In late March of 2018, a shipwrecked hull washed ashore on Ponte Vedra Beach. Astonishingly large and well-preserved, the 48-by-12-foot vessel drew enormous crowds to examine and take pictures of its weatherbeaten pieces. It almost felt like the ship (designated the Spring Break Wreck) appeared out of nowhere, drawing onlookers into its own sliver of history. More than just crowds of interested passersby, the wreck also captured the curiosity of local archaeologists and scholars. Along with a team of researchers, Brendan Burke and Dr. Lee Newsom of Flagler College began to examine the wreck and uncover what stories lay beneath.
Brendan Burke, who was at the time the Associate Director of Archaeology for the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, and Dr. Newsom, a professor of anthropology as well as an archaeologist, paleoethnobotanist, and wood anatomist, studied the shipwreck for about a year. Even now, some materials are still awaiting analysis – like Strontium 86/87 isotope analysis on samples of spruce, which may tell us the part of the world in which those timbers grew.
“The Spring Break Wreck was likely a merchant vessel operating off the coast of the United States during the late 1800s, perhaps the early 1900s,” says Brendan Burke. “We learned a lot from the shipwreck, including the fact that it was built from some very unique choices of wood and was constructed during or after the 1880s. Heavy framing below the waterline was cut from beech and that above, from white pine. This blend of woods, and the fact that much of the framing wood was of poor quality, leads us to believe that the vessel was built in a place without good forests of shipbuilding wood. Exterior planking was cut from southern yellow pine, a good wood and likely shipped in to the area of building. The blend of species used in this vessel point to a builder located on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. Certain styles of construction also indicated the vessel was not built according to standards of shipbuilding that would be eligible for insuring. Combining these factors indicates an overexploitation of resources for the locale of the shipbuilder and a willingness to use poor-quality materials for building. The vessel was not very old when it sank, perhaps due to the choice of construction materials and methods.”
Brendan believes that careful study of these shipwrecks is important. “Historic vessels have much to say about the environments in which they were built, sailed, and wrecked,” says Brendan. “The people that built and sailed this vessel responded to a powerful economic need to construct and operate a vessel that broke some basic rules of shipbuilding and ultimately put the lives of its crew in peril. Merchant ships are engines of economy and homes for sailors, this one was most-likely unsafe from the beginning and a lesson that no matter the economic need, safety of life at sea should never come second.”
The Spring Break Wreck is now housed at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, just north of St. Augustine and near Ponte Vedra Beach. Visitors can view it at the entrance to the trailhead.
Learn more about the work of the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program by visiting www.staugustinelighthouse.org/explore-learn/research-archaeology.