In Part I last month, we told the story of the sinking of the steamboat ‘Lexington’ in 1840, the worst disaster in the history of Long Island Sound. This installment is about Ben Roberts and his side-scan sonar efforts to document the ‘Lexington’ and other New York area shipwrecks.
Ben Roberts, a 37-year-old freelance executive consultant, has been interested in shipwrecks and maritime history since childhood.
“When I was about six years old, my dad had a book called Buccaneers of America which was written by a French historian in 1678. It told the story of a Spanish galleon that went down off of Ecuador in the 1640s. He suggested to me – not very seriously – that it would be a fun adventure to go look for it. I got really excited about that.”
Roberts added that “about the same time, at the age of six, I learned how to sail and fell in love with the water. I’ve also always been persistent in building things, so if my parents wouldn’t buy me something that I wanted growing up, sometimes I would make it myself. For example, in middle school, I built my own electric guitar and then in high school, I read a story about the S.S. Central America treasure salvage and how one of the engineers turned a used propane tank into a scuba tank and impressed his friends by breathing from it on the bottom of a neighborhood pool. I said ‘Hey, that sounds like a fun project; I should do that too.’ So I built my own scuba rig from PVC pipes and scared my parents by taking it down about 30 feet in Lake Tahoe. So they decided ‘Hey, we better get this kid certified with real gear.’”
“As I was going through my certification course in the late ‘90s,” Roberts continued, “I was reading about shipwreck diving, and I soon learned about the Andrea Doria and the other great wrecks in the Northeast.”
He stopped diving while studying electrical engineering at the University of Virginia because he didn’t have the money to pursue it. When he graduated, he obtained an investment banking job that provided a salary that could have paid for diving but working routinely 100-hour weeks left no time for it. But after a few years, the hours began to drop and he could count on having weekends off. So he began wreck diving and took technical diving training in 2007-2008 so he could breathe mixed gases and use a rebreather to extend his diving time and explore deeper wrecks.
“In terms of the number of wrecks and the history, the Northeast U.S. is one of the best places in the world for wreck diving,” Roberts said. “There’s 400 years of submerged history here from one of America’s busiest ports with everything from pirate ships to rumrunners to wartime casualties. There’s at least 5,000 wrecks in these waters. From my perspective, diving a shipwreck is like an exclusive VIP tour of the restricted areas of a museum in which you get to see a historic time capsule up close and in its original environment, which sometimes very few or even no other people have ever seen before. Wrecks can also be very pretty and become homes for fish and other creatures.”
After doing a lot of wreck diving, including visiting wrecks never explored before, “eventually I quit my job and moved to Montauk for 18 months. Once there I began reading a lot of old books about local shipwrecks that prompted me to do more research. So I spent hundreds of hours assembling lists of underwater obstructions working with commercial fishermen and dive boat captains and other sources and writing computer code to identify the most promising prospects for wreck searches. Around that time I discovered what a great resource the National Archives can be for maritime research in terms of uncovering records that others may not be aware of.”
Then came a big – and expensive – next step.
“Two years ago, a friend and longtime dive buddy, Alex Barnard, and I decided that we had enough search prospects that it would be worth sharing the costs of buying a side-scan sonar unit to go out wreck hunting,” Roberts said. They spent about $16,000 on the gear in the spring of 2018. When a friend with a boat couldn’t provide them with as much time as they wanted to use their equipment, a few months after buying the side-scan sonar unit Roberts bought his own boat in the fall of 2018. He selected a 26-foot Glacier Bay because the catamaran design with the engines widely spaced provided ample room for deploying the sonar gear off the stern.
The pair also created a company called Eastern Search & Survey hoping for some commercial side-scan sonar business, but that hasn’t developed yet, so at the moment it’s a hobby.
They started out with a few dozen unexplored sites to check out but also wanted to scan some of the hundreds of known shipwrecks off Long Island and New Jersey. So far Roberts, working primarily by himself because he has a flexible work schedule, has scanned about 160 wrecks. He surveyed about 300 other sites that turned out just to be rocks or other obstructions.
The scans can be viewed on the Eastern Search & Survey page on Facebook.
“I realized the images were very interesting and also incredibly helpful for divers and fishermen because they provide a very photorealistic birds-eye view of the wreck site, which no other technology can do,” Robert said. For divers, it can be helpful because the low visibility in the waterways in the metropolitan area usually makes it impossible to see an entire wreck during a dive. “It’s also helpful for researchers and others in capturing a snapshot of the wreck’s current condition as it deteriorates from the impact of storms, trawling nets, shifting sands and general disintegration.”
Roberts and Barnard decided to share their images with the public for three reasons. “One is a useful tool for local diving and fishing communities. Two is to promote awareness of these underwater resources to the broader public. And three is the hope that this may spark some interest in wreck diving among younger folks and prompt them to get certified.”
“There are multiple lifetime’s worth of sites to explore in this area,” Roberts said. Right now his database includes 60,000 underwater obstructions sites and there’s no telling how many are shipwrecks until they are scanned.
“The diving community always gets excited when new sites to dive are identified, especially old shipwrecks,” said Barry Lipsky, president of the Long Island Divers Association. Roberts “using his high-resolution side-scan sonar skills to locate lost and forgotten shipwrecks all around the coastline of Long Island and provide the precise GPS coordinates for those shipwrecks to the scuba diving community will be an incredible gift to the divers.”
Captain Steve Bielenda, former president of the Eastern Dive Boat Association, said that “since sport scuba diving became popular in the 1950’s the novice diver has become an adventurer turned historian. Divers like Ben have changed the world in discovering and uncovering the origins of our lost underwater history. More than 85 percent of the treasure shipwrecks discovered around the world were found by amateur divers like Ben.”
Surveying the Lexington
“The Lexington has been relatively high on my priority list for some time,” Roberts said. “It’s one of those iconic shipwrecks that captivate the imagination. A great tragedy, legends of sunken treasure, built by a historically significant character, and found by Clive Cussler.”
After he spent about $20,000 on fuel last season, Roberts decided to see if he could get some crowd funding support for an overnight trip from Montauk to the wreck site. He raised more than $500 in just a few hours.
He spent four hours on May 21 scanning the areas for which he had coordinates for sections of the Lexington and other nearby wrecks. The coordinates came from best-selling fiction author Cussler’s 1983 exploration that located the wreck and from local divers who had visited the site subsequently. The hull broke in two as it was being raised in a salvage attempt in September 1842, almost three years after the sinking. The paddlewheels also became separated from the hull.
“The records from that period are not very complete. But the current theory is that they most likely salvaged the engine and the boilers on the bottom, cut the paddlewheels off, which explains why one of them lays in 80 feet of water quite a distance from the bow and the stern sections. They possibly tried to tow the remainder of the wreck to Port Jefferson and the theory is that it broke in half and sank again.”
“I collected about 22 different sets of coordinates that were all over the place,” Roberts said. “There are currents and variable bottom topography, so it made for an interesting search. At the end of the day, I’m very certain I found the bow section and a paddlewheel. We also found some uncharted wreckage not far from the bow section which looks to be about the right size, age and deterioration and construction style to possibly be the stern section. It looks like the wreck is broken a little more than halfway aft because the bow was the largest piece.”
The scanning process involves “mowing the lawn” or traveling back and forth and towing the side-scan “fish” over the site with the current in front of or behind the boat to stitch together a comprehensive image. “Once you find an object, you then need to make multiple passes over it from different directions to triangulate its true position,” he said. “Then you can make additional passes alongside it, aiming to tow the sonar down the side of it to generate the appropriate shadow to get the right perspective.”
The scans look more like latticework or a matrix than a traditional shipwreck profile. “It doesn’t look like any other wreck that I’ve scanned,” Roberts said.
Roberts is hoping to dive the sites to confirm that they contain wreckage from the Lexington. “It’s really spooky. It has some of the softest mud I’ve ever seen. So it does not look like a fun dive.” The depth ranges from 80 feet where the paddlewheel is located to 125 feet by the bow section. “I’d like to compare the wreck to my images, maybe in the winter after the plankton dies off and the water is a little bit clearer.”
“I think it’s probably gone,” Robert said of the second paddlewheel. He said Cussler spent several weeks scanning the area when he found the wreck site and never found the second paddlewheel so it probably has disintegrated.
Many of the coordinates he accumulated turned out to be the site of large rocks near the Strafford Shoal Lighthouse.
“You never know what you’re going to get with these wreck searches,” Roberts said. “X rarely marks the spot.”