Local divers hoping to confirm their discovery is in fact the Revenge

Stonington - A Navy research boat and staff from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts accompanied local divers Charlie Buffum and Craig Harger Tuesday to explore what they believe is the 201-year-old wreck of the Oliver Hazard Perry ship the Revenge, which the two men say they have discovered on Watch Hill Reef.

The Navy vessel, led by Buffum's boat, left the Wadawanuck Club dock in the borough at 8 a.m. on a two-day expedition to survey the wreck site using a sophisticated autonomous underwater vehicle from Woods Hole that is equipped with sonar, a magnetometer and a video camera.

George Schwarz, an underwater archaeologist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, said the goal of the trip is not only to use the AUV to map the wreck site but to possibly expand the site by locating nearby pieces of the ship as well. He said divers would return at a later date to explore the site and a subsequent archaeological investigation would determine whether the vessel is indeed the Revenge.

If it is the Revenge, the location would be deemed a protected U.S. Navy site and no artifacts could be removed.

While the wreck sits on the rocky reef, Schwarz said, it is possible that the ballast could be pinning some of the hull to the bottom. For someone who studies early wooden shipbuilding and nautical archaeology, he added, the prospect of exploring a 201-year-old vessel is very interesting.

Buffum, who owns Cottrell Brewing in Pawcatuck, and Harger, who lives in Colchester, have spent six years looking for the Revenge and exploring the wreck. They said they have been looking forward to the trip that could confirm that the ship is in fact the Revenge.

"It's been a long time coming but it's been a fun process. We hoped to do this in the warmer months but we'll take what we can get. The people from Woods Hole said the robot doesn't care how cold it is," said Buffum, whose brewery recently released Perry's Revenge Ale to celebrate the discovery.

Still, Tuesday's calm, clear conditions offered excellent visibility for the group, especially since the wreck sits in just 10 feet of water.

"We're just tour guides," said Harger. "We'll show them where it is. We have as much experience on that reef as anyone, we dive it so much."

So far they have found six cannons as well as an anchor. But because the wreck could belong to the Navy, the two men have not salvaged any items.

The Revenge was a 14-gun schooner that sank on the reef off Watch Hill on Jan. 8, 1811, while surveying southern New England harbors, including New London.

Perry faced a court martial over the wreck but eventually was exonerated, and blame then fell on the ship's pilot. Because of the incident, however, the formerly fast-rising captain could not get command of a ship battling the British along the Eastern seaboard. He had to settle for the less glamorous position of commanding a fleet of warships in the Great Lakes.

Under Perry's command in 1813, that fleet defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, a major naval confrontation during the War of 1812.

Aboard Perry's ship, the USS Lawrence in Lake Erie, was a battle flag bearing the now-famous saying, "Don't give up the ship." The battle is seen as a turning point in the war and helped change the course of U.S. history.

In his post-battle report to his superiors, Perry wrote another saying that is now famous: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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