Two shipwrecks are identified on the charts as the Buarque and the Equipoise. German U-boats sank both of them during World War Two, off the coast of North Carolina close to the border of Virginia. The way they are listed, the Buarque lies inshore at a depth of 140 feet. The Equipoise lies offshore at a depth of 250 feet.
The Gentian surveyed the offshore site in 1944. According to the report, "A study of the underwater photographs and other information available relative to the wreck does not shed any light on its identity. Its designation on the wreck list has therefore been changed from 'Probably Equipoise' to 'Probably Buarque.' " Despite this admonition, neither the chart nor the wreck list was changed, and the offshore site retained the name of Equipoise. The inshore site was therefore called the Buarque. And so it remained throughout the years as head boats fished the wrecks.
No one had ever dived on the offshore wreck until July 3, 1992. That was when Mike Boring, skipper of the Sea Hunter, took six divers to explore the site. These divers were Ken Clayton, Peter Feuerle, Steve Gatto, Jon Hulburt, Tom Packer, and this author.
I recovered a pair of gauges that confirmed the Gentian's deduction that the offshore wreck was the Buarque. The gauges were manufactured by the Moeller Instrument Company of Brooklyn, New York, and were stamped "Made in U.S.A." The Buarque was built at Hog Island, Pennsylvania, whereas the Equipoise was built at Glasgow, Scotland.
Ergo, the inshore wreck must be the Equipoise. Or so I inferred. I had already corrected another reversal of names that the charts and the Gentian had made. When I recovered a bell from a wreck that was supposed to be the Malchace, I found that the name stamped in bronze was Manuela. I later identified the other wreck - which lay only a mile away - as the Malchace.
Due to its shallow depth, the inshore wreck, which I now presumed was the Equipoise, was a popular dive site. I first dived it on October 4, 1993. I conducted my standard survey, made a detailed drawing of the layout, and noted particular features.
On another trip two years later, Jeff Hewlett apprised me with his observations about the so-called Equipoise. He, too, had made a detailed drawing of the wreck, but he went one step farther: he and a group of friends measured the length with a tape measure. Although the bow was broken off, making a precise measurement difficult to obtain, he calculated that the total length was 270 feet. The length of the Equipoise was 429 feet. Even allowing for imprecision, he could not have made a mistake of 159 feet.
Jeff and his friends also measured the beam. There was some slight sagging of the hull plates in places, but by measuring a number of areas they obtained a beam of 38 to 40 feet. The beam of the Equipoise was 54 feet.
He submitted that the wreck could not possibly be the Equipoise. It took me no longer than a couple of seconds to mull this over and agree with him. I knew that he was on to something, for as I pictured the wreck in my mind, I realized that I had not swum 429 feet from bow to stern.
Jeff's argument raised two immediate questions: what wreck was it, and where was the Equipoise?
We had no working hypothesis other than the fact that the inshore wreck had likely not been built in the U.S. This interpretation was predicated upon the helm stand that Hal and Penny Good had recovered from the wheelhouse area. The top of the stand was stamped "The Pepper Steering Gear," "R. Roger & Co.," and "Stockton-on-Tees." Originally, these stampings lent credence to the theory that the wreck was the Equipoise. What they meant now was anyone's guess.
I recovered an old-style taffrail log that was no longer in use by World War Two. Modern logs consisted of two parts: a register that was secured to the rail, and a rotator that was suspended in the water astern of the vessel. My log was a self-contained type, in which the rotator was connected by means of a shaft to geared clocklike faces in the main body of the log; the entire assembly was submerged. I inferred from this log that the wreck must be old, possibly predating World War One.
At home, I scanned the wreck lists that I had collected during 20 years of research. I found nothing in the area that conformed to the inshore wreck. I started asking people who had dived on the wreck if they knew of any other recoveries that might indicate a name or place of origin. Gene Peterson provided a clue that proved to be crucial. He told me that he found the hub of the auxiliary steering wheel; the wooden spokes had been eaten away. On his next dive, he took Rich Allen to the stern, and together they recovered the spokeless hub. On the face of the hub was stamped MEXICANO. Gene thought it was the place of construction: Mexico. To me it sounded like a manufacturer's name.
Nonetheless, in my personal library I looked up Mexicano in the shipwreck researcher's bible, Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks. No Mexicano was listed. However, I found a Mexicano listed in Dictionary of Disasters at Sea During the Age of Steam 1824-1962. According to the entry, a British tanker by the name of Mexicano foundered on September 17, 1903, during a voyage from Philadelphia to Vera Cruz. No location was given. A voyage from Philadelphia to Mexico implied a coastal route.
Armed with this information, I went to the Independence Seaport Museum to look through maritime newspapers. According to the Lloyd's Weekly Shipping Index, the Mexicano foundered in rough seas when "a wave crashed through the deck and flooded the fire-room, rendering the steamer helpless." The British steamer Roxby rescued a sailor named Reyarberay, who was clinging to some wreckage. He thought he was the sole survivor. Then the steamship Vidar was reported to have found six more survivors "clinging to pieces of wreckage." No location was given.
Next I tried the New York Maritime Register. The account was similar, but added this important tidbit: the Mexicano "foundered off the Florida coast night of Sep 15 during a hurricane."
Dead end. I was looking for a Mexicano that sank 500 miles north of the Florida-Georgia border.
As usual, I made photocopies of all the reference materials and stuffed them into a file folder that I created for the project. Just to be thorough, I looked up Mexicano in the Lloyd's Register, in order to ascertain if there were any other vessels of the same name in the same time period. There was only one: a tanker. I photocopied the page anyway.
Soon afterward, Jeff sent me copies of his survey drawings. As I filed them, I decided to review the maritime newspaper articles. Now I saw something that I had missed before, and that was contradictory.
Although the Mexicano supposedly foundered off the coast of Florida, an appended item mentioned that the Vidar picked up the six men "in lat 36 16, lon 75 55." That latitude was nowhere near Florida. I pulled out my nautical charts and, with a pair of dividers, pinpointed the position of the rescue. Lo and behold, the men were picked up only five miles away from site of the inshore wreck.
That was too much for coincidence! The statement about Florida had to be erroneous.
I looked at the Mexicano's statistics. She was built in 1893 in Sunderland, England. She was powered by a triple expansion reciprocating steam engine. She measured 270 feet in length, and 38 feet abeam: the exact dimensions that Jeff had measured with his tape. Voila!
I immediately wrote to Jeff to give him the news.
Contemporary newspaper articles furnished the human drama. According to August Osterlind, "About 4 o'clock on Sept. 15 we encountered a severe hurricane, blowing from the south. About 12 o'clock it shifted to northwest and blew with tremendous force. A heavy sea swept the steamer from stem to stern, carrying away the lifeboats and ventilators, flooding the engine rooms, and putting out the fires. The steamer than became unmanageable and was soon in the trough of the sea.
"She rolled about for a little over an hour, when she sank stern first. The men in the forecastle were called out and told to be ready to save themselves the best way possible when the steamer went down. The boatswain refused to leave his bunk, saying if he had to die he would rather die in his bunk than in the sea. Two firemen refused to leave the stokeroom, preferring to take a chance on the steamer standing out the storm.
"We were on the bridge with the officers and jumped overboard just as the steamer went down. Just before I jumped I heard two pistol shots, and I think some of the officers shot themselves, preferring that kind of death to drowning.
"We drifted about for several hours, doing our best to keep together, but when daylight came there were but seven of us together. The second mate was exhausted. He took off his lifebuoy, handed it to one of the sailors, said good-bye to all of us, and went down. We had about given up hope when we sighted the steamer."
Aboard the Vidar, Captain Sorrensen was sitting in his cabin when "I heard a cry. Thinking some one was fooling on board the steamer, I went out on the bridge to investigate. When I reached the bridge I heard the cry again. The sound seemed to come from the ocean, but I could not see any one.
"I ordered a boat to be gotten ready, and when I heard the cry a third time I saw something in the water like a small log, about half a mile off. With the aid of my glass I found it to be a small hatch, with a man in oilskins stretched full length on it.
"I immediately steered for the man and rescued him; he was completely exhausted, and had to be hauled aboard the boat. He was unable to say a word, and thinking there were no more, as I could see no wreckage about, I started on my way.
"I had proceeded about a mile when I saw several objects in the water which I could not plainly make out. Upon going closer I found five more men clinging to pieces of wreckage. I had the boat lowered again and picked up the castaways. They, too, were exhausted, and one was nearly crazy. My men had to hold him in the lifeboat, for he was determined to jump into the sea.
"There was another steamer some distance off and I could see that they had a lifeboat out, but I could not distinguish her name."
Captain Shields, master of the Roxby, organized the rescue of Domingo Ballo Reyarberay. According to the lone survivor's account, he "went under with the vessel, and by merest chance became entangled in some loose rigging and spars. The buoyancy of these brought him to the surface, and he made himself fast to the larger spar. For seven hours he floated in a turbulent sea, until finally the Roxby hove in sight."
Captain King and fourteen men went to a watery grave.
By means of exploration and archival research, a mystery was solved and a dramatic tale of survival was brought to light.
What about the Equipoise? To this day, nobody knows its whereabouts.
NEW BOOK! "Shipwrecks of Massachusetts: North"
Including The Stellwagen Bank Robbery - yet another attempt by NOAA to steal shipwrecks from the American people. Read all about how NOAA's Ministry of Truth is rewriting history, and how NOAA intends to expand it territorial prerogatives.
GROUNDBREAKING NEWS!! Recently uncovered evidence has now established
that the U-869 was discovered and dived three years prior to the events that were embellished and exaggerated in "Shadow Divers." Stayed tuned, and read all about it in a future newsletter.
All Gary Gentile Books are available through Atlantic Divers.