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This feature by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
May 13, 1998. All rights reserved.
Shipwrecks, A Realistic View
"O hear us when we cry to thee/ For those in peril on the
Today’s plethora of Titanic tales has undoubtedly helped
spark interest in shipwrecks of every shape and size. Those after
a less romantic, but doubtless more accurate, take on sea disasters
than that offered in the Oscar-sweeping movie might set sail for a
slide lecture at East Jersey Old Towne Village in Piscataway. On
May 13, at 7 p.m., Dan Leib of the New Jersey Historical Divers
will build on the current fascination in his discussion of New Jersey
shipwrecks of the past 100 years — what kinds of ships, why they
sank, and where they can be found — all, thankfully, sans the
decorative Leonardo DiCaprio.
Familiar as we are with today’s highly developed Jersey coast, it
is surprising to learn it was once a desolate and dangerous area.
Ships of all kinds traveled along the coast, many moving to or from
the New York Harbor area, then as now a busy destination. For a
of reasons — storms, war, fire, broadsiding, and foundering —
untold numbers of vessels traveling the Jersey coast sank. In 1846,
one storm alone destroyed eight ships in an hour’s time.
In a telephone interview, Leib says that except for a concentration
of wrecks in the harbor area, most are fairly evenly spaced along
the coast. And that’s where the New Jersey Historical Divers
comes in. Based near Asbury Park, in Avon-by-the-Sea, and dedicated
to the preservation of shipwreck history, the 10 members of this
all divers, investigate and confirm the identity of wrecked ships.
The group formed six years ago to look into what was then known as
"the Manasquan wreck." By the time they finished, they had
identified the remains as the Amity, a U.S. vessel that went down
Leib says they like to go after "wrecks with unusual handles,"
like "the 120 wreck" (denoting its location by degrees outside
the Manasquan inlet) or "the Sea Girt wreck." Their standard
approach includes thoroughly mapping a shipwreck site and studying
artifacts recovered there, in hopes of discerning their purpose and
details about their manufacture. Ultimately — since finding the
name on a shipbuilder’s plaque is uncommon, to say the least —
all this information contributes to identifying the ship itself.
Leib, the group’s treasurer and a full-time commercial artist
in documentation graphics and technical illustration, refers to a
cross-section of applicable skills among members. They use their own
mapping equipment and boats, and use the services of amateur
when the need arises. Findings of the Historical Divers Association
are recorded in their journal, available by subscription, and members
make presentations to interested groups around the state.
Every type of vessel is there to be found, Leib says — from barges
to battleships, tugs, privateers, and warships of foreign registry.
Because nautical charts may show only navigational hazards, most
sites "reside in the little black books of charter captains,"
he says. As sport diving grew popular in the 1950s, divers were able
to learn from these mariners the whereabouts of "hangs," or
wreck sites that had hung up the fishermen’s nets.
As for the condition of shipwrecks found off the Jersey coast, Leib
describes them in one word: flat. Unless they were made of metal,
he says, "most of them flatten out as they fall apart." His
group retrieves only what is necessary to identify a shipwreck and
what they believe is representative of its cargo. The association
hopes to open a shipwreck museum somewhere on the coast, where
will be able to see what the Historical Divers have salvaged as well
as artifacts donated by collectors.
Back on the desolate New Jersey coast of long ago, how were potential
shipwreck victims saved? And how was valuable cargo retrieved before
a ship went down? This will be the topic on Wednesday, May 20, when
Dan Leib returns to East Jersey Olde Towne Village to talk about the
history of "lifesaving stations" in New Jersey.
The organization that is now the U.S. Coast Guard began in the 19th
century as a volunteer group; in 1871 it became the U.S. Lifesaving
Service, instituted to protect life and property involved in offshore
disasters. In 1915, the U.S. Lifesaving Service merged with the
Cutter Service to become the U.S. Coast Guard.
In the 19th century, the paid professionals who were part of the U.S.
Lifesaving Service established hurricane-resistant stations along
the coast at about four-mile intervals, and regularly patrolled New
Jersey’s beaches. This was their job, for which they drilled regularly
to meet the high expectations. They lit flares to signal ships in
distress that help was on the way, then, depending on the severity
of the disaster, they mustered the crews of other stations to help.
Leib’s May talks are the first in a summer series on maritime topics
that runs through August. With sessions on model ships, tall ships,
and an August exhibit of shipwreck artifacts, the series should
the maritime and historical interests of area families — except,
possibly their pre-teen girls. They reportedly prefer shipwrecks that
carry the ghost of Leonardo.
— Pat Summers
River Road, Piscataway, 732-745-3030. All events are free with
Divers gives a slide lecture on shipwrecks of the past 100 years.
Wednesday, May 13, 7 p.m.
history of lifesaving stations. Wednesday, May 20, 7 p.m.
At 3 p.m., Mike Wicke gives a workshop on "Navigation and Duties
of an 18th-century Sailor." Sunday, June 7, 1 p.m.
Sunday, June 14, 2 p.m.
August 9, 2 p.m.
off Deal Beach in November, 1854. Wednesday, August 19, 7 p.m.
that beached off Asbury Park in 1934. Sunday, August 23, 7 p.m.
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