Questions from a 4th Grader

Last week a 4th Grader contacted me with some questions about shipwrecks. Actually, he contacted Dr. Crisman first, but I get to answer these sorts of things as 1.) I enjoy public outreach and 2.) I am not trying to finish a book while teaching two classes and serving as Assistant Dept. Chair.

I thought I might post my answers.

1) How did you get interested in shipwrecks?

Some seven hundred years ago the Chinese navy was the largest in the world. When Kublai Khan became Emperor of China, he launched several invasions of Japan. As legend has it, his fleet was destroyed by massive storm or divine wind, “Kamikaze” in Japanese. I read a book called Kublai Kahn’s Lost Fleet which was about the search for these sunken naval ships. I was hooked, and decided to become an underwater archaeologist. Here, at Texas A&M, I became friends with Randy Sasaki who was one of the archaeologists looking for the Kublai’s ships, and met the book’s author James Delgado. I am hoping to go to Vietnam this November to help search for the remains of another one of Kublai’s naval invasions (that also went wrong).

Kublai Khans Lost Fleet, by James Delgado

2) What was the first shipwreck you worked with?

The first wreck I excavated was Warwick, which sank in Bermuda in 1619 when a hurricane ripped across the island. The ship was at anchor, but she broke free of her moorings and crashed against a reef. I have spent the last two summers in Bermuda, working with a team of archaeologists to carefully uncover her remains. Warwick was a cargo ship, and was bringing important supplies to the new colony of Jamestown (Virginia). With no other ship that could deliver the much needed provisions, tools and colonists, the town of Jamestown suffered a ruthless winter, and many people died.

Dr Crisman Recording Top Timbers

3) How do most shipwrecks occur?

Ships sink for any number of reasons – human error, sudden storms, rotten timbers, battle damage, hidden rocks and freak accidents. One of the biggest reasons shipwrecks occur is the “one more voyage” or the “one more mile” principle. Ship owners often push a ship too hard and too far. Crews make mistakes when they are exhausted and old strained ships can break apart with little warning.

4) What is your favorite shipwreck and why?

Warwick is my favorite shipwreck, partly because she is the first ship I worked on. She has a fascinating history, and we are learning new things about her every year. Last year we found a Gunter’s Scale aboard, which is a small navigation instrument the size of a ruler. It is the earliest Gunter’s Scale ever found! This year, we discovered that Warwick also carried very specialized weaponry. She carried a type of ammunition called bar shot, which looks like two cannon balls connected with a bar; when fired out of a cannon it would spin through air and destroy masts and sails. This type of shot was used to disable ships. This makes us think that she was not only a cargo ship, but a privateer too. Privateers were pirates paid by the English government – they would capture ships from enemy nations!

Concreted bar shot and spike shot along the top timbers

5) How do you find sunken ships?

Archaeologists use many different techniques to find sunken ships, from sonar surveys to underwater robots to simply being towed underwater behind a boat. Most often shipwrecks are found by accident! Many shipwrecks are found by fishermen who snag artifacts in their nets or locals who find them while diving or swimming. Sometimes violent storms uncover sunken hulls or wash artifacts ashore. Many times shipwrecks are found on land, buried in old filled-in harbors. While digging foundations for the new World Trade Center, workmen discovered a sunken ship buried in Manhattan. Archaeologists excavated it, and it is currently housed at Texas A&M.

6) Do ships sink more often than submarines?         

Although ships sink more often than submarines, there are many famous sunken submarines. When Dr. Bob Ballard discovered Titanic, he was secretly working with the US Navy to look for two submarines, the USS Scorpion and USS Thresher; both sank in the 1960s. The submarine CSS H. L. Hunley is one of the most important Civil War shipwrecks ever excavated. The entire sub was raised, excavated and conserved, and her crew reburied with full Confederate military honors.

7) Have you heard of a pirate ship being found?

Absolutely. A friend of mine here at A&M, Chad Gulseth, is researching Ranger, which once belonged to the notorious Black Bart. It sank during a 1722 hurricane at Port Royal (Jamaica) and was found again in 1967. Another friend of mine, Fritz Hanselmann, helped excavate Captain Kidd’s Quedagh Merchant. The problem with pirate ships is that they look like any other armed vessel. You have to do a lot of historical research to determine if a wreck was a certain vessel or not. Sometimes it is impossible to be sure. A great example of pirate archaeology is Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge, excavated by east Carolina University. You can learn more about its history at

8) Has there been a shipwreck that hasn’t been found that you would like to find?

After Kublai Khan failed to invade Japan, he tried invading Vietnam six years later. The Vietnamese set a clever trap for Kublai’s fleet in the Bach Dang River. They sharpened numerous giant logs and planted them in the river, point up. When the tide dropped, the Chinese warships were trapped and the Vietnamese set them all on fire! This November I am going to Vietnam to help Randy Sasaki and Jun Kimura look for remains of the warships in the Bach Dang Delta. I hope we find them!

Jun and Randy with wooden spikes from Bach Dang

9) What is the most dangerous place for shipwrecks?

According to the National Highway Transport Safety Administration, most accidents occur within ten miles of home. The same is also true for ships! They often sink close to port. Sailing in sight of land can be more dangerous than the wide open sea. Hidden reefs often sink unwary or unlucky vessels, and winds coming off the mainland can be treacherous. It is said that there are over 500 shipwrecks in Bermuda. The island is surrounded by miles and miles of perilous reefs. However, the shipwreck I work on, Warwick, sank at anchor in a well-protected harbor during a hurricane which just happened to come from the wrong side of the island. Ships can sink anywhere!

10) What is the most recent shipwreck you have heard of?

The most recent shipwreck discoveries that I have heard of were made by 5 high school students! They worked with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to survey part of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary on Lake Huron. Their research and assistance helped locate the 138-foot schooner M.F. Merrick which sank in 1889, and the 414-foot long steel freighter Etruria, which sank in 1905. Their expedition is the topic of a documentary film called Project Shiphunt. You can learn more about them at

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Categories: Outreach, Shipwrecks

Author:Doug Inglis:

I study the archaeology of seaborne exploration and contact. I am passionate about public history and outreach, and write about nautical archaeology at

One Comment on “Questions from a 4th Grader”

  1. Jamin Wells
    September 27, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    I’m sure you made this 4th-grader’s week! Public outreach remains woefully undervalued in academia today — especially when you’re a graduate student. Thanks for sharing.

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