Photo courtesy of the Boynton Beach City Library
By Cheryl Blackerby
Steven Dennison walked out of his home in Briny Breezes on a clear day in January, slipped on his wetsuit and flippers, jumped into the cold Atlantic, and snorkeled north along the coast.
He had no destination in mind, just checking out what Hurricane Sandy’s surge had turned up when it hit Palm Beach County’s east coast in late October.
He was about 350 yards offshore in Ocean Ridge when he saw some debris on the ocean floor and had this thought: “Wouldn’t it be really cool if I found a shipwreck?”
No more than 30 seconds later, he saw a big black object on the sand. “Holy cow, this is huge!” he thought. He stopped swimming, trying to comprehend what was in front of him.
Curiosity compelled him to free-dive down 15 feet to investigate.
His heart pounded when he saw it: The huge bow of a ghostly ship jutting from the sand as if rising from its watery grave.
The hull that had looked black from the surface was reddish-brown close up, covered with marine organisms. He went down and grabbed the bow, and felt the cold metal underneath the barnacles.
He then saw a metal mast, then another mast, and about 200 feet from the bow he could see the stern and the steering mechanism. The hull was still buried underneath the sand.
“I was in the water for a week after that just looking at it,” he said.
As far as anyone can tell, Dennison, 29, may be the first person in modern times to see the Coquimbo, a Norwegian iron-hulled sailing ship that wrecked on the reef Jan. 31, 1909.
“I have been snorkeling in front of Briny Breezes just about all my life and not once did I see this ship until now. At first, I was startled and very hesitant before approaching any closer. It was one of those moments that you know you stumbled upon something amazing, but you aren’t quite sure what to make of it all. I was so excited yet almost scared because I didn’t know what I had found,” Dennison said.
Ship’s first sighting
Historians have known the Coquimbo was out there, and they knew the vicinity. A photo was even taken of it on the reef before it sank.
“We all thought it was probably in pieces buried under the sand,” said Voncile Smith, Boynton Beach historian and vice president of the Boynton Beach Historical Society. Besides Dennison, no one has ever reported seeing the ship as far as she knows.
Roger Smith, state underwater archaeologist, also said there have been no reported sightings of the ship.
The Coquimbo, a barque with two square-rigged masts forward and fore-and-aft sails on the mizzenmast, was carrying a full load of pine lumber from Gulfport, Miss., to Buenos Aires, according to historian and author Janet DeVries, who has researched the Coquimbo and who lived in Boynton Beach for 20 years.
After it struck the reef, the Coquimbo’s foghorn blasts woke up guests at Major Nathan Boynton’s oceanfront Boynton Beach hotel, and all 15 crewmembers, most from Norway, were rescued.
“The hotel did not extend its accommodations to the crew, and they spent the next two months camped on the beach in makeshift tents created from the ship’s sails,” Smith wrote in an article for the Historian, the society’s publication.
The ship, built in 1876 in Glasgow, Scotland, was 204 feet by 33 feet by 21 feet, DeVries said. She found a news story in the Ocala Evening Star, published few days after the wreck, that noted “the vessel is resting easy on the sand. The ocean is quiet and there is no danger yet.”
Several storms’ battering waves finally sank the ship in May of that year and lumber floated to shore, a boon for local builders. Dynamite was used to blow the top deck and liberate the rest of the lumber from the hold, and Dennison said he could see the flare in the metal from the explosion.
The ship’s Norwegian captain, I. Clausen, put an auction notice in the Miami Metropolis newspaper: “On March 30th, 1909, the wreck of the Norwegian bark Coquimbo, stranded off Boynton Beach, with her rigging and apparel, the cargo of lumber in her hold, sundry tackle, stores and provisions now brought ashore on the beach will be sold at public auction to the highest bidders. The auction will be held on the beach opposite to where the ship now lies.” Many buildings in Boynton Beach were constructed of the lumber, which included 4-by-4s, 4-by-10s, and 6-by-12s, some nearly 30 feet long.
Nels Peterson, the cabin boy on the ship, brought the ship’s bell on shore, according to an account of the ship written by James Hartly Nichols, historian at the Boynton Beach City Library in the 1970s. The bell was transferred to the steeple of the original First Methodist Church, and after the building was demolished, the bell was given to St. Paul’s AME Church.
350 yards offshore
The ship is due east of Corrine Street and the steps to the beach, about 350 yards from shore in 15 to 17 feet of water, when Dennison found it. The steps line up with the bow, which faces north. After Dennison made his discovery, he contacted his friend Joe Masterson, who founded Marine Archaeological Research and Conservation group. Masterson has documented and filmed other Florida shipwrecks including the Loftus, submerged about a half-mile north of the Boynton Inlet, for the Florida Division of Historical Resources. The Loftus is an iron-hulled barque very similar to the Coquimbo, and when Masterson saw the Coquimbo it looked eerily familiar. “I spoke to another archeologist, and to his knowledge no one alive today has seen the Coquimbo wreckage,” said Masterson, who lives in Briny Breezes. “Sandy threw tremendous amount of sand around and uncovered it.” Masterson measured the ship, videotaped it, then contacted the state and the local historical societies and Roger Smith, who recorded the ship’s discovery in the archaeology files in Tallahassee.
“Much of the Coquimbo’s history is similar to that of the Loftus, which was also carrying lumber when it went down. There was only a 40-year window for that kind of ship, which disappeared once the steam engine was invented,” said Masterson.
The ship’s structure is almost identical to the Loftus, he said. Both are about 225 feet long. “But we found only two of the three masts on the Coquimbo,” said Masterson.
“It was really cool,” said Dennison. “We went with a 100-foot tape and measured. We just spent the whole day on it.”
Dennison moved to Hobe Sound in April, but still found time to snorkel out to the ship. His parents, Bruce and Caryn Dennison, and grandparents, Chuck and Betty Foland, live in Briny Breezes in the winter. Dennison grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., but visited Briny Breezes frequently. He walked on Briny’s beach on his first birthday.
He was laid off his job as a technology teacher at a Syracuse high school, and is now studying physical therapy at Broward College.
Dennison has taken his wife, Elizabeth, to the Coquimbo so she could see what he was so excited about.
He is still amazed by that day in January. “It was so eerie, just swimming along and it was kind of boring, then suddenly this huge, huge, enormous black thing. And I immediately had in mind it was a ship no one knew about. It was one of those days you dream about.”
Dennison told a friend of his, a pilot, about the ship, and the pilot said he could see it from the air.
But that might not be for long, Dennison thought at the time. Sand was already shifting over the ship.
“It’s more than likely that in the near future the Coquimbo will be buried by sand again, Dennison said in mid-April.
On April 25, Dennison happened to be driving by Briny Beezes and on the spur of the moment stopped his car near the wreck, and swam out to see the ship — his ship.
And the Coquimbo was gone.
There was no trace of it. He had GPS’ed the site and there was no mistake. The ship was again buried by sand with not even a bump on the flat ocean floor.
The Coquimbo had made a three-month appearance after 104 years and had vanished again.
Looking at the stretch of drifting sand, which suddenly looked like an endless desert, he thought, “I may never see it again.”
The Coquimbo won’t make another appearance unless there’s a storm with Sandy’s unique “giant swells that sucked the sand out like a vacuum,” he said.
“It’s a reminder that the ocean patterns are changing constantly and if you see something once you may not see it again.” He’s glad he spent so much time on the ship, swimming out at least 30 times.
But shifting sand could mean another possibility, he said: “Now I wonder what else lies several feet beneath the sand. Only a good storm will tell.”