For years, it was assumed a 1925 merchant steamer had fallen into the so-called “Bermuda Triangle” or run aground in some other way.
Now, archaeologists with the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, the research arm of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, have confirmed the SS Cotopaxi that left Charleston, South Carolina, en route to Cuba actually went down not far from the Ancient City nearly a century ago.
The wreckage, according to Chuck Meide, director of LAMP, can be found about 35 nautical miles off the coast of St. Augustine.
The Cotopaxi has long been the subject of legend — it was featured in Stephen Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — as well as headlines, most notably when relatives of all 32 crew members who died on the vessel unsuccessfully sued the owners of the Cotopaxi.
Producers of “Shipwreck Secrets,” a new series on the Science Channel, set out to discover the real story behind the ship’s strange disappearance.
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To do so, they enlisted the expertise of Meide and LAMP assistant director Brendan Burke.
New evidence uncovered by marine biologist and diver Michael Barnette found that distress signals just two days into their voyage down the Atlantic seaboard had been picked up in Jacksonville, possibly placing the ship in the area.
“So he [Barnette] wanted us to come in and confirm the identity,” Meide said. “And I said, if I don’t think it’s actually the Cotopaxi, it’s not the Cotopaxi.”
But confirm it they did. In June, Meide went out on a boat with Barnette and his crew and helped with the dive, including pinpointing the coordinates of the remains 100 feet beneath the surface.
When they got back to LAMP headquarters, they were able to match measurements taken underwater with those of schematics of the ship itself.
“Everything lined up,” Meide said.
It also proved that the Cotopaxi was, in fact, the shipwreck locals had come to call the “Bear Wreck” after pieces of a vessel were found in the same location 30 years ago. Researchers had not known which ship they came from until now.
Meide said weather conditions at the time the ship set sail on Nov. 29, 1925, provide a clue as to its fate, as do records showing that fixes to cargo hatches on the merchant ship had not been made before its launch.
“So they run into this tropical storm with high winds and and seas. … and once it starts taking on water, they had open hatches letting in the water and they were going to sink,” Meide said.
That the Cotopaxi was found not to be shipworthy did not help relatives of the deceased at the time since labor issues such as workmen’s compensation were not prioritized.
“Today,” Meide said, “it would pretty much be an open and shut case.”
Meide said he and the LAMP team plan to go back to the site of the Cotopaxi to learn more about the wreck in a future dive.
When asked why so many stories of shipwrecks can be traced back to St. Augustine, Meide said the answer has to do with logistics and topography.
First, the city is the longest-standing seaport on the East Coast. Secondly the inlet, with its shifting sandbars, is notoriously difficult to navigate and weather can make it even more so.
“And that’s what we we see again and again, that they were lost to the [sand]bar,” Meide said.
The episode of “Shipwreck Secrets” featuring LAMP will air on the Science Channel at 8 p.m. Feb. 5.
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