Researching Shipwrecks

From time to time people ask me about conducting shipwreck research. One of these days, hopefully in the not too distant future,  I hope to get an evening course together. In the meantime here is an insight.


Lets imagine you have just found a previously unknown shipwreck and now want to try identify what it is. How would you go about trying to identify such a wreck? Where would you begin looking for information and what sort of information would you expect to find?

These are just a few questions I hope to answer in this months blog "Researching Shipwrecks".


In the case of  your unidentified discovery you have two research options. The first option utilizes archival research to put a name to your wreck. The second approach requires that a site

survey be completed so that you can determine the type of vessel it is, its length and means of propulsion. Sometimes both strategies are required to ultimately resolve a mystery. (This was the case with the Race Rocks Mystery Wreck, now known as the SS Idaho)


In an effort to identify an unknown wreck the logical first step is to examine all known wreck charts. Several published wreck charts do exist. The most well known ones can be found in the back of the book "Shipwrecks of British Columbia" by Fred Rogers. The Argonaut Society in Washington State has also compiled a wreck chart for the Pacific Northwest Coast which identifies numerous B.C. wrecks. By examining either of the above sources you maybe able to pinpoint the location of your wreck and learn its identity.


In the event that the wreck charts are not forthcoming then you may wish to move on to wreck lists. I know of at least six wreck lists which have been compiled for B.C. waters. The "List of Shipping Casualties resulting in total loss in B.C. Waters" would be a good start. Published by Transport Canada this document lists the name,  port of registry, net tonnage and nature and place of casualty of each vessel lost in B.C. waters since 1897.


To make things interesting lets say that the list reports that three different vessels were wrecked in the vicinity of your discovery. How do you determine which if any of them are the vessel you have found?  This is where an U/W survey is of value! From the survey we will know: how large the vessel was; what the vessel was made of; whether it was  propelled by sail or power, etc.  This would normally resolve our puzzle. However, for the purposes of this article lets assume we can drop one vessel from the list because it is a small fishboat, but that the two remaining vessels are wooden tugboats of a comparable size. How do we resolve which vessel is your discovery?

To answer this question we must learn more about both vessels.  There are a multitude of sources we can tap to answer this question. However we must priorize which source we check first. To do this we must ask ourselves the most basic question of all; what is it that we need to know? The nature and focus of your research will change as the answer to this question changes. Ex.

If  we want to know the heading the vessel was on when it was wrecked, we may want to check the official government wreck report,  inquest documents or  the newspaper account of the  wrecking. If we need to know whether the tug was diesel or steam powered then sources to check would include: "Lloyd's Register of British and Foreign Shipping Vessels" , Government hull inspection reports and/or contemporary texts such as "H.M. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest  (1895 - 1965)". For the purposes of this article lets assume the tug you found was steam powered while the other tug was diesel powered. Sources like Lloyds often provide engine cylinder diameters and stroke length, which if measured on wreck site will assist in vessel identification.


Assuming we have been successful at identifying your wreck you may now want to learn

more about the vessel, its operational history, crew etc. Texts such as "Lewis and Drydens Marine History of the Pacific Northwest" and "Shipwrecks of British Columbia" provide general details of each vessel and their crew. Ship's logs and crew diaries/journals often provide an insight about what life was like on the various vessels. Newspapers of the day recorded the comings and goings of ships, stories of the wrecking event and reported on the deaths and/or rescues of shipwrecked mariners.


Researching shipwrecks is not an easy or overnight  project, but with a little effort it can prove to be very rewarding. Learning about and contributing to the story of known wrecks is probably the easiest way to get started However the ultimate challenge is taking on the unknown! The society needs researchers on an ongoing basis to help with our various shipwreck inventory projects. If  you feel inclined to help piece together some of B.C.s  submerged past please drop me a note or call 250-474-5797.

Jacques Marc,

UASBC Explorations Director