A former auto parts store has been put to an innovative use: restoring a valuable shipwreck.
In a converted auto parts store in a New Jersey town, the HMS DeBraak is undergoing one of the most painstaking cataloguing and restoration projects of its type.
The ship lay on the bottom of Delaware Bay for nearly 200 years – plenty of time for the locals to spin a yarn about the mother lode of Spanish gold tucked inside her hull, and the ghost of the captain prowling the wreck to guard it, but when treasure hunters finally raised the wreck of the HMS DeBraak on Aug. 11, 1986, they found only a few pieces of gold – most notably, a ring that belonged to Captain James Drew.
Still, there were thousands of artifacts recovered – boots, barrels of salted pork, even a few human skulls all of which were practically worthless to a salvage expedition that had spent millions of dollars searching for sunken treasure.
While the inventory in some auto parts operations could be termed of purely archeological interest, the assortment of items in the hull of the 18th century British warship might actually be of some value.
So, in a converted auto parts store, archaeologist Gary McGowan runs Cultural Preservation & Restoration – CPR for short. It is CPR’s job to restore the 16 cannons that made the DeBraak a power on the high seas, but ultimately led her to capsize, top-heavy with too many guns.
McGowan said it takes several months to chip away all of the rust and globs of sea growth covering one 1,000-pound cannon.
“You need a real Zen state of mind to do this kind of work,” McGowan said. “You may be chiseling away at the same spot day after day. You have to have a lot of patience. You have to be a bit of a detective while you’re chipping away,” McGowan said. “You never know what you may find.”
Once the corrosion is removed, exposure to air creates another problem. Air will cause the cast iron to break down, making the metal as soft as a lead pencil. Each cannon must be bathed with tannic acid to prevent this reaction.
And with each new discovery comes intriguing new questions.
Once McGowan and his crew got down to bare metal, they found that each cannon was marked with a serial number beginning with the letter “S.” Historians already knew that the British fleet marked all its guns; but they still don’t know what the letter S stands for.
Much of the DeBraak’s history, in fact, is shrouded in mystery, particularly the days leading up to May 25, 1798, when she capsized in a squall about a mile off Cape Henlopen. About half of the 40-man crew drowned; the others, including two Spanish prisoners of war, made it to shore safely to the town of Lewes, Del. – a fishing village that is an 80-minute ferry ride from Cape May.
In those days, Great Britain, France, and Spain vied for control of the high seas, and the United States was but a fledgling nation. Pirates were everywhere; the DeBraak was providing military escort for British merchant ships bound for Philadelphia.
A few days before arriving in Delaware Bay, the DeBraak had skirmished with a Spanish vessel, taking the two prisoners of war. Legend has it that the prisoners washed up on the shores of Lewes with their leg irons still attached.
The story goes that the survivors of the wreck paid for their lodging with gold doubloons. Over the years, the story of those doubloons grew into the tale of the Spanish treasure lodged deep in the belly of HMS DeBraak and the ghosts that had foiled more than a dozen expeditions to recover her cache.
Despite the fact that there was nothing in the historical record to suggest that the Spanish ship the DeBraak encountered was carrying any gold. This fact was confirmed with its raising, but in a twist of poetic justice, what has been discovered may turn out to be even more valuable, in terms of knowledge at least.