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 The mystery in Durban Harbour, Female shipwreck sleuth
Antipodean Andy
Posted: Oct 19 2009, 11:42 PM

I think I've broken the avatar upload!

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Found this a very, very cool story. A modern-day mystery wreck and an intrepid investigator.

Shipwreck sleuth Vanessa Maitland likes nothing better than a mystery, and getting to the bottom of something for her means real deep research.

Maitland is a maritime archaeologist and when the ocean finally looks like giving up some of its secrets, she is called in to don her diving suit and investigate.

The Agatha Christie of the deep might not have uncovered the stuff of boys' adventure novels like pirated gold coins, but what she finds is much more important, she said.

"The treasure is the information you get," she said.

Fathoming a mystery might take her years, but as she put it, "it is not the destination, but the voyage that counts".

Maitland was called in recently after a mystery shipwreck was detected during dredging operations to widen and deepen the entrance to Durban harbour, which will enable the bigger ships of the future to get into the port.

A side scan sonar survey showed the shape of the vessel - it is about 52m by 11,5m - and placed the "magnetic anomaly" 1,18km from the north breakwater.

Divers working on the harbour project alerted the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) and it, in turn, called in Maitland to prepare a report.

With the wreck lying in the shipping channel, it was difficult for her to get a good diving window to investigate.

But eventually, she was able to carry out a 37-minute dive between incoming ships, diving 18m in the murky waters which had been churned up by two big ships that had just passed over the site.

Visibility was down to a mere 2m.

Based on what she saw and on her subsequent research, Maitland was able to identify the wreck as an iron or steel riveted steam-powered vessel, dating between 1890 and 1950, the latter era being when manufacturers began welding ships.

"The whole thing is there, but is fragmented and there are chunks of metal all over the place," she said.

It is damaged and had been subjected to "extreme force", which may be because the boiler burst. A mass of tangled brass pipes, probably from the boiler, was retrieved and identified. Brass pipes should be enclosed in the boiler, she said in her report.

On the other hand, the ship could have been scuttled, but in bygone days this generally happened about 6km off the coast in deep water, or off the Bluff in 60m of water. Ships were not scuttled nowadays, she said.

"This shipwreck should not have been so close to the harbour," she said.

She also found old stud-link chains, which she believes came from the ship.

There were several artefacts - bottles, wiring, piping, steel plates - and estuarine molluscs on some of the retrieved objects. But because the wreck lies in the shipping channel, she put much of it down to marine refuse from other shipping.

There are no clues about the wreck on any relevant databases and Maitland says that "the apparent lack of historical records of a wreck in this position makes the site intriguing from a historical perspective".

The vessel's name, what happened to it, and how long it has been hidden in the entrance channel as countless thousands of ships passed over, remain a mystery. But these are some of the riddles that Maitland hopes to solve.

As the wreck is a potential hazard to modern shipping, she recommended that it be removed under archaeological supervision and Sahra has now given the go-ahead for this to be done.

This will have to be carefully done to try to find out as much about the ship as possible.

"Such sites are like crime scenes. You have to be careful not to disturb them too much, because you can really change the answers to the mystery," she explained.

Asked who the wreck belonged to, she said it was to the people of South Africa.

The wreck has been officially named "Anomaly 27" until the original name can be established.

With an honours degree in archaeology from Witwatersrand University, Maitland has always had a passion for shipwrecks.

Six years ago, she was asked to investigate a wreck lying in the river mouth where the Ngqura Harbour was being built in Port Elizabeth.

It, too, posed a hazard to navigation almost 100 years to the day since it went down.

Unbelievably, she was eventually able to bring up a piece of the hull which had the name of the ship imprinted on it.

It was called the County of Pembroke, a merchant sailing ship built in England in 1881 and shipwrecked in 1903.

Maitland was able to establish that a cabin boy, Able Seaman William Hughes, had lost his life when he was washed overboard as the ship went down. Everyone else survived.

Maitland's artist mother, Charlotte Firbank-King, painted a picture of the ship for her daughter and it now takes pride of place in her Durban North home.

Posted: Oct 24 2009, 01:10 AM

Special Projects Director
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Way too small to be the SS Waratah. Great story!
Posted: Oct 24 2009, 03:54 AM

Philosopher, Pirate, Poet, Poseidon & The Admiral

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Hmmm....A female Marine Archaeologist.... could be a character based on her experiences would be fodder for another one of Dr. C's new adventure series...... And an author would be needed who has some talent... maybe, just maybe it could be me.....hmmmmm..... s18.gif pirate.gif wave.gif
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