AP Photo/David Klepper
WESTERLY, R.I. (AP) — For two centuries it rested a mile from shore, shrouded by a treacherous reef from the pleasure boaters and beachgoers who haunt New England’s southern coast.
Now, researchers from the U.S. Navy are hoping to confirm what the men who discovered the wreck believe: that the sunken ship off the coast of Rhode Island is the USS Revenge, commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry and lost on a stormy January day in 1811.
“The Revenge was forgotten, it became a footnote,” said Charlie Buffum, a brewery owner from Stonington, Conn., who found the shipwreck while diving with friend Craig Harger. “We are very confident this is it.”
On Wednesday, Buffum and Harger braved the raw weather of Block Island Sound to accompany the researchers as they surveyed the wreck site. The Navy – along with help from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – is using high-tech sensor equipment to map the site, a first step toward retrieving possible artifacts.
If they’re successful, they will illuminate a critical episode in the life of one of the nation’s greatest naval officers. Perry is remembered as the Hero of Lake Erie for defeating the British navy in the War of 1812. He was famous for reporting simply “we have met the enemy and they are ours” after the decisive Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.
Two years earlier, the Revenge and its 25-year-old commander were en route from Newport, R.I. to New London, Conn., when the ship hit a reef in heavy fog. The area is infamous for its rocky, tide-swept reefs that lurk just beneath shallow waters.
When the Revenge struck the reef, Perry ordered the crew to dump some of the ship’s cannons to lighten the load. The mast was cut. But it wasn’t enough to free the ship.
The crew abandoned the Revenge, and not a single man died. But Perry’s career was almost scuttled along with his ship.
The South Kingstown, R.I., native was court-martialed, and though he was exonerated, his career languished. Until he was posted to the Great Lakes.
“He was a rising star,” said David Skaggs, a professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University who has written a book on Perry. “But then his ship runs aground. Running a ship aground is not a helpful thing for your career.”
Harger and Buffum found the shipwreck six years ago after beer-fueled bull sessions in Buffum’s brewery. Both men were experienced recreational divers. Buffum was fascinated by Perry and by shipwrecks off the Rhode Island coast.
They obtained an underwater metal detector and calculated the Revenge’s likely resting place by analyzing currents and the location of the reef.
“We knew where he was going, we knew the area,” said Harger, of Colchester, Conn. “We sat around in Charlie’s brewery talking about where it might have gone.”