THE SAILOR stumbled backward, trying to avoid the cold water spewing from the hole he had just cut through the ship’s side. She was an ordinary transport and supply vessel chartered by the British Navy, but to him she was his home, his job. He swept a last look around the hold, then joined his mates in a small boat waiting alongside. As the ship settled slowly into the soft sand, the sailors headed toward the nearby rooms to rent in London.
Along the beachfront of Yorktown, Virginia, the scene was being repeated. Already many ships had slipped beneath the surface, their masts and yards jutting above the choppy water like the remnants of some great drowned forest. The sailor glanced over his shoulder. Far down the York River lay French men-of-war — the enemy.
The date was September 16, 1781. Within a month at least 50 British ships would lie at the bottom of the river off Yorktown, some sunk by cannon fire, others intentionally sacrificed to block a French landing or to keep them out of enemy hands. The loss of that fleet was to help change the world and secure a new nation—the United States of America. American strategy and French naval power had combined to defeat the powerful British Army in the South under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis in the last major battle of the American Revolution.
Two centuries later the drama of that historic event came home to me as I dove 20 feet down to the bottom of the York River. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-07-19/cape-york-fish-kill/2799660 For five years I had directed a small team in an archaeological study of one of those sunken ships, and now I was using a suction device to remove mud and silt from her hull. Remains of the lower deck had just been dismantled, and I was working below that, inside the hull on the starboard side.
In one spot I noticed a heavy collection of oyster shells. That drew my attention; the clay under the lower deck was usually a uniform gray, and I wondered how the shells had gotten inside. I dug deeper and was startled to find that a rectangular hole had been cut through an inner plank just below the deck. The opening, one foot long by six inches wide, had been neatly cut with a chisel.
This, clearly, was how the ship had been sunk. I suctioned more silt from between the frames. Sure enough, a foot away, a second hole similar to the first penetrated the hull planking.
I was certain that a crewman who was skilled in carpentry had cut these holes, first in the inner planking, then reaching through that to the hull. Even in the final act of sinking his ship, he had been true to professional standards. As if he knew we would someday inspect his work, he had cut the openings so neatly that they might have been for a gunport or window—except that they were below the waterline. How hard it must have been, I thought, for a man whose job it was to keep the ship in good repair to use his skills to end her life.