The Mysterious China Wreck

January 3, 2010

These artifacts from the China Wreck are on display at the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum in Fenwick Island

Today, for my book on Delaware shipwrecks, I’ve been writing on the China Wreck, which was discovered in 1970 by two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessels. The NOAA ships were conducting an underwater survey to determine if shipping lanes were free from potential obstructions. When the line that connected the two vessels snagged on something, divers went exploring, pinpointing the hotspot by the noting the V formed by the  taut line.

In this case, they found what was thought to be a late 19th-century British ship laden with china, hence its nickname. Indeed, there was so much china that the commander of the expedition compared the site to a bargain basement sale at Macy’s, with merchandise awaiting the shoppers.

Like many folks, I’ve heard that the wreck was likely the 483-ton Principessa Margherita di Piemonte, a bark from Naples, Italy, that was sailing from Plymouth, England, to Philadelphia with a cargo that included china clay and flint stone. On March 12, 1891, she foundered in a storm. But author and diver Gary Gentile, who wrote Shipwrecks of  Delaware Maryland, offers some convincing arguments against it, namely that most the china came from manufacturers that had ceased operations before 1891. So, the ship would have been carrying stuff that had been in storage.

Determining a ship’s identity often comes down to finding something with its name on it or a piece of cargo that can definitely be linked to the ship via detailed paperwork.  So far, that’s not been the case for the China Wreck. For a great display of some of the china, visit DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum in Fenwick Island. Another book to check out: Diving the China Wreck, by Michael S. Bullard.

Why write a book on Delaware shipwrecks?

January 1, 2010

The City of Georgetown sank after colliding with another ship on Feb. 2, 1913

It all started with a story I wrote on the 18th-century British naval ship the  DeBraak for Delaware Beach Life, a magazine about coastal Delaware. Well, really it started when I was a child, when I first learned about the tragedy of the Titanic.

I’m not sure what it is about a shipwreck that incites such interest. Perhaps it is because the ship is not only a grave–for either itself and/or its passengers–but it is also a time capsule. And then, of course, there is the possible treasure that might remain hidden in its hold, even if that treasure has more of a historical value than a monetary value.

There is something about a ship that is romantic. Even the most battered freighter has a certain mystique, brought about by its travels, its crew’s devotion and the personality that it develops even over a short amount of time. For a certain period, its passengers are brought together with nowhere else to go. Their lives intertwine and relationships–some of which are intense-quickly form.

So, back to the DeBraak. I wrote a story on the British naval ship, which foundered off the coast of Cape Henlopen, Delaware, in May 1798. I got to view her battered hull, kept alive by a jury-rigged hydration system, and the artifacts, most of which are in storage due to Delaware’s lack of a large-scale  maritime museum.  It was both fascinating and somehow heartbreaking. There was the sense that a dead sailor’s hat should have remained in the Delaware Bay mud. But there was also an appreciation for what archeologists can learn by examining such artifacts.

The DeBraak, the China Wreck, the City of Georgetown, the SS Lenape, the Cherokee–these are some of the ships I am saluting in this book, whose working title is Delaware Sunken Treasures: Shipwrecks along the Delaware Coast.  This blog is about creating the book. But it’s also about the whole process of putting together a book, since it is my first. And, too,  it for people like me who love talking about shipwrecks. I hope you enjoy it.


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