Day 13

The moment I had been dreading had finally come.  It was the last work day of the first two weeks and the last time I would dive on “Le Dragon”.  It seems strange to say, but when our time was finally up and I had hugged the last cannon goodbye, I could feel a sort of choke in my throat in amongst the rising bubbles.  By this time, “Le Dragon” was much more than a work site to me… she was home.

The day passed uneventfully for the most part.  We continued work on the dredge and hand fanning the main grid, while others used the metal detectors and gradiometer to probe the areas around the 100 and 200 meter reference marks we had made.  Unfortunately, no hits were made.

  Hand fanning on the bow section which was covered with sand

Hand fanning on the bow section which was covered with sand

The other objective was measuring the exposed port and starboard sides of the ship.  Thankfully after tidying up the protruding wood planks, we could see a beautiful row of futtocks and floor beams in good condition. However, as the day went on... the visibility got worse and worse until you literally had to sketch the planks with your face pressed against them.  This was another case of taking something that seems so easy on land, such as measuring, and finding there are plenty of different challenges when doing it underwater.

  Raimund Krob measuring cannon No:2 on  Le Dragon  site

Raimund Krob measuring cannon No:2 on Le Dragon site

And just like that, Phase #1 was complete!  After finishing on the wreck, we headed home and celebrated the night at a local bar.  For most of the ADMAT team, this was the beginning of changeover, a time where the now battle-hardened recruits would shake hands with the new volunteers.  Nevertheless, it was still a bittersweet time as parting was like leaving family.

  Connor leaving the wreck of Le Dragon, surfacing after his last dive for 2018

Connor leaving the wreck of Le Dragon, surfacing after his last dive for 2018

The collision of archaeology, scuba diving, and the colorful Dominican culture all in one place is certainly an experience.  And yet as crazy as it is, there’s nothing quite like the adventure and fun that comes with it!  When people ask me, “what was your favorite part?”  I can only look at them and reply “All of it.”  There simply is not one without the other and thanks to ADMAT, I will never forget this experience!

 

Here is where my chapter ends in this expedition. Fair winds and following seas! ~ Connor

Day 11 & 12

As the end of Phase #1 (the first two weeks out of four in the project) was nearing an end, the team was starting to get anxious.  We had three main mysteries we wanted to find answers for…

  Connor next to the muzzle of Cannon No:3 on "Le Dragon's" bow

Connor next to the muzzle of Cannon No:3 on "Le Dragon's" bow

1. Find the figurehead of the ship.  Because “Le Dragon”, formerly known as the “Washington”, was originally one of the first ships in the American continental navy, there was good reason to believe the figurehead was a representation of General George Washington himself.   We had re-uncovered the bow and scanned the adjacent area in front of the ship in an attempt to find the massive wooden totem, but there was no sign.

The problem being that the bow was covered with about eight feet of sand. The Team spent three days with the archaeological dredge to uncover this pile of sand, but all they managed to do was get down to the archaeological grid placed on the bow in 2000. With about four feet of sand over an area of ten square meters, it was decided that as the latest storm had uncovered the starboard side of the front section of the ship (and piled the sand on the bow) that for this year the bow survey would be stopped. We would focus the attentions on other areas of the ship which were uncovered.

2. Locate the anchors.  As a token to the master seamanship of Captain L’Espine in his valiant effort to swing “Le Dragon” in a tight arch through the shallow reefs and get his crew to shore, there was a good chance he used the ship’s main anchors to pull of this maneuver.  We were hoping by guesstimating the length of the anchor ropes, using a 100 meter and 200 meter reference, we could find the anchors farther up the bay. Unfortunately, besides some beautiful coral formations, the metal detectors and gradiometer didn’t pick up anything in the areas we were swimming. But the seabed is a big place and so more survey swims would occur later.

3. Prove the ship’s structure was upgraded. Part of the dilemma in researching “Le Dragon” in the archives was finding a building proposal to extend the ship with three masts.  Despite having this single document, however, there was no further evidence in the records to suggest this was ever carried out.  To add to the problem, on the wreck we were excavating, we only had half a ship - since the portion from the amidships to the stern was blown up in an explosion. 

Thankfully, with our Team searching for clues a few, we were able to lay to rest some of these questions. 

  Simon with a cannonball covered with a natural concretion

Simon with a cannonball covered with a natural concretion

  Raimund with the remnants of a wooden barrel with part of the iron hoops remaining

Raimund with the remnants of a wooden barrel with part of the iron hoops remaining

Days 8-10

Now having spent enough time on the wreck site to know the difference between a ballast stone and petrified Nike shoe... our motley crew had the daily routine down to a tee! Packing the vans, cleaning & organizing the scuba equipment, as well as filling the air in the tanks for the next day all were part of the daily routine we carried out as a team.

   ADMAT team with the Explorer’s Club Flag

ADMAT team with the Explorer’s Club Flag

As a rule of thumb, there were never designated roles for us as students or volunteers.  Every day we did something new - tasks were rotated, teams were changed, and missions were set.  In this way, there seemed to be no shortage of fun and interesting things to do.  But of course, the real adventure was when things didn’t go to plan...  Those were the times that were really memorable.  Whether it was trying to get rid of some planks that turned out to be the remnants of a wood barrel, or narrowly rescuing the van from a ditch when the road suddenly gave way… you always had to be prepared for the unexpected.

During our operation, we were honoured to host an exclusive Explorer’s Club Flag for the ADMAT team working on “Le Dragon”.  The Explorer’s Club celebrates the accomplishment of scientific enterprises on land, in the sea, and in space.

   Professor Simon Spooner

Professor Simon Spooner

Despite being director of the “Le Dragon” wreck project, Prof. Simon Spooner was a wealth of knowledge in all things nautical, archaeological, and historical.  Many a time, when we as volunteers were confused by a blob of metal or something bizarre we had seen… Simon was already ten steps ahead of us knowing the name and purpose of that something that was hardly protruding from the sand and wondering why it was located where it was.  Simon constantly reminded us of the importance of context in any given matter, and encouraged us to look beyond the shallow surface to make accurate observations.

 

Day 5 & 7

There’s a peculiar feeling, being submerged in a moment of history completely frozen in time. I remember hand fanning the silt from a row of wooden futtocks on the side of the wreck and glancing over my shoulder at a 300 year old cannon lying beside me. Suddenly something clicked inside me and I realized this wasn’t just something you saw in the movies… I was actually working on a real live shipwreck!

  Cannon Two, a 9pdr iron Carron cannon which had been uncovered by the earlier storms, covered with marine algae above the bow

Cannon Two, a 9pdr iron Carron cannon which had been uncovered by the earlier storms, covered with marine algae above the bow

Easily distinguished from the ivory Caribbean sands in the ocean, the “Le Dragon” wreck protrudes from the shallow reefs like a broken gangplank.  Most prominent is the ballast pile, a mountain of small stones responsible for the ship’s weight balance that stretches over the wreck.  Second are the formidable 9 pounders Carron iron cannons on the surrounding seabed.  These cannons were instrumental to the ship during the long investigation through the archives before it was finally discovered as ‘Le Dragon”.

Despite the fact half of the ship was blown up in Captain L’Espine’s valiant attempt to save the spy onboard and the secret orders from the King of France,  and that the worms had greedily eaten through most of the deck, the bottom floors and futtocks remain remarkably intact.  The sratboard and port sides had been uncovered by a past storm which saved the Team a lot of time uncovering it. We had to clean off the algie growth which revealed some of the remaining lower hull assembly. This not only gave us a clear perspective of the port and starboard sides of the ship, but also enabled us to track the keel through the middle of the ship.

  The lower ballast amidships, just before the shot locker and main mast

The lower ballast amidships, just before the shot locker and main mast

Days 5 & 7, we began the initial excavation of “Le Dragon”.  After locking in our first survey grid to the north of the amidships, break we began hand fanning the squares and probing the seagrass encroached area for any finds.  Despite the fact progress was slow; the search yielded two interesting finds - a lead box just off the survey grid and pulley wheel that could still rotate was located near the bow section!

  The wooden pulley wheel and spindle missing the outer wooden casing of the block, located on the starboard side of the wreck

The wooden pulley wheel and spindle missing the outer wooden casing of the block, located on the starboard side of the wreck

Meanwhile, off the starboard side, the metal detectors and gradiometer were utilized to pinpoint numerous hits of ferrous and nonferrous metals.  Marking these hotspots with coloured flags, we were able to visualize possible artefact locations buried beneath the sand.

  The ships stone ballast which had been swept off the hull in the storm and because the deck is tilting 20 drgrees down on the starboard side

The ships stone ballast which had been swept off the hull in the storm and because the deck is tilting 20 drgrees down on the starboard side

Of course, the biggest job was installing the dredge and starting the process of locating the bow (front) of the ship.  While we had a good idea of where it was from the 2000 operation, we hoped by uncovering it again we could establish a reference point to aid our renewed excavation.  Unfortunately, after sucking through the first few layers of sand we stumbled upon a massive log that had settled over our target area.  This caused us to change position, but further down we encountered another obstacle… a local Dominican fishing boat that had sunk right on top of the bow!  As frustrating as this was, we couldn’t help but laugh at the fact we now had two shipwrecks pancaked on top of each other.

This also proved the golden rule of maritime archaeology... that Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. Anything that can happen will happen - so don’t ever be surprised.

 

Day 3 & 4

In spite of everything we had learned the past few days, there were still LOTS of work to do before we could even start surveying on "Le Dragon"!  The dredge had to be prepped, buoys made, training on how to measure and how to use the geophysical equipment and our grid ready to assemble on site. Even with early morning starts and all hands on deck, time was still a challenge…

  Bob and Brian spray-painting the dredge so it could be seen in the low visibility

Bob and Brian spray-painting the dredge so it could be seen in the low visibility

In the immortal words of Dr Spooner:
“There are 3 kinds of time: British time, American time, and Dominican time. British time is always ten minutes early. American time might give or take 20 minutes.  But Dominican time… you would be lucky if a few hours would suffice.”
And in our case, that’s exactly what happened. Our boat was delayed and there were some complications with work site logistics.  Nevertheless we worked around some of the setbacks and soon enough things began to fall together. The boat was being delivered, the trash pumps for the dredge sorted and the geophysical equipment ready to be deployed.
 

  The Team goes on their first dive to locate "Le Dragon" in the shallows

The Team goes on their first dive to locate "Le Dragon" in the shallows

We had our first dive on site and confirmed that a storm had actually uncovered certain sections of the wreck, making our surveying work much easier in some places.  In one particular case, the sea bed which previously buried starboard side of the ship had even been lowered by several feet!
While this was good news for the most part, we could not properly evaluate whether the site had also been damaged as a side effect of the storm.  The true story would have to wait until the site was surveyed and partially uncovered.
Back at the ADMAT facility, there were some other chores to do with preparing the lab for future artefacts liberated from the wreck, and cleaning preservation and desalination tanks.
 

Day 1 & 2

After landing in the Dominican Republic and experiencing the typical crazy driving of the locals en route to the ADMAT facility, our Phase #1 team was finally assembled. 

   ADMAT team for weeks 1 & 2 and Dominican supports

ADMAT team for weeks 1 & 2 and Dominican supports

Armed with our very own ex-NASA employee, artefact handler, local school teacher, and videographer… our motley volunteer force was eager to commence work on Le Dragon!  However, our director Simon Spooner wisely refrained us, wanting us to be adequately prepared with the training for our specialized operation.

First and foremost, we tackled the basics of survey work. 

   Measuring granite blocks from The Tile Wreck which sunk in 1720-23 in our training tank

Measuring granite blocks from The Tile Wreck which sunk in 1720-23 in our training tank

Utilizing the tanks from the ADMAT facility (formerly a Chinese shrimp farm), we learned to construct grids, take measurements, and draw object arrangements on slates.  As difficult as this was, the real challenge was then taking these skills and applying them underwater when the tank was filled!

The second key training was learning how to use metal detectors and gradiometers, and familiarizing ourselves with their respective sounds.  These tools would be crucial for honing our excavation search and precision, and so proficiency in this area would be invaluable.  

   Connor and Bob looking for strategically hidden modern coins in the dirt to learn how to use the Aquapulse Metal Detectors made by Aquascan International

Connor and Bob looking for strategically hidden modern coins in the dirt to learn how to use the Aquapulse Metal Detectors made by Aquascan International

Having mastered these skills, we celebrated our progress at the local tavern – enjoying the frosty Dominican Presidente beer which is kept just above freezing point

Preparing for the trip

With only days to go before the team assembles in the Dominican Republic and the windless sails of "Le Dragon" beckoning from the horizon... the day we begin excavation on the shipwreck looms ever near.  After several months of preparation - gathering scuba gear, organizing flights, and researching for the project ahead - the time has finally come to make the dream a reality!  The challenge now is how to fit months of preparation in two finite bags...

 

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The Countdown Has Started!

Less than a week to go before this exciting Le Dragon project starts. Tonight we had the last of the Team conference calls, going through key points before we all arrive for the start of this epic maritime archaeological project. 

 The graphics of the Captain and   Le Dragon   from Connor Grzesiak and Jared Adamo who were using gofundme.com for raising funds for equipment. 

The graphics of the Captain and Le Dragon from Connor Grzesiak and Jared Adamo who were using gofundme.com for raising funds for equipment. 

This year the Team come from England, France, Canada, USA, Dominican Republic and Australia.

 The   Le Dragon   wreck site on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, which will become a major maritime archaeological site during July 2018.

The Le Dragon wreck site on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, which will become a major maritime archaeological site during July 2018.

The plan is to survey the starboard side of the wreck and see if we can prove the wrecking process from archival information researched into the important battle where Le Dragon was chased by 14 ships from the English Admiral Hood's Caribbean Squadron. In the end Le Dragon was chased for two days by a third rate ship of the line a 74gun as well as a smaller 54 gun ship from the English squadron, as well as the remaining squadron blocking all escape routes.  

For further information go to the Le Dragon Project page