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"Blackbeard's Ship" Wreck to Get Protection From Currents, Hurricanes

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
March 6, 2006
 
Marine archaeologists and engineers are trying to prevent ocean currents from scattering the wreck of a ship off the coast of North Carolina that was probably used by the infamous pirate Blackbeard.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a berm—a long, slender mound of sand—near the site of a shipwreck that is presumed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge.

The ship was the seagoing home of Blackbeard and his crew in 1717 and 1718. (See National Geographic Channel's Blackbeard: Terror at Sea, Sunday, March 12 at 8 p.m. ET)

(National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society, which is part owner of the National Geographic Channel.)

Mark Wilde-Ramsing, who is directing the excavation of the site for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, said the berm will be about 600 feet (about 180 meters) long and about 200 feet (60 meters) wide when it is completed.

The engineers are putting the berm about 420 feet (130 meters) from the wreck, which is about one mile (about one and a half kilometers) offshore.

"It's highly experimental," Wilde-Ramsing said of the berm. "There's no guarantee it won't wash away in the next storm."

Wilde-Ramsing and others involved with excavating the shipwreck hope the berm will block ocean currents that could carry away portions of the ship's remains and expose fragile timbers to deterioration. The wreck lies in about 22 feet (7 meters) of water.

"The site continues getting more and more exposed," Wilde-Ramsing said. "It really became obvious a couple of years ago."

Storm Threat

Recent hurricanes have compounded the problem, posing a threat to the shipwreck site, the archaeologist says.

A storm passing North Carolina from hundreds of miles offshore can send powerful currents surging toward the wreck.

Even a relatively weak storm such as Hurricane Ophelia—which brushed North Carolina in September 2005—can cause serious problems.

"It doesn't take a direct hit [to cause damage]," Wilde-Ramsing said.

"We feel the effects of storms from almost down in the Caribbean. They create enough waves to affect the site."

If the berm does protect the shipwreck, the technique will probably be used at other vulnerable underwater archaeological sites, he said.

Is It Blackbeard's Ship?

The pirate who became known as Blackbeard learned his craft as a member of a pirate crew commanded by Benjamin Hornigold around 1713. By 1716, Hornigold had given Blackbeard his own ship.

In November 1717 Hornigold and Blackbeard captured a large, well-armed French ship called the Concorde. Soon after, Hornigold accepted an offer of amnesty from the British government and retired from piracy.

But Blackbeard—whose real name probably was Edward Teach or Thatch—took command of the French vessel and renamed it the Queen Anne's Revenge.

During the next six months, he became known as the most fearsome pirate afloat.

In May 1718 Blackbeard committed perhaps his most audacious act of piracy by blockading the port of Charleston, South Carolina. A few weeks later, the Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground in shallow coastal waters off North Carolina.

Historians think Blackbeard may have deliberately grounded the ship, because he intended to quit piracy and retire to the town of Bath, North Carolina.

But by the fall of 1718 Blackbeard was back at sea in another ship. He was killed in a fierce battle with the British navy at Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, on November 22, 1718.

The shipwreck thought to be the remains of the Queen Anne's Revenge was discovered in 1996.

Archaeologists have not found an artifact such as a logbook or a ship's bell that proves beyond a doubt that the wreck is Blackbeard's ship. North Carolina officials have not taken an official position on the identity of the wreck.

But the artifacts that have been recovered, including cannon and wood samples, are from the early 18th century.

"Truthfully, we can't say that it's definitely the Queen Anne's Revenge," said David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

"But we have confidence in the evidence. It's not pointing in the direction of [the shipwreck being] anything else."

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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