New Map Charts Chesapeake Shipwrecks

Click here to go back A map of the Shipwrecks of Delmarva is being commissioned by National Geographic.


A map of the Shipwrecks of Delmarva as commissioned by National Geographic.

By Wallace McKelvey and Todd Dudek, The Salisbury (Md.) Daily Times - USA TODAY

SALISBURY, Md.— For Don Shomette, coastal waterways in the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia region offer a treasure trove of history beneath the waves.

"In the Chesapeake, there are a total of eight sunken fleets," he said. "It's the most fought-over body of water in the Western Hemisphere."

The Delaware Bay is a close second, Shomette said.

Now, at least part of that history is being told in a map of the Shipwrecks of Delmarva, commissioned by National Geographic.

Shomette, who's written volumes about nautical history, was tasked with culling the 7,000 known shipwrecks to the 2,200 featured ones on the map. Based on predictive modeling, he said between 10,000 and 12,000 wrecks are believed to lie on or beneath the sea floor.

"It was an embarrassment of riches," he said. "There were so many important sites, and a number of them couldn't be included."

The latest map follows a similar one of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, issued in the 1970s. That map can still be found in bait shops, hobby stores and museum gift shops across the country, Shomette said.

But Delmarva's waterways rival — and possibly surpass — the Outer Banks as the "graveyard of lost ships," he said.

The process of selecting the sites to be included took more than a year, Shomette said.

He and cartographer Robert Pratt made the selections based on cultural and historical relevance, as well as diversity. Revolutionary War-era privateers exist alongside 1850s paddle steamers, Navy submarines and modern pleasure cruisers.

"We didn't want to put every work boat and every barge — even though some of them are enormous in size — in there," Shomette said.

Assembling the list meant pulling from his life's work: decades spent poring over government documents, letters and old newspapers, determining the location and details of wrecks across the region.

For Shomette, the importance lies in what the wrecks have to tell him, not simply their location.

"Ships at sea have their own laws, customs and ways separate from land society," he said.

And Shomette said most mariners, whose "roots were at sea," left little or no record in the wider world.

Conversely, he said shipwrecks also serve as time capsules of what society was like at the time they were lost.

"A ship is unique," Shomette said. "A ship is a container of the society that built it, sailed it, fought on it and died in it."

Bill Winkler, who operates the Treasure Quest Shoppe in Ocean View, said it's difficult to determine exactly how many wrecks are out there, but their remains are easy to spot.

The artifacts that have washed ashore from long-forgotten shipwrecks — everything from button covers to Buddha statues — hold both historical and mythic value to collectors.

"The history is more important than a piece of pottery or glass bottles," he said. "Literally tons, as in 2,000 pounds per ton plural, have been collected over the past 100 years."

Beth Gott, an interpreter at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, said the site's shipwreck displays — of the Dutch H.M.S. De Braak, which was captured by the British and capsized off Lewes in 1798, and a wreck discovered during beach replenishment dredging near Roosevelt Inlet in 2004 — are among the most popular.

"People are fascinated by the story of what happened to it and all the mysteries behind it," she said.

Although an estimated 40,000 artifacts were collected by researchers at the wreck site, Gott said people are still finding items believed to have come from the ship.

"A gentleman just walked in yesterday," she said. "He found a piece of brown stoneware; he was so excited."

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Posted 1/16/2011 2:43 AM ET