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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Shipwreck mysteries

Reading about the purported discovery of the wreck of the Griffin, the first real ship ever to sail the Great Lakes, took me back to my Bermuda days.

One summer in the ’60s, while I was living with my parents during summer break, I worked as an instructor for a SCUBA diving school. During the week, we took tourists out for short dives, teaching them how to use the equipment. But on some weekends, we hired out as guides to take more experienced divers offshore.

It was during one of those dives that I first ran into evidence of a shipwreck.

Like the Griffin, which disappeared in 1679 with its six-member crew, this wreck had been reduced to bits of wood and rusting metal. We found it while looking for conch in a grassy spot about 60 feet deep, some 10 miles or so off the north shore of the island.

It’s a maze of coral reefs out there, a real jigsaw puzzle that would be a nightmare for the captain of a sailing ship trying to reach safe harbor.

Someone noticed a pile of ballast stones — rounded river rocks never found naturally on limestone islands — and then a bit of iron sticking up out of the sand. I saw another piece, in a line with the first and the ballast pile, and figured they were both bits of mast hardware.

Searching through the ballast turned up pieces of broken crockery. It was amazing to think that stuff had been lying there ever since the ship sank — however long ago that was.

Then, I had a real shock while turning over stones looking for more. As I waved my hand back and forth, washing away the sand, I belatedly recognized the head of a speckled moray eel, not two feet away. It had found a home among the stones and was sitting motionless, waiting for an unwary fish — or the hand of an unwary human — to wander within striking distance.

Yikes!

Speckled morays are notoriously ill-tempered (I’ve seen one chase a diver for 30 feet or more when disturbed) so I slowly, oh so slowly, moved away.

Morays are poisonous, and their teeth fold inwards, making it hard for them to let go of anything they’ve grabbed. I once knew a diver who had a nasty, moray-mouth-shaped scar on his leg, courtesy of an eel. He said he’d had to cut its head off to get free.

Ugh ... no thanks.

We had no time to explore the wreck further, so I never found out whether there was anything worth finding there. Most wrecks offshore in Bermuda had been mapped by the legendary Teddy Tucker, who used an early version of a hot-air balloon, towed behind his boat, to look for wrecks and add them to his secret set of maps.

He’s famous on the island for his discovery of more than 100 shipwrecks, numerous sunken treasures and the emerald-studded solid gold “Tucker Cross.”

Oddly, after Tucker sold the cross — the handiwork of Central American Indian craftsmen — to the Bermuda government, it was stolen from the museum and a replica put in its place. That crime has never been solved.

Nobody expects to find a treasure on the Griffin — it was carrying a cargo of valuable furs when it was lost — but its archeological worth is immense. It was built by the French explorer La Salle to carry furs and trade goods up and down the lakes, supplementing the fleet of canoes and wooden batteau used by native and French trappers and traders.

It was 30 to 40 feet long, armed with seven small cannon, and had been built on the upper Niagara River by La Salle’s crew from local wood and fittings ferried with great difficulty from Montreal.

Divers, some of whom have been working for three decades to find the wreck, have recovered a slab of wood some believe is from the Griffin, but which others discount.

Until other items are found, it will be difficult to definitively determine whether the grave of the Griffin has really been found — and even then, given the nature of such things, the arguments will still go on.

Personally, I wonder where that beautiful cross wound up. Was it melted down and sold for its component parts by an international jewel thief? Or does some wealthy collector take it out, late at night, and fondle its intricate design?

Chances are, we’ll never know.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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