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Anchor may solve 200-year-old mystery

An artist’s rendering depicts the HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham somewhere in Puget Sound. A group of history hunters believe they have located a lost anchor from the Chatham.  - Watercolor by Steve Mayo/Bellingham Maritime Museum
An artist’s rendering depicts the HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham somewhere in Puget Sound. A group of history hunters believe they have located a lost anchor from the Chatham.
— image credit: Watercolor by Steve Mayo/Bellingham Maritime Museum

Once strong and new, it secured our future. Now rusty and covered in sea life, it will connect us with our past.

Maybe.

Considered by some to be a Holy Grail of Puget Sound archaeology, three men — a commercial diver, an amateur historian and an attorney — believe they have found the fabled lost anchor of Captain George Vancouver’s exploration of the Pacific Northwest more than 200 years ago.

Lying in shallow water along the west side of Whidbey Island, the historic artifact could be recovered by the three-man team that makes up Anchor Ventures LLC within the month.

Thought the only physical proof left behind by the long-ago expedition, the anchor has been a highly sought-after prize by historical groups for years.

Some say its discovery and subsequent recovery will spark international interest and even a legal battle for ownership.

But is this the artifact so many are searching for? While Anchor Ventures believes they have uncovered sufficient evidence to suggest it is, the claim is a matter of some debate.

IN 1791, British Navy Capt. George Vancouver set out on a four-year exploration of the West Coast aboard the 99-foot HMS Discovery.

Accompanying the ship on its history-making voyage was the HMS Chatham, an 80-foot survey brig, and it is from this smaller vessel that the famed anchor was lost. Personal journals and ship logs record the event on June 9, 1792, while navigating an unconfirmed area of Puget Sound.

“We found the tide here extremely rapid and endeavoring to get around a point to a bay in which the Discovery had anchor’d, we were swept to leeward of it with great impetuosity,” wrote Edward Bell, a clerk aboard the Chatham.

“We therefore let go the stream anchor, but in bringing up, such was the force of the tide that we parted the cable. We immediately let go with the bower [anchor] with which we brought up. On trying the tide we found it to be running at a rate of 5 1/2 mph.”

“At slack water we swept for the other anchor but could not get it. After several fruitless attempts to get it we were at last obliged to leave it and join the Discovery.”

FORCED TO give up the anchor as lost, the two ships forged ahead with the historical exploration, leaving behind a mystery that would obsess treasure and history hunters more than two centuries later.

Could it be the same anchor?

“We don’t know if it’s the anchor we’re looking for … it could be absolutely nothing,” said Seattle resident Scott Grimm of Anchor Ventures. “Or it could be an anchor of significance.”

Grimm and his business partners, Doug Monk of Port Angeles and an attorney, formed the limited liability corporation to legally salvage and claim ownership of the lost relic.

The anchor to be recovered, possibly as soon as next week, was found in January 2008 by Monk and the crew of his fishing vessel.

SHIP’S DIVERS were searching the seafloor for sea cucumbers when they discovered a long length of heavy chain. Monk himself dove the site a short time later and located the anchor with one fluke buried beneath a boulder.

The find was officially recorded with the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, or DAHP, in early 2009.

Though the artifact’s monetary value is undetermined, exact location of the anchor is being withheld to prevent looting.

MONK KEPT his discovery a closely guarded secret for six years, bringing in only a few trusted partners and consultants.

He said he has invested more than $100,000 into the recovery project.

“I just wish the thing would be over so I don’t go broke,” Monk said with a laugh.

He’s spent cash documenting the anchor with the state, on historical research, securing ownership rights and navigating Washington state’s lengthy permitting process.

Despite the time and expense invested, competing theories that suggest the anchor is not from the HMS Chatham have only fueled his drive to recover the artifact.

“They said I was wrong so I guess it is an obsession,” Monk said. “I want to prove them wrong.”

GRIMM, A medical equipment salesman with a passion for history, was among the confidants brought in by Monk.

He’s spent years pouring over documents and personal journals and believes many historians were looking for the lost artifact in the wrong place.

“It became very evident the anchor isn’t where they think it is,” he said.

The leading theory is that the HMS Chatham was in the Bellingham channel when the anchor was lost.

The location is thought so certain that the Bellingham Maritime Museum spent years and more than $100,000 attempting to locate the lost piece of history by scouring the area with high-tech marine scanning equipment.

GRIMM SAID he believes clues in the journals point to another location, among them the speed of the current — 5 1/2 mph. Both he and Monk, a long-time mariner, say the current isn’t that fast in the Bellingham channel.

“This boat is not where people think it was,” Grimm said.

Design and shape of the anchor suggest it’s of the right period. Ships didn’t operate regularly in the area where it was discovered until decades later, and the team believes it’s unlikely those later vessels would have used antiquated equipment.

“It just doesn’t make sense that it would be any other anchor,” Grimm said.

SOME, HOWEVER, disagree.

A historian hired by Anchor Ventures concluded the anchor did not belong to the HMS Chatham because the design of the chain wasn’t used until years later.

Grimm said historical records indicate otherwise.

Similarly, Mike Granat, chairman of the Bellingham Maritime Museum, says the shape of the anchor’s fluke is a clear indication it’s from another ship.

A drawing of the anchor’s dimensions submitted to the state depicts a “U” shaped fluke.

Granat says the fluke of the Chatham’s anchor, and all those of the period, were “V” shaped.

“It’s not it,” Granat said. “That [the shape] is the key thing.”

THE DIMENSIONAL drawing submitted to the state was inaccurate and the anchor does indeed have the period’s signature “V” shaped flukes, Grim said.

While Granat said he’s confident that the anchor still lies at the bottom of the Bellingham channel, he welcomes the chance to discuss methodology and the project in general with Anchor Ventures.

“I’m not sure how closely we’d compare notes on location,” Granat said. “There’s no contention — it’s just the nature of these things.”

“They are a mystery.”

Considered a historical treasure, the Chatham’s anchor has captured the imaginations of historians, he said.

“For people who love history, it’s about as good as it gets,” Granat said.

ANCHOR VENTURES is working to secure permits with DAHP and the Department of Natural Resources, or DNR.

A State Environmental Policy Act determination of nonsignificance was issued Jan. 29 by DNR for removal of the anchor from the seafloor.

The public has until Feb. 12 to submit comments on the project.

Stephenie Kramer, assistant state archaeologist with DAHP, said the state has recognized the anchor as a legitimate artifact, as it’s over 50 years old, but whether it once adorned the bow of the Chatham remains to be seen.

“I think the jury is still out on that,” Kramer said.

That question can only be answered once it’s been raised and inspected by experts, she said.

THE ANCHOR will be raised using a series of inflatable bags. The chain will be cut 15 feet from the anchor’s ring, leaving about 85 feet on the bottom, according to the recovery plan.

The operation was originally scheduled for June 9 — 222 years to the day the anchor was lost — but news of the discovery generated by the announced public comment period accelerated those plans. Fearing the artifact might be pilfered by looters, Anchor Ventures applied for emergency permits with the state and hopes to retrieve the anchor as soon as next week.

Once recovered, the anchor will be delivered to a lab at Texas A&M University for conservation and stabilization, a process expected take from one to three years.

DISCOVERY OF the HMS Chatham’s anchor would rank among the top archaeological finds in Puget Sound to date  — “a Holy Grail” of European exploration of Washington, said Rick Castellano, executive director of the Island County Historical Society.

“To have an artifact representative of that period; it’s certainly priceless [historically].”

Granat agrees.

“When it’s found, located and restored, it will be a big deal,” he said.

SOME SPECULATE that discovery of the anchor will spark a local, and even international, debate over ownership.

Anchor Ventures, however, contends the matter is largely settled, claiming legal ownership of the artifact through the courts.

“From our perspective, it’s embedded in state land and we consider it public property,” Kramer said.

Monk acknowledges there is the possibility for future headache, but he doesn’t believe it will be with the state.

Working through federal courts, Monk said both Washington and the British government were given time to make a claim and neither responded, which made the anchor his legal property.

There is still a chance, however, the British Navy could later claim “sovereignty” over the artifact.

“It’s not likely, but they could still come after it,” Monk said.

MONK SAID he is hoping to recoup his financial investment, but maintains that Anchor Ventures’ “full intention is to donate it” to a museum, preferably to one in the Puget Sound area.

“It’s not right to sell it,” he said, though he added that his wife would be “furious” if he didn’t get some of his money back.

Anchor Ventures hopes the issue will be resolved with money earned from a television documentary or donations from interested museums.

However the issue is resolved, he said Anchor Ventures is committed to salvaging the anchor legally.

“We want to do this right,” Monk said. “I could have yanked the thing up myself and put it in my yard. But without the history, it’s just another anchor.”

THE STATE Environmental Policy Act specifically address issues concerning cultural or historical artifacts, said Kramer. For those wanting to weigh in on matters such as the anchor’s final destination and ownership, DNR’s public comment period is their time to do it, she said.

It’s likely that historians will be among those submitting comments.

Castellano said the HMS Chatham’s anchor is the only known physical evidence of Vancouver’s famed exploration. Like the Liberty Bell, its historical value simply can’t be priced.

“An artifact of this importance is beyond monetary value,” Castellano said. “It’s a huge piece of everyone’s history, especially for people in the Northwest.”

 

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