This Week’s Episode: What is a Centerboard Schooner?
The almost perfect darkness of the tannin-stained water is broken as the pale limbs of a dead tree reach towards me from the river bottom. Anchoring the dive flag to this snag, I swim on – somewhere in these shadows rests a shipwreck.
The Blackwater River winds its way through this part of Northwest Florida like a great snake towards the Gulf. This river has human experience reaching back into prehistory when it would have provided food and transportation to Native Americans. The story of this maritime landscape – the connections between the environment and people that make their living and draw their culture from water – is the story of the Blackwater.
Now a favorite spot for tourists and canoe-enthusiasts, the Blackwater River was once a bustling artery for Northwest Florida’s lumber industries. As nautical archaeologists, we study the maritime landscape of the past through its material remains – markers of the past – that can include lighthouses, fortifications, bridges, docks and wharves, warehouses, shipyards and shipwrecks. Human activity leaves traces of itself, sometimes involving direct shaping of the environment, such as when river paths are altered to power sawmills, but often these traces appear as concentrations of artifacts forgotten and lost in the mists of time.
Suddenly, as my vision adjusts to the swirl of alluvial dust, one such concentration of artifacts looms up before me – the Centerboard Schooner Wreck.
The skeleton of the ship lays protected by the inky waters of the river where it sank generations ago. Our job this summer will be to collect information on how this vessel came to be lost beneath the waves of the Blackwater and what it can tell us about the lives and legacies of the adventurous men and women that sought to make their fortunes along the forests and rivers of the Panhandle.
One of the first steps we will take to accomplish this is to try and fix the Centerboard Schooner within its historical context, which means we will need to establish a time period for its use and loss. Thus far, two methods have been used to narrow down a date-range for the schooner. Examination of ship construction techniques is a useful approach in dating schooners; however, this method gives a fairly broad time span. Our schooner, named for its use of centerboard technology – a centerboard is a wooden blade set on a pivot that can be lowered through the keel of the vessel to steady it in deeper waters and then lifted to allow the vessel to navigate shallow waters where a deeper keel is unnecessary – must have come after the adoption of this sailing innovation at the beginning of the 19th century. Unfortunately for our purposes, Northwest Florida underwent several major cultural and historical shifts from 1800 onward, making this window frustratingly imprecise.
Could this ship have been a witness to Andrew Jackson’s entrance into Pensacola? Are the sections of charred wood near the centerboard trunk indicators that she was sunk during the mad days of the Civil War? Or was she forgotten like the lumber industry she might have facilitated and left to take on water in the early 20th century?
Artifacts found within the context of the site are being used to narrow this temporal span. While some objects, such as modern trash and animal bones, may have been deposited with this man-made river snag by the current, other items – a small fragment of ceramic, for instance – are probably remnants of human activity that took place within the wooden confines of the ship.
It is our hope to additionally take a small sample from the keel and through dendrochronology, the science of generating time sequences for wood based on its rings and other factors, establish a year in which the lumber used to build the ship was felled.
As we accumulate more of these clues, these bits and bobs from long ago, we can begin to form a clearer picture of the Centerboard Schooner’s place in the maritime history of Northwest Florida.
There is a story behind this wreck – a mystery – of a ship and a river and the people that plied her.
Contributors: K. Bender, M. Balut, C. Giles and C. Keohane