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A Different Kind of Treasure

Date: September 05, 2013
Thanks to the Center for Environment & Society’s serendipitous discovery of what’s possibly an 18th-century shipwreck in the Chester River, Washington College students have a unique new classroom to explore.

The image is kind of haunting, as images always are when they reveal just a fragment of a mystery, a shadow of the past. Not half a mile downriver from Washington College’s waterfront, the wreck may have lain for hundreds of years, the silt and sway of the restless river overseeing its slow decay. Crabs have certainly known about it, and probably local fishermen too, who wondered about the weird bump on their depth sounders or swore at the unknown culprit stealing their gear when they passed over that particular stretch of river. But no one had really seen it until last summer, when Doug Levin, deputy director of the Center and Environment & Society, was testing a new side-scan sonar unit on the College’s research vessel Callinectes.

“An image came up that I knew wasn’t natural,” he says. A few weeks later, he was leading a group of summer camp kids on the Callinectes and used the side-scan sonar in the same area. “I knew it was there, and just watched their faces. It was pretty evident when we were over it by the looks on their faces and their dropped jaws. They’d located it.”

More detailed scans conducted this summer on the school’s new vessel Lookdown have shown the wreck to be 100 feet long, resting canted on the bottom 24 feet down. Revealed in the ghostly light of the scanned images, its lozenge shape is unmistakable, the lateral lines projecting from the hull quite possibly the stumps of its masts.

Of course, the natural question is: Who is she?

“Its location is consistent with a shipwreck called the Sophia, which went down on May 5, 1759,” Levin says. According to a story from the Maryland Gazette, the ship sank near Chestertown after burning to the waterline. An “ignorant carpenter … after finding it impossible to go ashore to heat the pitch pot, had the imprudence to heat it on board,” reads the account of the time, which was researched by Stephanie Gosman, wife of Callinectes’ Captain Michael Gosman. Using a camera-equipped ROV (remotely operated vehicle), Levin has been able to capture some images of the wreck, which is covered in a kind of filamentous type of algae. He’s been asked about sending a diver down,  but it’s a dark and dangerous dive with timbers strewn like pick-up sticks.  Even in 24 feet of water it’s a challenge to positively identify her.

As captivating as the mystery is, the “who” misses the point, Levin says. “The beauty of it is not what we would pull from the water. It’s exactly where it is, as it is. It’s a shipwreck, identifiable in the water, and we have all the technologies here at Washington College to learn about it.” These include two research boats, GPS, side-scan sonar, single-beam echosounder, sub-bottom profiler, magnetometer and ROVs.

Levin is incorporating the wreck into CES’ ongoing outreach to enhance STEM education in Kent and Queen Anne’s county schools, as well as offering Washington College students with what has to be one of the most unique undergraduate classrooms ever. Levin will provide students the story of the Sophia, then ask them to design a search pattern to find it. Then they’ll actually use the various shipboard technologies to locate the wreck. It’s graduate-level, hands-on work, he says, which can also be translated into the wider classroom via simulations and live streaming. “It’s not about what the shipwreck is,” he says, “it’s about how we can use it in the classroom that makes it ideal. Students will use the tools we have to find where it is. There isn’t a school in the country that has this kind of ‘underwater laboratory.’ How cool is that?”


Last modified on Jun. 12th, 2014 at 2:39pm by .