Museum Collection

History at the Bottom of the Sea: Virginia Beach’s Shipwreck Documentation Project

Written by William Hazel (Originally Published 05.20.2015)

Holding a lost historic treasure right in your own hands: it’s one of those special privileges shared by the staff of The Old Coast Guard Station in Virginia Beach. Working with the museum’s shipwreck documentation project, one discovers that treasures do, indeed, still wash ashore.

Many of us imagine discovering lost treasure while wandering the beach. We visualize a hillock of Spanish doubloons cascading from a rotted chest buried conveniently in the sand. Gold, silver, jewelry, and extravagant baubles lost in shipwrecks centuries ago. The treasures that are found most often, however, are the parts and pieces of the old ships themselves.OCGS_shipwreck_tag_Rudder_Piece

To museum staff, they are priceless. Kathryn Fisher, Executive Director, is buzzing around a massive wooden relic with a palpable joy.

“This is awesome.”

This shipwreck treasure is rare. The massive shape clearly reveals it is a sailing ship’s rudder; the old copper alloy fittings and pintles are still holding two large beams together. Eleven feet of pure history, from the lost age of sail, when, as they say, the ships were wooden, the sailors iron. The powerful ocean currents will usually break a piece this size into a dozen or more fragments. What washes ashore is often unrecognizable. You can identify most shipwreck finds as old, but seldom will they reveal their place on a vessel.

And there are more. Among the artifacts recently examined from the Cape Henry area is a large curved timber, what’s known as a futtock. It’s a perfect example of the complicated compound rib structure that acted as the massive skeleton of these great sailing ships. Another wreck piece holds a still intact sheet of copper–the kind used to line ship hulls against the ongoing organic attacks of shipworms and marine weeds. Still another features hand-hewn tree-nail, or trunnel holes, where pins or dowels would run to hold together timber construction. These hand-hewn runs have a completely different character than those made by machine drills. This is the kind of detail that can help date a particular find. This one may be from the 18th Century.


The Old Coast Guard Station Museum began its shipwreck documentation program in 1989. The goal of the program is to document all known shipwreck sites and fragments discovered along the Virginia Beach shoreline. The long-range vision of the program is to link the data with other maritime institutions doing the same.

It would be astonishing to find something that uncloaked the deep secrets of a ship’s name and origin. This area is well known in maritime history because of the thousands of shipwrecks these treacherous waters claimed. It is impossible to know for sure a particular piece belonged to a certain vessel unless it offers something unquestionable.

Staff tag and study each shipwreck piece individually; measuring, photographing, and noting important aspects of each treasure. Donated objects can become part of the museum collection. Many, though, are tagged and left, often reclaimed by the water. Austin Burkhard, a student at the University of West Florida, and intern for the Fish and Wildlife Service at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, joins the OCGS crew on this mission. He has been experimenting on the Eastern Shore with different types of shipwreck tags that can withstand Mother Nature.

“Sunlight does the most damage.” He nods with experience.

That’s not just true for the tag, its true for the entire artifact. It can survive surprisingly well rolling around in the ocean, or buried in a sand dune, but once exposed to the full UV power of the sun, it deteriorates with surprising rapidity.

OCGS_shipwreck_tag_Kathryn_Fisher“This is more than old wood,” states Fisher, seen below, her passion noticeably inflected. “This is about the people on these ships. We get closer to their lives.”

The term “shipwreck” is so homogenized in our dialogue that what really happened to the vessels, to these people, becomes too easily diminished. The famous shipwrecks are one in a million. If you think you are going to stumble onto one of Blackbeard’s rum jugs, you are missing the point.

Hampton Roads is about ships; the people that build them, the people that sail on them, the valuable cargos they hold. Gaze into the channel today and you’ll see ships that are 800, 900, sometimes 1,000 feet long, moving massive amounts of goods around the globe.

These vessels of old were doing the same. Thousands upon thousands of ships moved massive amounts of material through these waters. Crewed by hard working mariners that took to a life on the sea. Cargo was their moneymaker, their treasure. The money was in the sugar, the lumber, the potassium nitrate, the tobacco, the tar and asphalt. No engines. No radios, no modern navigation. They sailed. That’s the only option they had. They sailed these waters.

The terrible storms here chewed so many of them to bits. In a matter of minutes, Nor’easters would turn a 200-foot three-masted Barque into kindling.

OCGS_shipwreck_tag_Tag_ExampleNow, you cradle a piece of one of those ships in your hands. The wood is brittle, demanding a careful pressure. The powerful smell so distinctly salt-aged and organic. You think of the people on this ship. What were they like? You imagine their faces, their knurled hands. You imagine their clothing, the clunk of their boots on deck. You wonder where they called home. Most profoundly, you ask yourself why they didn’t make it into the safety of the bay that day.

And you feel it. You cling to this little bit of history and in your core you feel it.