By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
Barry Clifford plans to be back in Vineyard waters. The celebrated underwater explorer, who has spent decades uncovering shipwrecks almost forgotten and who got started here on the Vineyard, has his eyes on a wreck four miles east of Cape Pogue.
His firm Vast Explorer Inc. filed papers in U.S. District Court in Boston seeking exclusive rights to salvage the Semiramis, a 120-foot, three-masted ship, one of the first of the China traders. Mr. Clifford said he wants to start diving on the wreck later this fall.
“I think this is a very important ship. She was one of the early China traders and was there in China for three years,” Mr. Clifford said. He said the vessel is probably loaded with plenty of Chinese porcelain figurines and an unknown amount of silver and maybe gold. She sank in 1804 and was loaded with 14 cannons and a cargo worth half a million dollars in those days. Her destination was Newport.
Mr. Clifford recently purchased a painting depicting the troubled vessel as she sat on the shoal. The American flag is flown upside down as a sign of distress.
“She hit a bar,” Mr. Clifford said, and sank. “I am not sure how.” He said it is unclear whether it happened during a storm. But Long Shoal where she rests is well known by local fishermen as a shallow spot between the two Islands, he said.
The depth of the water could be as little as ten feet. Mr. Clifford said typically when a ship sinks, she fetches up in the sand. “The sand swallows her up. Currents and eddies surround her. She ends up looking like a bump. Some parts may be exposed,” Mr. Clifford said.
Mr. Clifford earned international attention in 1984 for discovering the pirate ship Whydah off the Cape. The remains of that ship were uncovered using an ingenious salvage technique that he and his crew perfected, which involved blowing sand off the wreck by using the power of forced water.
“We are not sure yet how we will uncover this wreck,” Mr. Clifford said. “It depends on how the shipwreck is positioned. It may require minor effort,” he said down the line from Provincetown.
Mr. Clifford will be using the help from Teledyne Benthos of North Falmouth, a company that locally makes underwater survey equipment. C. Eban Franks of Teledyne said he and his company are pleased to be involved in providing equipment to this project. The equipment uses sound sonar to show the surface of the bottom and also what lies underneath the sand.
The shipwreck site is off-limits to casual diving because of its historic importance and under the protection of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources. It is the sole trustee of the Massachusetts underwater heritage, according to their Web site.
Mr. Clifford said, just like the Whydah discovery, he wants to assemble a collection from the lost great ship to be publicly shared and so the history can be retold. He said he is in talks about establishing a permanent museum in Newport for this and many of his underwater discoveries. The Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center, a museum in Provincetown, is a temporary site.
Mr. Clifford said his interest in the Semiramis shipwreck goes back more than 30 years, when he was diving on a lot of wrecks around the Vineyard.
“We did a lot of initial diving around the Vineyard years ago trying to identify shipwreck sites. This is especially fun for me to go back. I have been all over the world working underwater,” he said. Mr. Clifford owns real estate on the Vineyard Haven waterfront and visits a few times each year. “Now I get to come back to the Cape, and I am especially looking forward to being working off the Vineyard again.”
Vineyard ships and sailboats have an almost human presence in these waters. The 50-foot Concordia schooner Mya was owned by Sen. Edward M. (Teddy) Kennedy for many years and she made frequent visits into Vineyard waters. Funeral services for the late senator were held over the weekend.
While there were many who mourned the loss of the senator last week and his work in public life, there were also thoughts of the senator as captain of the Mya, a vessel that had Vineyard roots and sailed often across Nantucket Sound.
Mya was owned by Matthew Stackpole of West Tisbury. He and his wife Martha used to sail all around the Vineyard. Mr. Stackpole sold the vessel to the senator in the spring of 1987.
Mya was easy to pick out on the waterfront. Though she was a two-masted schooner, her mainsail, that large sail in the back, was Marconi rigged.
Mya was built in Duxbury in 1939. She was designed by Howland and Hunt of Concordia.
Last week Mr. Stackpole said: “We were really pleased with Ted’s ownership of Mya. He was great at keeping in touch with us and letting us know what he was doing with her. He loved her and appreciated her for all of her wonderful qualities.”
Mr. Stackpole said: “He was very thoughtful and did great things with that boat.”
The start of the 64th annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is only a week away. The month-long contest officially begins at 12:01 Sunday, Sept. 13. The weigh-in station will open at 8 a.m. for the first fish. Derby buttons are available at the local tackle shops. Matt Malowski, a member of the derby committee, is putting together the schedule for fillet volunteers. The fish that is donated to the derby is filleted, refrigerated and shared with the Island’s senior citizens. The fish is distributed through the councils on aging. A key ingredient to the program is getting volunteers to man the fillet station when the weigh-in is open. For more information and to volunteer for the program contact Mr. Malowski at 508-274-0320.
The derby is awarding more than $300,000 in valuble prizes from a 24-foot boat to a new Cheverolet four-wheel drive truck.