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Set of coordinates, determination lead to shipwreck's discovery

After learning how to scuba dive four years ago, John Noonan of Hampton Bays, along with his instructor, gathered four other friends to begin a series of five dives over two years to explore what appears to be the shipwreck of the Adriatic off the South Shore.  Credit: Linda Rosier; Handout

It wasn’t a storm or running up on a sandbar along the South Shore that turned the Adriatic from a ship into a shipwreck.

It was a run-in with the Confederate commerce raider Tallahassee late in the Civil War.

Now, with considerably less drama and a lot of determination, a group of Long Island divers appears to have discovered the remains of the Adriatic 30 miles south of Montauk Point — 156 years after the 181-foot sailing vessel was sent to bottom of the Atlantic.

“Finding the wreck of Adriatic is an amazing discovery,” said Harrison Hunt, a former Nassau County museum supervisor who is co-author of the 2015 book “Long Island and the Civil War” (Arcadia Publishing). “It's especially significant for Long Islanders as it highlights how close the Civil War came to home in the form of Confederate raiders.

"While several local ships were captured during the war, I don't know of any taken as close to Long Island as Adriatic.”

With its limited industrial resources, the Confederate States of America was hard-pressed to assemble a navy. To compensate, the southern government retrofitted commercial vessels powered by steam and sails with cannon and dispatched them in search of Union ships. The most infamous was CSS Alabama, which captured 65 Union vessels. The raiders burned or scuttled the ships for which they had no use.

Run-in off LI's coast

The CSS Tallahassee encountered Adriatic on Aug. 12, 1864, during the last foray into northern waters by a Confederate raider before the war ended. After the Tallahassee’s crew removed some 190 passengers and crew from Adriatic, they set it ablaze and it sank in 220 feet of water. Over subsequent years, commercial fishing boat captains discovered the site in an inopportune way — when their nets hung up on the wreckage — and they recorded the location.

John Noonan of Hampton Bays learned of the location from one of those commercial captains almost two decades ago but initially did nothing about it. Then in 2016, after learning to scuba dive, he gathered his instructor and four other friends and began a series of five dives over two years on his private dive boat, Storm Petrel, to explore what was sitting on the bottom.

The divers, all Coast Guard-licensed captains who have worked as mates on commercial dive boats, also include Ben Roberts, 37, an investment consultant from Amagansett; John Bricker, 53, a machinist from Bay Shore; Jim DiSciullo, 45, a firefighter from the Crestwood neighborhood in Yonkers; Andrew Favata, 52, an elevator constructor from Brooklyn; and Patrick Rooney, 57, a tile setter from Copiague.

Between them they have 183 years of dive experience.

“Murky water from the silty ocean floor in that area, total darkness due to the depth, entanglement hazards from derelict nets, lengthy decompressions and curious sharks made for challenging diving conditions,” said Noonan, 47. “But it was worth the effort once we saw the mid-19th century cargo and realized the site had historical value.”

They found artifacts including stoneware ink bottles, rolls of zinc, iron rails and lead ingots destined for merchants and industries in New York City and beyond. About a dozen of the artifacts — ink bottles of different sizes, a lead ingot and a piece of a broken Oriental china bowl — were brought up as keepsakes and to aid in identifying the ship.

“There is a remarkable amount of material still present, considering this was a wooden ship that was burned and exposed to saltwater, hurricanes and fishing trawlers’ nets for 155 years,” said Roberts, who conducted a side-scan sonar imaging of the wreck to aid in the exploration. “Many coastal wrecks from that era are scattered, buried, disintegrated; literally lost to history.”

The group suspected they had found the Adriatic based on the size and features of the wreck, proximity to the recorded sinking location, age of the artifacts and evidence of fire damage. But they had no proof. They had not found a “eureka” artifact — like the ship’s bell with the name of the vessel engraved on it.

So before they felt comfortable going public with the discovery, Roberts made two visits over two years to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, trying to identify the wreck through historical records. Finally, in February, he found insurance and damage claim records from 1872 detailing Adriatic’s cargo — items that matched what the divers had seen on the wreck.

The largest prize

The Adriatic was a “packet” ship, one that followed a regular published schedule. It was the largest and most valuable of Tallahassee’s 33 “prizes” captured during its 19-day cruise.

The Tallahassee’s captain was Commander John Taylor Wood, grandson of President Zachary Taylor and nephew and adviser of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The steamer, selected by Wood for conversion from a commercial blockade runner, was 220 feet long with a top speed of about 16 miles an hour — very fast for the era — with a crew of 120.

After slipping through the Union Navy blockade off Wilmington, North Carolina, on Aug. 6, 1864, Tallahassee sailed up the East Coast looking for targets as far as Maine before heading to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for repairs and then returning to Wilmington. Its exploits created widespread consternation for the Union government and shipping industry while buoying sinking morale in the South.

The first prize captured was on Aug. 11 off New Jersey with six more captured that day including a New York pilot boat that Wood turned into a scouting vessel. Off Long Island the next day, Tallahassee seized six vessels, including the Adriatic.

Thirty-four years later, Wood wrote an account of his raiding voyage in northern waters in The Century Magazine. “In all cases the prisoners were allowed to retain a bag of their clothes; nor were they asked for their money, watches, etc.,” he said.

The Tallahassee made a point of capturing two pilot boats, small vessels that carried pilots to help captains navigate into port, because he envisioned an audacious raid through New York City waters.

“My object in capturing these vessels was, if possible, to secure a pilot who could either be paid or coerced to take the ship through Hell Gate into Long Island Sound. … It was my intention to run up the harbor just after dark … then go on up the East River, setting fire to the shipping on both sides, and once abreast of the [Brooklyn] navy-yard to open fire, hoping some of our shells might set fire to the buildings and any vessels that might be at the docks, and finally to steam through Hell Gate into the Sound. … But no pilot could be found who knew the road, or who was willing to undertake it, and I was forced to abandon the scheme.”

In three days of cruising between the entrance to New York Harbor and Montauk Point, Tallahassee captured 20 ships.

“The most important was the packet-ship Adriatic, one thousand tons, from London, with a large and valuable cargo and one hundred and seventy passengers,” Wood wrote. “The passengers were nearly all Germans, and when told that their ship was to be burned were terribly alarmed; and it was sometime before they could comprehend that we did not intend to burn them also.

“Three hours were occupied in transferring them and their effects with our boats. After all was safely on board the [previously captured] Suliote, the Adriatic was fired; and as night came on the burning ship illumined the waters for miles, taking a picture of rare beauty. … We steamed slowly to the eastward towards Nantucket. The neighborhood of New York had been sufficiently worked, and the game [wildlife] was alarmed and scarce.”

Tallahassee made one more voyage, a short cruise under a different name with a different captain before returning to England. Later she was sold to the Japanese government to be used as a warship.

Records solve the puzzle

In trying to identify the wreck, Noonan said, “we had a lot of circumstantial evidence, and we were pretty confident of what we had, but we didn’t feel we had enough. One of my friends checked the archives of Lloyd’s of London [the insurance broker] when he was over there for cargo manifests, freight lists and insurance paperwork. We came up blank on that.”

Then, Noonan said, Roberts made two trips to the National Archives in Maryland. There he found what Bricker described as “the silver bullet.”

“Because it was a wartime loss, everyone who had financial damages was invited to submit a claim for reimbursement to the U.S. government,” Roberts said.

“The government assembled these claims and then presented them to Great Britain. And after compensation from the British — because British shipyards had actually built these Confederate commerce raiders that sank Union ships — there is a fantastic legal paper trail that we were able to follow and find the original records from 1864 submitted by a lot of these merchants as proof for their losses.

“We found a couple of smoking guns: an invoice for all the ink bottles that had the same name of the merchant as well as invoices for other materials on the ship that we saw on the wreck site.”

How the search began

The group’s path to the Adriatic began almost two decades ago.

Noonan said in the early 2000s he met an older fisherman at a Shinnecock marina “whose boat I had admired for years and had a conversation, and we became friends and ultimately went out fishing together," Noonan said. “He was moving away and approached me about buying his boat.”

Noonan purchased the boat, which came with a list of coordinates for sites where fishing nets had been snagged over the years.

“There was one particular set of numbers that seemed interesting, so I went out to the wreck in 2004," Noonan explained. "We caught a lot of fish so we figured not too many people have been fishing on it. At the time I wasn’t a certified diver so the next year I got certified and worked up to the point where I could do a dive like that.”

It took until September 2016 to get the group together — after he met the other divers through his instructor, Favata — to actually make a dive on the site.

Since Adriatic burned to the waterline, much of the cargo is melted or fused together. The divers have found the ship’s wood hull frames, copper sheathing that was attached to the outside of the hull to prevent marine growth from attaching to the vessel and slowing it down, and an anchor and pile of chain at the bow. The wreckage sits in a mound of cargo that rises about eight feet off the bottom.

Difficult dive conditions

The visibility during the dives to 220 feet ranged from zero to up to 20 feet because the muddy bottom doesn’t reflect light and tiny silt particles suspended in the water make it murky.

The water temperature at the bottom is in the 40s, so the divers wore waterproof dry suits. Rather than scuba tanks, they used rebreathers, which recirculate breathing gases to extend dive time, with specially mixed gases including helium to prevent decompression sickness. To save time on the bottom, they used electric scooters, which look like mini-torpedoes, to move around the wreck.

When it was time to surface, they would spend about two hours “hanging” on the anchor line to allow nitrogen that had built up in their bodies to dissipate, preventing decompression sickness commonly known as “the bends.” The ensuing boredom was offset on one dive by the arrival of a pod of about a dozen dolphins; on another dive, it was relieved by a curious large shark — possibly a bull shark — nosing around for an hour.

Favata was the first of the group to reach the wreck. What was left of the ship was covered in snagged fishing nets.

“It looked like a rock pile,” he said.

His dive buddy, Bricker, said “we came across what we now know were rolls of zinc. But when I first looked at them and I thought ‘that looks like rolls of carpet.’ ” Then they saw stacks of iron railroad rails.

After their first dive, Favata said “we gave it two thumbs-down” and were prepared to tell their colleagues on the surface that they should go to a different wreck site.

But since they were out there, Noonan and DiSciullo decided to make a second dive that day.

Reaching the bottom, DiSciullo recalled, “I swam maybe 15 feet, and I saw an ink bottle laying there. I turned around and signaled John and go back to him, and he’s got one himself. We found multiple bottles on that first dive.”

Roberts later surveyed the site with high-resolution side-scan sonar to create a map with precise measurements to help orient the divers in the low visibility.

As for the artifacts recovered so far and others that might be brought up in the future: “They’re not for sale,” Bricker said.

“We’ll display them and give presentations where we can,” Rooney added. “We recover artifacts and preserve them — save history — and give it back to the public.”

A controversy has been raging for years between sport divers and the museum-archaeological community about the wisdom of recovering artifacts from shipwrecks. Divers say they are making history available for the public and saving artifacts that will be destroyed in a harsh ocean environment. The scientific and museum community argues that artifacts should only be recovered as an archaeological excavation following strict protocols; or they should be left on-site.

The Adriatic divers, who have so far only brought up about a dozen artifacts, expect to recover more.

Whether they continue their exploration alone or with a scientific or academic partner, the Adriatic discovery group plans more dives on the wreck.

“It still has a story to tell,” Bricker said.

The Adriatic at a glance

  • Launched in April 1861 in Boston.
  • A 181-foot sailing “packet ship,” meaning that it traveled a regular route, in this case from New York to London and back, on a set schedule.
  • Carrying about 190 passengers and crew and a cargo that included ink bottles, rolls of zinc, lead ingots, railroad rails, various processed food products and other commodities.
  • Captured by Confederate commerce raider CSS Tallahassee 30 miles south of Montauk Point on Aug. 12, 1864, burned and sunk.
  • Wreck first explored by group of six Long Island divers in September 2016.
— Bill Bleyer

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