On August 11, 1986 off the coast of Lewes in the Delaware Bay, a war was being waged at sea.
In the blackness of night, groups of observation boats and one barge loaded with a crane struggled against the onslaught of 15 foot waves attempting to hammer their hulls into the depths as the wind howled in the night like a banshee.
Rather some might say the mad screams of a Sea Witch as it had come to be known. A purported supernatural guardian of this stretch of water protecting a prize long lost to the sea some 188 years earlier. Some 90 feet below laid the remains of the HMS deBraak, an 18-gun brig-sloop of the Royal Navy. Under the commission of Commander James Drew, she capsized near Cape Henlopen in May of 1798 drowning the captain, 35 members of her crew and 12 Spanish prisoners. It was said that the surviving crew members paid for their rooms ashore with gold doubloons which raised speculation about her bounty. Since her sinking, there had been numerous efforts to salvage her and the rumored $500 million cargo she carried, each and every one met by the same tempest winds said to be wielded by the evil sea witch. True to form, she had returned this evening, fully intending to keep her prize.
Crew and photographers held tightly to anything they could as the crane’s 8 cable lines flailed about in the sea. Many of them lost their stomachs to the swell and heaving as the struggle to raise the section of the ship raged on at a grueling rate of one and a half feet per minute to avoid anything washing out. The lines were rigid and taunt, pulling with all their power against the waves that seemed determine to keep a grasp on what lied below. The light of a huge spotlight was fixated on the cables as they continued to rise; the only visible account of the battle as it unfolded. All eyes gazed intently for a sign of the crane’s victory amidst the gnashing teeth of the angry waters.
Suddenly there was the sound of boat horns and distant cheers cutting through the night wind as a hulking blackened mass shown against the spotlight. Having been pulled from its watery grave, the section of the deBraak’s starboard hull was hoisted precariously from the sea and laid to rest once again on its side within the barge. At 10:25 pm, the ship was pulled from the grasp of the Sea Witch and returned to man where it would begin the next chapter of its legacy.
ON THE HIGH SEAS The fabled wealth of millions and water witch that guarded her were only part of the legends and lore that secured her place in Maritime history on the Delaware Coast. The very origins of the ship are obscure and not completely known. It was long believed that the deBraak (Swiss for “The Beagle”) was Dutch built, but an analysis of the hull suggests she was more than likely built in Britain. She sailed against England in the 1780’s under a Dutch flag as part of a Mediterranean squadron out of France. At the end of 1794, she was ordered to escort a convoy to Batavia where she put into Plymouth only to be seized along with 6 other warships by English forces. She was re-rigged with a second mast and outfitted with 24 pound cannons by the Royal Navy to serve as a brig where she would remain on duty under Captain Drew.
Drew had a reputation both professionally and personally as being a shady character. After having an illegitimate child, he ran off to wed an America girl. His first promotion to ship’s captain was almost immediately met with a demotion. With a poor military record, it wasn’t until he was assigned the deBraak that he earned any credibility. They went on to protect the British merchant fleet, surviving a number of naval battles and storms until they were reassigned to escort a group of trade vessels bound for the Delaware Bay. Somewhere near the Azores, the deBraak was ordered to take on what appeared to be a French privateer heading towards the squadron. As it deployed to its task a storm came from out of nowhere causing the ship to lose sight of the convoy. For seven weeks, it disappeared.
While attempting to right its course, the deBraak came across a Spanish ship called the Don Francisco Xavier that was headed to South American with a large cargo of sterling silver. The Don Francisco was a larger ship with a more experienced captain. Drew had been known to have better luck than skill so in a small skirmish that defied the odds, Drew was able to overtake the Spanish vessel and seize its holds. Placing a small number of crew on board, they tied off and began to tow the ship towards the Delaware Bay where they would collect on the Don Francisco’s bounty.
She arrived on May 25, 1798 just hours after the convoy had departed. Intending to replenish his fresh water supply in Lewes, he made for port, the Don Francisco, remained a short distance away. As they sailed closer, they were met by a pilot boat that intended to escort the deBraak into safe channels. Captain Andrew Allen boarded the deBraak and urged Drew to drop his sails; a precaution against looming dark clouds that concerned him. Arrogance and perhaps too much drink led Drew to dismiss the pilot boat’s captain and angrily sent him on his way. Drew supposedly snapped at Allen saying, “You worry about the bottom, and I will handle the spars”. Minutes after the pilot boat cleared the deBraak, a squall set in and an extraordinary gust of wind slammed them with monstrous ferocity.
Before the crew had time to gather their wits and prepare themselves, it was too late.
In preparation for a storm, the hatches were normally covered and sails were pulled in and battened down. This was customary to all sailors during heavy weather porting. When the deBraak had sailed into the Cape, the weather was clear; however anyone who is familiar with Delaware weather knows how quickly that can change. The hatches and deck openings flooded into the lower levels almost immediately and the winds filled her sails, forcefully tipping her on to her side. The ocean crashed over the vessel, sending tons of sea water into her hull along with loose contents that would settle in the submerged half of the ship making it impossible for to right itself. Instantly, the warship became doomed.
Forty seven men, including James Drew and several Spanish prisoners in the hull, were dragged below the churning waves. As she sank, she returned upright, settling at the bottom of the bay, her mast partially visible above the water.
The Don Francisco was unscathed and it is believed to have sailed on with several of the crew to Philadelphia. This was the order that had been given prior, in the event that the two ships would become separated.
THE ATTEMPTS TO SALVAGE
The British Consul in Philadelphia was informed of the disaster and dispatched two salvage brigs to raise the sunken ship. This sparked rumors of treasure since the boat was relatively small and would never again be seaworthy, so why go to all this trouble? It may have been in response to stories of the surviving sailors who were said to have paid for rooms in local hotels with gold doubloons. For some time the ship's mast was visible above the water at low tide so there is also a good chance that some strong swimmers may have been able to dive from boats to scavenge a few things.
The British eventually wrote the De Braak off as a total loss. Over time the mast fell and sands shifted over the wreckage. But now a legend and a question had been created capturing the imagination of treasure seekers for years to come. Was there South American gold still on the wreck at the bottom of Delaware Bay? Over thirty attempts to locate and raise the De Braak would try and fail until that August evening in 1986.
As if being sunk to the bottom of the bay wasn't bad enough, the ship would be further marred by the salvage company. Some observers reported that the salvage team simply threw over board anything that did not look like treasure. The firm was also criticized for their improper disposal of the human remains.
The outcry from the archaeological community led to the enactment of the 1985 federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, which enables states to claim and protect the historical integrity of shipwrecks located up to three nautical miles offshore. Ultimately the state of Delaware was awarded 25% of the salvage and would purchase the rest for $300,000. A section of the hull and over 20,000 artifacts are now on display at the Zwannendael Museum in Lewes. Among them is the ship's original muster roll representing the members of the crew and their home ports.
The rest of the silent collection tells the story of the sailors lives including: china, shoes, a bottle marked "Ketchup", a wig, and a ring belonging to Captain Drew which held an inscription that commemorated the death of his brother who had also been lost to the sea.