Sunken Ship Debraak Reveals Its Secrets, Two Centuries Later (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Sunken Ship DeBraak Reveals Its Secrets, Two Centuries Later

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're throwing light on the covert, the cryptic, the top-secret and the hush-hush as we bring a show all about "Secrets." Later on we'll hear from a woman with an unexpected culinary secret but first we're going to dive into secrets of a more maritime nature in "On The Coast."

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:30
Bryan Russo's regular series from the Eastern shore of Maryland and coastal Delaware. Today he introduces us to a British Royal Navy ship called the DeBraak. The DeBraak sank to the bottom of Delaware Bay way back in 1798 and wasn't recovered until the late 1980s.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:45
Researchers have been working to preserve the DeBraak and now the public can finally see the ships remains. Bryan headed up to Louis, De. to get a sneak peek at the once mighty ship with state archaeologist, Chuck Fithian.

DR. CHUCK FITHIAN

00:00:58
DeBraak is a real important link that sort of ties Delaware to the Atlantic. It ties Delaware to major events that were sweeping across Europe. And those events were the wars of revolutionary France which had started in 1793 and would continue to roughly about 1801.

DR. CHUCK FITHIAN

00:01:17
And then it'd be followed by the wars with Napoleon and they affected the United States. The United States was a neutral power, its commerce was important, its markets were important. So both of the warring parties tried to protect that or prevent it from being used by the other side.

DR. CHUCK FITHIAN

00:01:32
So DeBraak is a physical reminder of these important events that were really shaping kind of Western history, history at the time, and links Delaware directly to it.

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

00:01:42
Tell me about the night that it went down. I read in the history books it tells us that it was a kind of freak storm that took this thing down. Tell me about that.

FITHIAN

00:01:53
DeBraak is a type of vessel called a sloop of war. They were ideal for a number of different things. They combined firepower with speed, agility, shallow draft. So it made them very versatile.

FITHIAN

00:02:05
And on May 25, about 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon DeBraak pulls in off the Delaware capes. DeBraak is coming to anchor when a very unusual storm system moves across the entrance of the Delaware capes, strikes the vessel and lays her over on her beam ends. And she fills with water and capsizes. Almost one half of her crew perishes.

RUSSO

00:02:28
Fast forward, of course, you know, the DeBraak ends up at the bottom of the Delaware Bay and it sits there until the 1980s and I find it very interesting why it was brought it or why it was found because, you know, legend had it, that, you know, as with many ships of that era, you know, there's always the proverbial treasure hunt and that was what people were going after. You know, of course there was no treasure.

FITHIAN

00:02:55
Well, DeBraak had acquired a treasure myth around it probably beginning in the 19th century. The myth sort of started during the time when DeBraak had gotten separated from the convoy and she had picked up a Spanish prize. And the mistaken notion was the Spanish prize was a treasure ship and without really looking at the history and really what it said.

FITHIAN

00:03:16
The prize it did pick up was a common merchantman and it had a cargo of cocoa beans and copper. Which was no small thing in its own right but it's not treasure in the sense of what everybody thought might be here. So that myth kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and maritime historians refuted it but the myth kept getting bigger and that's what led to the discovery.

FITHIAN

00:03:38
Now, the real treasure if you want to use the word is the artifacts and the history that DeBraak gives us an unparalleled look into. There is no other way right now that we can look at seafaring in the Royal Navy, what it was like to be on a Royal Navy war ship, what it was like to be on a sloop-of-war, in quite the same way that DeBraak provides for us.

RUSSO

00:04:02
As we stand here in this room at Cape Henlopen State Park, you've been working on this ship for the better part of two decades, almost three. Tell me about what we're looking at. This is one of the most striking visuals of a shipwreck that I've ever seen in my life. Just give people the description of what I'm looking at right now.

FITHIAN

00:04:21
Well, the hull that survives and I'll add that there's 20,000 artifacts of all different kinds associated, you know, with it. Approximately 30 percent of the lower hull survives. In other words, what we have is the keel, the keel assembly, we have the bow assembly. We have a portion of the port side.

FITHIAN

00:04:42
We have the starboard side surviving up to the turn of the bilge, in other words where the hull begins to rise up and turn into the side of the vessel itself. Also associated with it is the vessel's copper sheathing which was not the newest technology but still cutting edge maritime technology that was changing in this period.

FITHIAN

00:05:01
And then also the copper bolts that hold her together. That was a relatively new technology. The British were trying to find efficient ways to hold their ships together, to keep marine growth from attaching and copper fittings was the solution to that.

RUSSO

00:05:15
Tell me how amazed you are even after working on this boat that this boat has held up, you know, at the bottom of the ocean for this long.

FITHIAN

00:05:25
Right now we have to keep her wet. The timbers were waterlogged from almost two centuries under the sea. And we just can't pull the water away really quickly. Because what will happen is the cell structure will collapse and the hull will deteriorate, so we have to keep her wet, we have to figure out what sort of treatment we need to do and then gradually start pulling the water away, over a period of time.

FITHIAN

00:05:49
But we have to figure out what we need to replace it with to keep the cell walls from collapsing.

RUSSO

00:05:53
It's been said before that, you know, every boat tells a story and certainly a boat like this or a vessel like this that has so much history attached to it and can tell us so much about that time, are you finding new things as you continue to work on this boat? Does this boat have secrets and what else can it tell us about that time?

FITHIAN

00:06:12
DeBraak has been with us over 27 years and we've learned a lot, the study of the collection is still ongoing, the study of the hull is still ongoing. So I think it's pretty safe to say DeBraak's not given all her secrets up.

SHEIR

00:06:26
That was Delaware state archaeologist Chuck Fithian speaking with coastal reporter, Bryan Russo. You can check out photos of the DeBraak and get a schedule for public viewings of the ship on our website, metroconnection.org.
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