Custom House exhibit chronicles the discovery, ID of shipwreck

New London - In 2007, Mark Munro and a dozen scuba friends discovered a shipwreck in 70 feet of water in the middle of Fishers Island Sound.

It took another five years and lots of sleuthing before the wreck was identified as the Phyllis, which was hauling oysters from Stratford to Warren, R.I., in 1936 when it hit a rock and went to the bottom.

"We didn't find anything that identified it. Nothing definitive. But we're 99.9 percent sure it's the Phyllis," Munro said recently as he set up an exhibit at the Custom House Maritime Museum called "Three's the Charm." It chronicles the discovery of the ship and the detective work that went into identifying it and will be on display through Feb. 23.

Among the dinner plates, ship's bells and even a broken silver pocket watch, Munro and his crew could not find the name of the boat on it or anything that identified the wreck. A pile of oyster shells near the wreck offered a clue that it was a possible fishing boat, but that proved to be a dead end.

Then in January 2012, Munro contacted Day reporter Joe Wojtas, who wrote about the wreck and the group's mission to identify it. Almost immediately, John Ruddy, a copy editor at The Day who is also a local history buff, discovered a newspaper clipping from Sept. 24, 1936.

The Phyllis, a 63-foot freighter, sank in 75 feet of water in Fishers Island Sound near the Ram Island gas buoy, according to the article in The Day. It had been hauling oysters to Rhode Island when it hit a rock and began taking on water. The captain and the crew rowed to shore to get help, but the boat sank before they returned. The value of the boat, owned by Charles M. Wakeley, was estimated at $8,000, and the cargo of oysters was worth about $2,000.

Munro, with the help of his sister, who does genealogy work, tracked down the granddaughter of the owner of the boat, Capt. Charles M. Wakeley. Beth Turner, who lives in Stratford, said her grandfather, whom she met only once when she was 2 weeks old, eventually moved to Port Orange, Fla.

The exhibit is so named because it was the third wreck Munro and his fellow divers had discovered in local waters after attending a presentation in 1996 on Side Scan Survey, or SSS data, collected by the United States Geological Survey. The data from the USGS covered eight sites in Long Island Sound.

Munro, who has been diving since 1990, said he had been interested in finding something in Fishers Island Sound. At the Long Island Sound Resource Center, he tried to use a Side Scan Sonar to find wrecks, but the data wasn't detailed enough. In 2002, he purchased his own scanner, but it wasn't until 2005 when he obtained his own digital equipment that he found three shipwrecks in Fishers Island Sound.

Two were not very interesting, he said. The third was an unvisited wreck with all the artifacts intact and now thought to be the Phyllis.

"The third one was the charm," Munro said.

The exhibit features artifacts taken from the underwater site, including a cut glass sugar bowl, a porthole, a horn and part of the rigging called a deadeye. The exhibition also includes underwater photography and a side scan sonar demonstration.

"Three's the Charm" is the first of two exhibitions at the museum this fall featuring local divers. "Maritime Heritage - An Underwater View" will open in November, at a date to be announced, and will run through January. The Southern Connecticut Skin Divers Club and the museum will present a collection of artifacts that represent the collective maritime history from a working seaport. The exhibition also will highlight SECONN's annual Frozen Fin Dive on New Year's Day at Greens Harbor Beach in New London.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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