A Mysterious Centuries-Old Shipwreck Just Washed Up On A North Florida Beach

The beach in Saint Augustine, Florida. Nicole S Glass/Shutterstock

A mother and son in Saint Augustine, Florida, experienced a much more exciting day at the beach than anticipated when they discovered remnants of an old wooden ship washed up on the sand.

During an early morning lounge session on the deck of a Ponte Vedra beach rental house on Wednesday, March 28, Julie and Patrick Turner spotted a sizable chunk of wooden debris. According to local news outlet Florida Times-Union, Julie Turner quickly notified local authorities after her son excitedly declared that the odd sighting was actually part of an old ship.

As requested by state park officers, archaeologists from the Lighthouse and Maritime Museum – who have investigated many shipwrecks along the Florida coast – arrived on the scene to take photos and measurements before the 14.6-meter-long (48-foot-long) remains could be washed back out to sea.

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Because the remains are technically state property, Florida parks officials needed to decide what to do with them. This decision was time-sensitive, however, thanks to the incoming high tides that scattered pieces of the wreck later on Wednesday and threatened to engulf the rest on Thursday.

Thankfully, Guana State Park officers granted the museum staff permission late Thursday afternoon to move it higher up the beach.

Now safe from the waves, the archaeologists are continuing their study of the wreckage.

Brendan Burke, the museum’s maritime historian, told the Florida Times-Union that the copper tack heads visible on the planks suggest that the hull was once covered with a sheet of copper. He and his colleagues also observed wooden pegs, called trunnels, that are used to attach the hull planks to the ribs, and Roman numerals carved on the ribs.

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 Taken together, the preliminary evidence suggests that the remains are from a large sailing vessel dating back to the late 1700s to 1800s.

“It’s really amazing to see somebody’s writing that been buried in the ocean for well more than a century,” Burke told the Florida Times-Union.

As to why remnants of the long-abandoned ship have just recently appeared, the museum’s researchers speculate that the wreck was initially buried in a near-shore sandbar, where it was buffeted by years of wave action.

"All along the US coastline shipwrecks appear and disappear with shifting sands," noted underwater archaeologist Peter Campbell told IFLScience.

"The upper layer of marine sediments is quite mobile and when a big storm event passes through it can move the sediment off large solid objects. For wrecks out at sea, the storms can churn up the bottom and move fragments or individual artifacts from the wreck site up onto the beach. The sea is incredibly powerful – it can move massive amounts of sediment and even whole shipwrecks!"

Moving forward, the museum team hope to create a 3D model of what the boat looked like and determine exactly when and where it was built.

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