the ballast mound, and the other end appears to be deeply buried beneath a sand bank overlaid with turtle grass. This brings us back to the 6 in. dredge…we are hoping it will reduce the amount of time it takes to reach the keel and get this critical piece of information.