There is a certain thrill that comes with diving on a shipwreck, which conceals a story of its life, daily use, and those frantic last moments onboard the sinking vessel. The imagination often leads the charge, piecing together a storyline of origin, function, and cause, since the insightful details found in artefacts and ship construction are often slow to reveal themselves or finite. Fact finding aside, ultimately it is the unknown that the fuels the “thrill” sensation that one gets from wreck diving and draws one into the deep.
There is another type of thrill or degree of excitement altogether that comes from hunting for an unknown shipwreck, and that was the situation a few of the student’s from SDU’s Maritime Archaeological Program (MAP) were in again this past Wednesday, August 17th. The responsible museum, Øhavsmuseet, requested MAP’s assistance in locating a shipwreck that was reported by a local swimmer, who had supplied the museum with some photos, coordinates taken from a map, and an approximate depth. The blurry images were almost completely indiscernible and if anything misleading. It was hypothesized at first that the photos showed overlapping strakes, hence a clinker vessel, but when found the strakes turned out to be flush with one another or carvel built.
The coordinates posed their own problems considering they were general and not specific, which gave a wide and uncertain search area. The best piece of evidence that we had to go with was the approximate depth of three meters, since the south Danish Sea like its close counterpart the Baltic Sea has almost no tidal fluctuations to confuse that matter. Now and in this type of situation the lack of a tidal range can be seen as a luxury when compared to my home back in Canada on the Pacific coast, where the tidal range is 2.5 to 4 meters at certain times of the year.
The shallow depth also allowed for a variety of search methods that did not solely depend on a dressed diver in the water. The wreck, however, still did not present itself on a golden platter despite the shallow depth and the relatively good visibility from the deck of our boat. The dynamic forces of the sea move innumerable amounts of sand along Denmark’s exposed coastlines uncovering and covering wrecks constantly. This matter of sedimentation was monumental in hampering our efforts due to the time lag of a year between the initial report of the wreck to local archaeological authorities and our boats packed with divers, gear, and departing the harbour of Bagenkop, on the southern tip of Langeland, ready to initiate a search of the shipwreck in question.
The anticipation of going on such a dive mission, for an unknown shipwreck, has its own unique degree of excitement that is present from the moment one is afforded the invitation to take part. From my personal experience, it is a subtle sense of excitement that creeps out of one’s sub-conscious mind into their consciousness at random times during the days leading up to the day of departure. The thought lingering a short while at the forefront of one’s mind, which is then momentarily captivated by the approaching adventure and potential discovery, receding again to let prior thought resume. In sum, my first dive was highly anticipated days in advance.
Sun and blue skies greeted us in Bagenkop’s harbour basin where we launched our boat, and the good weather was only momentary interrupted during the day with a brief rain event and cloudy skies. The sun and shallow water allowed for the most basic search methods to be utilized that proved to be fast and efficient in both locating and investigation suspicious features on the seafloor bottom. A buoy tied to a weight was dropped at the location of the coordinates received from the local swimmer that then marked the center of the search area. A hundred meters radius established the parameters of the search area around the buoy to accommodate the rough coordinates that we had obtained and were working with.
All hands on deck scanned the seafloor bottom from the boat and suspicious features were investigated with nothing more than a dry-suit, fins, and a mask. Formal search patterns were utilized to cover the whole area in question three times, but it turned up nothing more than long straight branches masquerading as frames. Anti-climatically, the search was called off after two and half hours and it started to seem more and more likely that the coastal sedimentation processes had covered over the wreck again. Departing the search area was done with hopeful eyes desperately combing the sea-floor bottom, not ready to give up completely. Suspicious straight contours invited one last burst of excitement and enthusiasm as three divers eagerly jumped ship to investigate, but it turned out to be nothing more the orderly lines of dark fine gravel resting on top of the white sand. Now in the water, Dominic, Jens and I we were in no quick hurry to get back into the boat and call the search fruitless, so we separated to find ourselves some wooden “fruit”. Ironically, it was within these last informal 10-15 minutes of swimming around that turned our day from fruitless to fruitful. Jens keen eye identified the straight edge of a frame that was barely exposed and measured on the surface a meager 30 centimetres in length and extended out of the sand but a few centimetres in a large sandy expansive area. Deceivingly, neither organic growth nor ballast stones marked the frame nor the wreck’s location both of which were assumed would have been good wreck indicators. Alas, we found something and the excitement of the discovery resonated throughout the group as everyone eagerly jockeyed into position to see the elusive ship remains from the surface as Jens was the first to investigate further with diving equipment. The wreck was further exposed using hand wafting to move the sand and then recorded with video, photos, and an off-set drawing.
In conclusion, the day actually generated more questions than answers. What we can say is that we found part of a carvel boat, made of pine, fastened with trenails and bolts, and a saw was utilized in its construction. Pine construction might point to its origin being Norway, Finland, or Åland, Sweden, but that is nothing more than an educated guess at this time. What we cannot say is if the ship that we found was the one we were looking for? The blurry photos taken a year prior do clearly show construction details of a clinker vessel.
It was not uncommon for quite some period of time for shipwrights to employ both methods of construction in their hull design. For example, lapstrake was favoured until the turn of the bilge and then continuing with carvel. Furthermore, clinker vessels were also refurbished or converted to a carvel construction by adding a second layer of flush planking to the hull’s exterior. It may also be the case that there is more than one ship in the same location and that their components have become intermixed. It was and is still common practice to beach derelict boats along the shoreline near harbours in remote, undeveloped areas, and the harbour of Bagenkop is only 2-5 minutes away, has been in use for some time, and the area surrounding it is still vacant farmland abutting the beach. Another interesting story that needs further research is locating the exact entrance for an inland passage route that once existed somewhere along that stretch of beach in front of the wreck just next to Bagenkop, possibly the wreck’s story is in some way connected to this passage route. Without a doubt SDU’s MAP is intrigued by the confusing results of our first dive in Bagenkop, its mysterious shipwreck, and we all eagerly await our next visit.
2nd year Masters Student- MAP