South Jersey Shipwrecks
…From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…
Tales of bravery, exploration, and barrier island pirates
Most visitors to the Jersey Shore don’t realize it, but each time they dip their toes into these coastal ocean waters, or dive under its crashing waves, they are actually venturing into the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Our state’s 132-mile shoreline is strewn with over 2,000 shipwrecks, many dating from colonial times, and some still filled with hidden treasures.
While sailors tell tales of treacherous seas along Cape Cod, Long Island and Cape Hatteras, the maritime waters between Sandy Hook and Cape May Point have long been known as among the world’s most dangerous, and there are just as many nautical narratives spun about the seas off the Garden State.
Beneath the surface of our state’s rolling surf lay merchant ships, commercial schooners and passenger vessels once laden with expensive silks, porcelains, jewelry and coins.
Many shipwrecks were weather-related, caused when mariners were blinded by vicious storms sweeping up the coast, or by fog hiding visibility back to port. Some were caused by capsizing, onboard fires, or collisions with other vessels and natural objects such as sandbars, leaving them high and dry.
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Sometimes human error played a role. Sailing ships have been left undermanned due to illness, exhaustion or even drunkenness. There have even been wartime losses, when ships were torpedoed or hit by mines right off South Jersey’s barrier island beaches.
In “Shipwrecks Along the Atlantic Coast,” author William P. Quinn writes that the 1800s was the worst period for wrecks. “Travel by sailing vessel along the Atlantic coast was hazardous. The only sailing aides were a magnetic compass, a leadline for sounding, some crude charts and a few lighthouses equipped with weak whale oil lamps. During the fall and winter months, many vessels sailed and were never heard from again.”
Situated between the two major US cities of New York and Philadelphia, New Jersey became a hub for the shipping trade, providing a straight north-south coastal route. Vessels often hugged the shoreline, but the low, flat coast often whipped up strong winds that blew many ships into shoals and onto shallow sandbars. The Jersey beaches became an unintentional burial ground for thousands of vessels traveling between the Delaware Bay and New York Harbor.
Long Beach Island resident and author of New Jersey Shipwrecks—350 Years in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, Margaret Thomas Buchholz, writes, “Anyone who lived along the New Jersey coast in the 19th century knew that the beach offered good pickings after a merchant ship ran aground or wrecked on the offshore bar.” According to Buchholz, the legal principles of the day were based on simple moral codes. In salvaging a wreck, “if effort has been taken, the person was entitled to a reward.” Historically, the amount awarded to wreckers depended on the degree of danger to the salvager, the risk to his boat, the condition of the wrecked vessel, and the time and labor expended,” Buchholz adds.
Centuries ago, shipwrecks made headlines in local newspapers and created instant tourist attractions for shore towns. Such was the case with the Sindia, Ocean City’s most legendary sailing ship. The Sindia was built in the same Irish shipyard that constructed the Titanic, and it was owned by American Oil Company capitalist John D. Rockefeller.
The ship was a four-masted sailing bark with a steel hull used to haul cargo between Asia and the United States. The 329-foot vessel ran aground between 16th and 17th Street in “America’s Favorite Family Resort” on the night of December 15, 1901, loaded with crates of hand-painted porcelain, silks and mats from China and Japan. The ship lay broadside, just 200 feet from the beach, battered by wind and waves, after hitting a sandbar. All 33 crewmembers were rescued by members of the Ocean City Lifesavings Station, but the ship’s hull sank so deep into the beach sand, that tugs sent to pull her out had no effect.
There are competing theories as to why the Sindia was tossed up on the Ocean City beach. One story has the ship caught in a fierce early winter nor’easter, spinning it so it headed southward, away from its New York City port of call.
Fred Miller, President of the Ocean City Historical Museum, is a bit skeptical. “It was a dark and stormy night, but it wasn’t that dark and stormy. It wasn’t anything worse than these guys should have been able to handle,” he says.
Another theory blames a tippling crew for losing their sailing ability and reporting false depth soundings to the captain, causing the vessel to run aground. Miller is good humored about those possibilities. “They left Japan in July and they didn’t arrive in Ocean City until December 15th. Imagine being on a ship that long. Then they arrived in Ocean City, where there’s no alcohol permitted, then or now.”
Speculation has surfaced (unlike the ship) that the hold contained smuggled relics from China’s 1900 Boxer Rebellion: gold, jade and items looted from Buddhist temples. There is a legend surrounding the smuggling aboard of a golden Buddha.
“The centerpiece of our museum’s Sindia exhibit is the ship’s figurehead,” says Miller. “It is a wooden head of a mustached sultan, complete with turban.”
Historical accounts tell of an Ocean City resident swimming out to the wreck with a saw strapped to his back, with the intent of cutting-off the figurehead.
The Sindia was sold a number of times. One of the owners built a pier leading from the Ocean City boardwalk to a position near and above the wreck. Admission was charged to see the wreck, and at the end of the pier was a gift shop that sold items salvaged from the ship.
“Everyone from Ocean City had something from the Sindia,” says Miller. The Peking, a similar type ship is currently on display at New York’s South Street Seaport. It’s the same size and shape as the Sindia.
Today, because of time, tides and beach replenishment projects by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Sindia has sunk completely from view. The hull and what might remain of her valuable cargo lies totally buried. The wreck location was designated as an official historical site by the State of New Jersey in 1969.
Of Pirates and Surfmen
Part of the lore of the New Jersey Shore includes villains of shipwrecks, better known as the Brigantine Pirates. These unscrupulous scoundrels would strap lanterns to the backs of pack animals and wander up and down the coastline north of Atlantic City.
Their ploy was particularly effective on foggy nights, as ship captains would mistake their lights for villages and safe harbors, and erroneously dash their vessels on the infamous Brigantine shoals. Once grounded, the foundering ships would be plundered by the ruthless brigands.
One of the more notorious privateers to step ashore in New Jersey was the well known pirate Captain Kidd. Originally a wealthy and politically connected resident of New York City, Kidd married a wealthy New Jersey widow. He traveled to England in 1695, seeking a Royal Navy commission, but instead was granted a license by the King to capture French and pirate ships, splitting the booty with the English government.
He was eventually arrested, tried and hung after he decided to pursue freelance pirating throughout the Caribbean and along the Atlantic coast. Kidd reportedly buried his treasures in the sand dunes near Cape May Point. A tree known as Kidd’s Tree grew near the lighthouse until 1893.
It is said that another famous pirate, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, visited Cape May on travels up the Delaware River. Cape May was popular with pirates as an anchorage because it offered concealment in the numerous surrounding creeks. From these vantage points, they were able to pounce on ships entering the bay on their way to Philadelphia.
“Pirates were definitely along the coast here,” says Ocean City’s Fred Miller. “They liked it here and at Cape May because of the barrier islands. If someone were chasing them, they could duck into the inlets around the north or south end of the island and hide.”
The large number of shipwrecks along the Jersey coast led the government, marine insurance companies, and merchant shippers to establish means of marine safety for rescuing passengers and cargo. “Wrecking” was a coastal profession until the mid-19th century when the federal government built more lighthouses and installed aids to navigation. Up until then, hundreds of vessels and thousands of lives had been lost.
Credit New Jersey Congressman Dr. William A. Newell, a Manahawkin physician, with bringing the first lifesaving stations to the New Jersey coast. After witnessing the wreck of the Austrian brig, Terastro, with the loss of thirteen crew members, he petitioned Congress in 1848 for “surfboats, rockets, carronades (a mortar that throws safety lines) and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwrecks.”
At first, eight lifesaving stations were built from Sandy Hook to Beach Haven. The following year, six additional stations appeared between Brigantine and Cape May Point. It was not until 1871 that Congress authorized the hiring of experienced surfmen to work the treacherous New Jersey coast to secure life and property.
Eventually, New Jersey built 42 lifesaving stations, spaced about every three miles down the coast. Thus was born the familiar New Jersey lifeguard patrols that today tend more often to swimmers in danger than ships in distress.
“By the 1890s, fewer ships were wrecking along the New Jersey shoreline. Sailing ships gave way to motorized vessels. Navigational aids had improved. Offshore lightships were strategically positioned; charts had become more accurate, and lighthouses had high-powered beams,” mentions Buchholtz in her book.
New Jersey’s Wartime Shipwrecks
Perilous shoals, fog, and stormy weather still lurked off the Jersey coast as the United States entered World War I in April 1917. Now the dangers of war were also prowling the waters, as long-range German U-boats were seen plying the Atlantic Ocean and into the Delaware Bay.
In June 1918, Germany’s U-151 was stalking the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Its mission was to mine Baltimore Harbor and the mouth of the Delaware Bay, within sight of the lights of Cape May. It was heading north to cut the transatlantic cable resting on the floor of New York Harbor.
On June 2nd, the U-151 had a field day sinking the schooners Hattie Dunn, Hauppage, Edna, Isabel B. Wiley, Edward H. Cole, and Jacob M. Haskell, along with the steam ships S.S. Winneconne, Texel, and S.S. Carolina. The last two ships were sunk just 60 miles off the Atlantic City coast.
After the full day’s activities, which became known as Black Sunday, U-151 eased out to sea, eventually docking at Kiel, Germany. In the wake of its 94-day American mission, including the Jersey coast, the U-boat sent 23 ships to the ocean bottom. Just 24 years later, as the United States entered World War II, German U-boats were again skimming the New Jersey shore, threatening commercial shipping. By March 1942, 216 tankers had been torpedoed off the East Coast. The oil Tankers R.P. Resor and S.S. Persephone were hit and sunk within 20 miles of Barnegat Inlet. The Resor, one of the most modern oil tankers in Merchant Marine service, with a crew of 50, was sunk by a torpedo from U-578 in February 1942. There were just two survivors. Crowds thronged to the beaches at Asbury Park to watch flames billow up on the horizon for two days. The ship now rests in 125 feet of water and is a prominent offshore dive site, producing one of the largest catches of lobsters in New Jersey.
The Persephone was attacked three miles east of Barnegat Inlet in May 1942 and lost nine of its 36 crew members when U-593 sent a torpedo slamming into its engine room. The explosion shook buildings on the shore and scattered remains can be found 55 feet down.
The S. S. Atlantus: Cape May’s Concrete Ship
One of the oddest New Jersey shipwrecks is still visible at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, 150 feet off Cape May’s Sunset Beach. This strange structure sticking out of the water is the wreckage of the S.S. Atlantus, a concrete ship, built in 1918 and modeled after Europe’s 19th century ferrocement (steel and reinforced concrete) river barges.
Due to a critical shortage of steel during World War I, the federal government experimented with concrete ships. Only 12 of the concrete vessels were ever put into service. During the Second World War, concrete ships supported U.S. and British invasions in Europe and the Pacific. The Atlantus is probably the most famous of the concrete ships, which were nicknamed “floating tombstones.” In 1926, the Atlantus was purchased to be used as a ferry dock for a proposed ferry between Cape May and Cape Henlopen in Delaware. On June 8th, a storm hit and the ship broke free of her moorings and ran aground 150 feet off the coast of Sunset Beach. Several attempts were made to free the ship, but none were successful. Since then the Atlantus has become a tourist attraction seen by millions. People used to swim out to the ship and dive off it. The sunken vessel even once sported an advertising billboard. The ruins of the concrete ship remain there today.
By the 1950s, shipwrecks were uncommon along the Jersey coast. Canvas sails had been replaced by strong engines, allowing vessels to travel farther offshore, away from tricky currents and land formations.
Aided by the National Weather Service and the invention of land-based navigation systems such as Loran-A and Loran-C (Long Range Navigation), ship captains were less threatened by storms and climatic conditions. Today, Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites report exact marine positions and plot courses of travel. Even the number of coastal lifesaving stations has been reduced. Today, most ocean distress calls come from pleasure craft or small commercial fishing vessels.
The sport of wreck diving has come into vogue these days. With proper training and equipment, anyone can become an underwater treasure hunter. Since 1946, Mar-Vel International of Pennsauken has supplied South Jersey marine lifesaving and diving equipment markets.
“Most people don’t realize that New Jersey has the largest number of wrecks to dive of any state coastline,” says Chris Johnson, a Mar-Vel director. “We service and support a great deal of the South Jersey diving community through equipment, training and trips. Mar-Vel is arguably the nation’s oldest diving supply company.” Johnson is an experienced underwater explorer. He’s a former U.S. Navy diver who worked on such operations as TWA Flight 100. He also has completed historical dives such as the Civil War submarine Monitor, which sank off the South Carolina coast.
Even the company’s president, Tom Maddox, set a benchmark in diving when he dove the Titanic, after it was discovered in 1985.
Mar-Vel’s Director of East Coast Sales, Arin Centrone, is also President of the South Jersey Diving Club, and an expert on SCUBA and commercial diving gear. Mar-Vel prepares recreational divers with a combination of classroom and pool training before they can even consider ocean wreck diving.
“You learn about the equipment and rules of safety, then learn the physics of the sport,” says Centrone. “At the end of your course, you do four open-water dives to test your skills. At that point you are a certified diver and can get on a boat and go on a team dive.”
“A lot of people bring up artifacts off the wrecks of NJ,” she adds. “You’re not going down to be surrounded by gold doubloons, but people are still bringing up old bottles and things along those lines. It’s definitely artifact-driven. With so many wrecks out there, and so many of them unidentified, the possibility of finding something of value is always in the back of your mind. You may just find that magic.”
Two of Centrone’s favorite divable New Jersey wrecks are the Stolt Dagali—a Norwegian freighter located 153 miles off the Shark River Inlet—and the S.S. Vizcaya, a Spanish steamer sunk eight miles off Barnegat Inlet.
On Thanksgiving Day 1964, the slow-moving Stolt Dagali was rammed in a heavy fog by the brand-new Israeli luxury liner Shalom. The Stolt Dagali was sliced clean through, losing almost half her crew when the heavy stern section plummeted to the bottom of the sea.
“The structure and size are just amazing,” says Centrone. “It starts at 70 feet and drops down to 130 feet. You can spend 20 minutes in a small square foot, it’s so expansive and the remains are so still intact.”
The Vizcaya by comparison is “not doing so well; it’s starting to decompose and collapse. It’s a very scattered wreck,” according to Centrone. The sinking of the Vizcaya was an 1890 maritime tragedy. The coal schooner Cornelius Hargraves was under full sail at night with no running lights when it struck the Vizcaya, cutting the steamer in half. The collision demolished the Vizcaya’s lifeboats and the ship sank in minutes, with 60 casualties. The Hargraves also settled to the bottom nearby. Part of the interest in shipwrecks is the study of historical elements that surround them. With the advent of the Internet and digital underwater photography, that study has taken quantum leaps forward.
Web sites such as www.njscuba.net, run by an avid diver, are user friendly and contain maps and listings of all the wrecks off the New Jersey coast. There are photos of what the ships looked like when they left the dock, and photos of what they look like at the bottom. The site gives potential divers the history of the ship, the date when it sank, and where it is located now. Some entries even have schematics as to how the wrecks have broken apart.
What about modern wrecks? Mar-Vel’s Centrone says, “There are some newer ones, but what you find in many areas of New Jersey and in Florida, too, is the intentional sinking of ships for recreational divers. This is how you put a beautiful, old ship out to pasture: using them for artificial reefs. A diver gets to see a modern wreck from the time it sinks to when sea animals start to live on it.”
Even though modern technology has re-shaped many aspects of the shipwreck discovery, much of the fascination with diving comes from seeing that one amazing ship. It may date from the pirate era or be more recently entombed in its briny grave. New discoveries are always exciting.
In 1991, New Jersey divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, hosts of The History Channel's Deep Sea Detectives, concluded a six-year investigation to definitively identify a German U-boat sunk 60 miles off the New Jersey coast. No historian, expert, or government had a clue as to which U-boat the men had found. In fact, no official records existed recording a sunken U-boat and crew at that location. The account of their successful search for the boat, dubbed the U-Who, became the subject of the book “Shadow Divers.”
In May, National Public Radio featured a story about Greg Stemm, co-chairman of Odyssey Marine Exploration, and his company’s find of a colonial-period shipwreck site, code-named “Black Swan,” in an undisclosed area of the Atlantic Ocean. Artifacts already recovered from the secret location have included over 500,000 silver coins, and hundreds of gold coins. The company is not revealing the full identity of the ship, or its location, until all legal, archaeological and conservation protocols have been completed.
Could this wreck become another member of New Jersey’s Graveyard of the Atlantic? Only time will tell. The mysterious sea doesn’t give up its secrets easily.
Other useful sites include
The New Jersey Council of Diving Clubs: www.scubanj.org
Wreck Diving Magazine: www.wreckdivingmag.com
The Sindia: www.theSindia.com
Mar-Vel International: www.mar-vel.com
The Ocean City Historical Museum: www.ocnjmuseum.org
Odyssey Marine Exploration: www.shipwreck.net
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, July 2007.
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Author: Doug Otto; shipwreck chart courtesy of www.shipwreckcharts.com
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