Always Have a “Plan B”

figure10A behind-the-scenes look at the cutting edge Endymion Rock survey.

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Trustee, T & C National Museum and President, Ships of Discovery

Being involved in the survey of underwater archaeological resources is one of the main fields of expertise of the Turks & Caicos National Museum. Due to a series of occasions where the right people were in the right place at the right time, the Turks & Caicos National Museum and Ships of Discovery played a leading part in a cutting edge archaeological survey of Endymion Rock at the end of 2007. This protected site includes the British Fifth-Rate warship HMS Endymion which sank in 1790, along with an unknown “companion wreck,” which was possibly identified during the course of the December survey. The following article details the survey through a journal kept by Dr. Donald H. Keith.

Thursday, Nov. 29, 4:30 PM:

Lying on his back, half-submerged with each passing wave, Mike Cameron is annoyed, and I can see he isn’t trying to hide it. With Jeff Morris and Joe Lepore, he’s on the aft platform of the research vessel Plan B, staring up at what they’ve just reeled in. It’s our side-scanning sonar suspended beneath its depressor wing, a shiny silver fish in the talons of a giant yellow bird. In fact, it’s inoperable and unless we can fix it we’ll be flying blind. In the meantime the whole archaeological survey of Endymion Rock has ground to a halt.

I watch from the main deck above the now-crowded aft platform, within earshot as the survey team takes stock of the situation. “Looks like two parts, top and bottom, and it’s starting to split at the seam between the two. No sweat—we can fix it tonight—be back in action tomorrow morning,” Mike says confidently. I look around and see a lot of unhappy expressions. There isn’t any question that we can fix it, it’s just that these things take time and time is one thing we don’t have enough of.

We are only two days into the planned two-week survey, during which we intend to use remote-sensing instruments to survey a little more than two square miles of open ocean, locate the shipwreck that gave Endymion Rock its name, make a photo mosaic of the remains of HMS Endymion and an unidentified site nearby known simply as Endymion’s “Companion Wreck,” and gather as much data as possible. One thing we are not gathering is artifacts. Our mission is simply to locate and document in place objects of archaeological and historical interest and report our findings to the TCI Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR) for use as a resource management tool.

Sponsored by the Waitt Institute for Discovery (WID), our expedition is an amalgam of seven professionals and eight organizations working together for the first time. I represent the Turks & Caicos National Museum and Ships of Discovery; Mike, Jeff, and Steve Bilicki are remote-  sensing engineers and surveyors working under contract to the WID. The DECR has given us permission to visit Endymion Rock, a Protected Historic Site. Our small team is supplemented by Plan B’s extremely competent crew, largely composed of Australians and Kiwis (New Zealanders).

But right now our main concern is the sonar. We need a lot of space that we can temporarily trash, some tools and materials that we don’t have on board, and time. Fortunately for us, there is a narrow window of opportunity at the Turks & Caicos National Museum. The United Humanitarian veterinarians have just vacated the Museum’s open air “wet lab” following their semi-annual animal clinic, and Deborah Annema, the Museum’s director of development, has graciously offered to let us turn it into another type of hospital—one for a sonar with a broken wing. This bird is big, and everyone who helped move it swears it must weigh at least 300 pounds. But there’s a catch: Museum Day is the day after tomorrow, and the wet lab is going to be a center of activity, so we have to be in and out before that and the space has to be spic and span when we leave.

Still Thursday, 6:15 PM:

figure1Plan B puts back in to Grand Turk. Six of us wrestle the wing off the ship into her tender, then over to the customs dock, up a ladder, into a pickup truck, and finally into the Museum’s wet lab. By now it’s pitch black, but Lance Milbrand, our expedition’s cinematographer, has trained his movie lights on the center of the room where the patient is lying on the operating table, ready for a complete exam and reconstructive surgery. Salt water seeps out of the cracks in the fiberglass—not a good sign. Water will slow down the curing process and make for a weak bond, but we haven’t got time to wait for it to dry out.

“So where’s the glass and the resin?”  Joe asks. Mike Dessner and I rummage through bags of material we picked up at the Do-It Center just before it closed and lay it out: all the resin they had in stock, a couple of rolls of fiberglass cloth, brushes of various widths, paint, three grades of sandpaper, files, rasps, gloves, facemasks, nuts and bolts, and of course, duct tape. They all dig in. Jeff and Steve go for the sandpaper and files. Mike attacks the bent stainless steel brackets that clamp the sonar “fish” to the wing. I ask if he needs a torch. He growls, “No, just get me a hammer and a vice.” He takes another look at the mangled brackets. “Make that a big hammer!” Joe Lepore goes for the drill, bolts and nuts, then sends me up to the Museum’s workshop for clamps and rags.

Soon the air is filled with fiberglass and yellow paint dust and reeks of resin fumes. Lance is everywhere, shooting stills and video as if it were prime time at the Oscars. I become the expediter, kept busy ferrying tools and materials from elsewhere in the Museum to the work site. I pause to marvel at how, in the space of a few hours, this group of strangers transformed itself from monitor-watching technicians into seasoned deck hands and now into a pretty good imitation of a body shop crew. You would never guess that Mike, the guy bashing away at the bent brackets, is an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) pilot and fiber optics engineer who cranks out patents when he isn’t on a ship somewhere applying his skills and deep-water “tele-presence” inventions.

Jeff and Steve are marine archaeologists and remote-sensing specialists, skilled in the collection and interpretation of data acquired by towing sonar and magnetometer fish around behind a boat. Their technology is both sophisticated and complicated. The US Navy is one of their clients, and right now we are using equipment that isn’t available to the general public. The trick to their specialty is not just gathering the data, but knowing how to interpret it. It’s an art as well as a science. In this business, experience is everything.

Joe, the guy over there cutting fiberglass cloth, comes to the Plan B crew courtesy of the US Navy. With 20 years’ service under his belt diving all over the world using all types of equipment under all kinds of conditions for a wide variety of missions (some of which he can’t talk about), he is more than qualified to be the diving safety officer on board, which in this case also entails mixing exotic breathing gases, operating the on-board recompression chamber, and piloting Plan B’s 28-foot dive boat, Nautica.

There are two Mikes here, and they really hate to be confused with each other. The guy who keeps looking at his watch and making calls on his Blackberry is Mike Dessner. We call him “Dess” to keep things straight. Dess’s official title is “logistics director,” but in practice that translates into “cat herder.” His job is to keep the specialists on board from being distracted away from what they are supposed to be doing. Someone has to be picked up at the airport? Dess handles it. Need a truck to haul Plan B’s trash to the dump? Dess sets it up. Critical parts have to be ordered? Dess approves it. The yellow wing has to be repaired and here’s the list of what it’s going to take: Dess goes shopping. Having studied philosophy and religion in college while doing a brisk business as bouncer in a local bar (that’s where the scar came from), having fished commercially in Alaska (if you’ve seen episodes of “Deadliest Catch” you know what that means!), and having run dock operations in the Florida Keys, Dess’s background is appropriate for his present position with WID: director of logistics. It was his responsibility to get Plan B overhauled and all of its systems up, running, and tested, and it has taken two years to get to this, the start of our two-week survey.

Lance is the only guy in the room actually doing what he was hired to do—take pictures. By now we’ve all become totally desensitized to Lance’s cinéma vérité style and his omnipresent cameras catching the good, the bad, and the ugly all the time. A successful wildlife documentary cinematographer, this is his first brush with underwater archaeology. As far as capturing the action is concerned, we’re probably not that different from a pack of hyenas anyway. And like hyenas, we don’t worry about looking good or acting the part.

Still Thursday, 11:15 PM:

“All right, listen up everybody!” Dess claps his hands. “That’s it!  Enough for one night!” No one disagrees. Midnight is fast approaching. It’s been a long day and between the action, the five Mookie Pookie pizzas we inhaled a little earlier in the evening, the fiberglass resin and paint fumes and the dust, we’re staggering around like drunks. We’ve done as much as we can, and it looks pretty encouraging. We shut the lab down and leave the patient alone, hanging somewhat grotesquely, slowly drying and healing. As we climb into the back of the truck for the ride down to the dock a tired voice in the dark says, with no sarcasm at all, “So this is underwater archaeology?”

Actually, it is. After a similar day working on a shipwreck site in Turkey a colleague once observed, “Ninety percent of underwater archaeology is putting up, tearing down, cleaning up, rebuilding, repairing, carrying, lifting, hauling, scraping, and painting.” The other ten percent is the time you spend actually doing archaeology. Expect the unexpected—and deal with it. I don’t know the origin of Plan B’s name, but it sure is an appropriate reminder of what it takes to do this kind of work.

It’s only two days into our survey and already we’ve exterminated an infestation of electrical gremlins, mended a suspected break in a gazillion-dollar fiber-optic cable, solved a perplexing recurrent computer shut-down caused by overheating, dealt with tricky winds and currents that kept deflecting the tow package, worked through a major difference of opinion about the way things ought to be done, and survived an altercation between the sonar “fish” and an immovable object on the seabed, precipitating the present crisis. But we’re dealing with it—bonding, even. When people, even total strangers with little in common, pull together to successfully solve a problem, something happens. They may not admit it, or even realize it happened, but they become a team. After this night, everything seems to work better.

So how did the yellow bird get wounded in the first place? Expect the unexpected:  We flew it into the side of the “Dragon’s Tail,” the long, narrow tail of the Turks Island Bank just to the northwest of Endymion Rock. The wing was doing its job, trailing about 1,000 feet behind Plan B using the pressure of water passing over it to depress the sonar “fish” down to about 150 feet where it could get a good look at the seabed. The sonar was doing its job of sending out high-frequency sound pulses and picking up the reflected “echoes” to paint a picture of the seabed. Trailing behind the sonar, the magnetometer was detecting minute fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field that could signal the presence of a shipwreck.  Plan B had just started making its 2.5 mile runs spaced 100 feet apart parallel to the west side of the Bank. The water seemed to be plenty deep. But this is tricky business. One minute everything is fine. The next minute the depth indicator is rising toward the surface like a Polaris missile and everyone is shouting “Crank it in!  Crank it in!” Then, crunch . . .

Making discoveries

endymion-modelThe ocean, “inner space,” is a great reservoir of discoveries, waiting to be made. But to make discoveries in the ocean requires a rather steep investment, even before you attempt your first effort. The 150 foot research vessel Plan B is WID’s solution to that problem. But who and what is the Waitt Institute for Discovery? According to their Web site:

“The Waitt Institute for Discovery is a catalyst for innovative approaches to scientific research in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, and oceanography. Our interest is in facilitating major discoveries that will improve the understanding of our past, provide better opportunities for people in the present, and enhance the promise of the future.”

“We seek out leading scientists involved in important work and support them in their quests to accelerate and enhance discoveries for the benefit of mankind. We also believe it is important to communicate the progress and process of discovery as broadly as possible to educate and motivate a wide audience interested in getting involved.”

What do you put on such a vessel, given its broad mandate? Well, if you want to discover things in the deep ocean, you’re going to need a great big winch on the stern with about 10,000 feet of very strong, corrosion-resistant cable through which you can transmit and receive signals. What’s that for? The ocean is big and deep and the bottom is often a long way from the top. You’re going to need “remote-sensing” devices such as side scanning sonar and a magnetometer. Both of these devices can detect things like shipwrecks at a much greater distance than, for example, a video camera. And if they find something (until it’s identified it’s just called an “anomaly”), you will need an ROV to check it out. The ROV mounts a video camera on it as well as one or more manipulators that enable the operator to pick things up, tie knots, shake hands with an octopus—whatever. If whatever you’ve found still intrigues you and you want to get a closer, first hand, look then you launch the two-person submersible—a free-swimming miniature submarine that looks like a flying saucer.

Of course in shallow water, where most shipwrecks lie, you don’t need the fancy high-end, high-tech stuff. At depths above about 150 feet, SCUBA divers can handle most everything that needs to be done. While SCUBA diving is no longer considered “high-tech,” it can get pretty complicated if you want to use mixed breathing gases instead of just compressed air. And if you’re going to be operating far from shore you might want to take a recompression chamber along and maybe a device for making pure oxygen, too. Obviously, this is a lot of stuff to install, hook-up, integrate, test, and otherwise fiddle with—you can’t just go down to Sam’s Club and pull a “research vessel remote-sensing and diving package” off the shelf. Even after you get it all on board and working at the dockside, you still have to have a shakedown cruise to test it and refine how you use it . . . which is where I came in.

In January, 2007, my colleagues and I gave a symposium on our search for the slave ship Trouvadore at the annual Society for Historical Archaeology meetings. Afterward, we were approached by Dr. Dominique Rissolo, WID’s director of research, who was impressed by our on-going search for Trouvadore. Many months later he called to ask for our help in finding a place where WID could test their equipment and expertise on a “real” site, rather than just conduct an exercise. He remembered Trouvadore and wondered if Plan B could be of use in our search.

The north shore of East Caicos, where Trouvadore lies, is not a great place to be in winter, and the search there needs low seas more than it needs high-tech. In any case, given that Trouvadore lies inside the reef in water only a few feet deep, such an exercise would neither help us find Trouvadore nor provide a good test of Plan B’s crew and equipment. Instead, I suggested a survey around Endymion Rock, a place I had visited nine years ago and reported in an article in the Spring 2001 Astrolabe (see archives at With deep water to the east and west and at least a couple of shipwrecks clustered in shallow water, Endymion Rock could give the WID team a real workout. But the clincher for the idea was the fact that the Turks & Caicos Islands have a national museum, one that is well-stocked with the tools of the trade, can provide logistics and communication support, and can vouch for the legitimacy of a new research institute.

In the case of Endymion Rock, Plan B is doing survey only. No excavation. No artifact collecting. Those activities can lead to months or even years of artifact conservation and analysis and perhaps even the design and construction of exhibits. Still, even a simple survey carries a lot of responsibility. Once something is discovered—a shipwreck, a sunken city, a thermal vent—it can’t be “un-discovered,” and therein lies the rub, at least with respect to shipwrecks. Once the location of a shipwreck is known, there is usually nothing to stand in the way of curio-seekers and treasure hunters, who see stripping the site of artifacts as a way to make a quick buck.

Wednesday, Dec. 5, 10:30 AM:

“I think it’s highly improbable that the Companion Wreck was steam-powered.” Peter Dorrington, chief engineer and one of several New Zealanders in Plan B’s crew, has just demonstrated the inestimable importance of understanding what you’re looking at, and the result is a bombshell. Over the years, many divers must have seen the remains of HMS Endymion’s “Companion Wreck,” but none understood what they were seeing.

Pete holds up one hand and starts ticking off the logic behind this conclusion. “All the cylinders are of uniform size. Multiple expansion marine steam engines invariably employ cylinders of different sizes. There also isn’t any boiler or condenser down there large enough to handle engines of this size. There is a small boiler and condenser on the site, but they’re probably for a ‘donkey’ steam engine that would be used to raise the anchors, hoist sails and so forth. I didn’t see much coal down there, but there should be a lot if the ship were steam powered. The fact that the overall design of these engines borrows heavily from steam engines suggests that they are very early diesels, probably built between 1910 and 1920.”

We’re aboard Plan B’s dive boat, Nautica, moored over the site. Pete, still dripping wet from an hour of snorkeling, delivers his quiet, off-the-cuff lecture and then takes questions. We stare at him, open-mouthed. His visit to the site was considered an after-thought, just a small perk for Plan B’s chief engineer. Instead, it constituted a major turning point in our investigation.

After returning to Plan B, some quick Internet research confirms Pete’s deductions. With one incisive observation he has narrowed down the date of the Companion Wreck from the entire age of steam to a single decade. Further research leads him to conclude that we are looking at one 8-cylinder engine broken in two, not two 4-cylinder engines as one would think, and that it may well have been built by the Sumner Iron Works in Everett, Washington, USA.

Friday, Dec. 7 (Pearl Harbor Day), 5:30 AM:

One critical piece of equipment aboard Plan B is glaringly inadequate: the coffeemaker in the crew’s mess. Joe is an early riser and usually makes the first pot. By the time it’s ready there are four or five groggy scientists and crew standing around, mugs in hand, yawning and scratching. The first ten-cup pot lasts about 60 seconds.

We make small talk around the table, waiting for the caffeine to kick in. Joe asks what I’ve been doing down here in the Turks & Caicos for all these years. I tell them about the Molasses Reef Wreck that eventually led to the founding of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and some of the other projects Ships of Discovery has been involved in, like the molding and casting of the rock inscriptions on Sapodilla Hill that resulted in an exhibit in Provo’s airport, the conservation and exhibition of the 900-year-old Lucayan paddle Capt. Bob Gascoine found in Grand Turk’s North Creek, and the inventory of all the windmills on Grand Turk and the working model of the best-preserved example. But of course that was in the past.

What we’re been working on for the last four years is the search for the slave ship Trouvadore. Not just any old slave ship, but one that was carrying the ancestors of many of the people who still live in the Islands today, and that’s what makes it so important to the Museum. Joe asks when we’re going back to continue our search for Trouvadore. I tell him that in fact, we’re applying for a license for this summer, and have already chartered the Turks and Caicos Explorer II, a live-aboard dive boat, for July 5–26, but this time we’ll be expanding our search to include two US Navy vessels lost off the Caicos Islands in the first half of the 19th century while engaged in slave ship interdiction and suppression of piracy. At the mention of the US Navy, Joe perks up. He wonders aloud if we could use another hand. Maybe he could take a leave of absence from WID to join our expedition. Having lived and worked closely with him for several days now I know that he would be a great addition to our team, especially if Mitch Rolling, owner of Blue Water Divers on Grand Turk (informally voted the Search for Trouvadore’s “most valuable team member” two seasons running) has a scheduling conflict, as he expects he will.

Thursday, Dec. 13, Noon:

figure2The mission is over and the team is breaking up. Christmas is less than two weeks away. Most of us have to get back to our “day jobs.” Plan B is moving to its next destination. There isn’t any formal ceremony, no speeches, no clinking of glasses. Everyone’s too busy for that—and too professional. No one in this Mission Impossible team is going to get emotional or carried away with the “parting is such sweet sorrow” thing. Peter Dorrington, the chief engineer who just happens to be a marine engine historian, emerges from the engine room hatch to shake hands and wish me well. He passes me two sheets of paper, neatly typed in single space. I look at the title: “Impressions of the Endymion companion wreck from a marine engineering perspective.” It reads like a miniature thesis. This is the analysis that leads, a few days later, to a tentative, but highly probable, identification of the Companion Wreck as the General Pershing, launched in 1918 and lost on “Endamion Shoal” July 11, 1921.

Sunday, February 3, 4 PM:

Now I’m writing my report, full of facts and figures, for the DECR. But what I remember most is the people, the team. Sometimes you forget how great the things you have are until other people come along and point them out to you. In this case I was left with a new appreciation for the Museum, the efforts of the DECR to inventory and care for the incredibly rich and enthralling underwater world of the TCI, and the potential for making new discoveries there. Apparently other people saw that too, because shortly after the conclusion of the Endymion Rock survey I get word that Joe, Mike, and Lance are all making plans to join us when the field work part of our search for Trouvadore begins, and Dominique, a Mayan specialist and cave archaeologist in addition to his job as director of research for WID, is intrigued by the possibility of exploring a cave system on East Caicos thought to have been occupied by the Lucayan Indians long before the first Europeans arrived. One mission is over, but the next one beckons…

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