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Anchor of ages believed found off Whidbey Island

An artist’s rendering of the HMS Discovery and the HMS Chatham somewhere in Puget Sound. An anchor was lost during the famous exploration of the Pacific Northwest and a group of history hunters believe they have located the artifact on the west side of Whidbey Island.  - Steve Mayo, Bellingham Maritime Museum, watercolor
An artist’s rendering of the HMS Discovery and the HMS Chatham somewhere in Puget Sound. An anchor was lost during the famous exploration of the Pacific Northwest and a group of history hunters believe they have located the artifact on the west side of Whidbey Island.
— image credit: Steve Mayo, Bellingham Maritime Museum, watercolor

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.

Long ago, somewhere

In 1791, British Navy Captain 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 [pronounced chat-uhm], 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 ½ 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 for 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? Steve Mayo, Bellingham Maritime Museum, drawing | An artist’s rendering of the HMS Chatham’s long-lost 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 personally 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, The Record has agreed not to print its exact location to limit the possibility of it being looted.

Over the past six years, Monk has kept the discovery a closely guarded secret, bringing in only a few trusted partners and consultants. He’s also sunk more than $100,000 into the recovery project.

“I just wish the thing would be over so I don’t go broke,” laughed Monk.

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

But despite the time and expense invested, competing theories that suggest the anchor is not from the 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.”

The boat is not where people think

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 have been 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 Chatham was in the Bellingham channel when the anchor was lost. The location is thought so certain that the Bellingham Maritime Museum has 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.

But Grimm believes clues left behind in journals point to another location, such as the speed of the current — 5 ½ mph. Both he and Monk, a long-time mariner, say the current doesn’t run that fast in the Bellingham channel.

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

The design and shape of the anchor also 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.

But there are some who disagree. A historian consultant hired by Anchor Ventures concluded the anchor did not belong to the Chatham because the design of the attached chain was not used until years later. Grimm disputes the finding, saying 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.”

According to Grimm, the dimensional drawing submitted to the state was inaccurate and the anchor does indeed have the period’s signature “V” shaped flukes.

While Granat remains confident that the anchor is located within the Bellingham channel, he said he would welcome 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 many historians and looking through old records is akin to following clues in a detective novel, he said. But instead of solving a murder, the prize is treasure, at least in the eyes of historians.

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

A mystery until proven otherwise

Anchor Ventures is working to secure permits with DAHP and the Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. A State Environmental Policy Act determination of non-significance was issued by DNR for removal of the anchor from the seafloor on Jan. 29.

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 state’s involvement is to ensure Anchor Ventures takes the appropriate steps to salvage and preserve the anchor, no matter what ship it once belonged to, she said.

According to Anchor Ventures’ work plan submitted with the state, the nearly 9-foot-long anchor rests on a rocky bottom with one fluke buried in sand against a large rock. About 100 feet of chain is still attached to a ring at the top of the shank.

The long-ago crew that lost the anchor did attempt to retrieve it with a “grapple” but the effort failed. It snagged the chain too close to the anchor, “making it unable to pull the anchor with a single line,” according to the work plan.

The grapple remains hooked in the chain to this day, which is another reason Grimm believes it came from the HMS Chatham, as personal journals, such as Bell’s, note the failed recovery attempt.

This is another source of disagreement, however, as Granat claims crews of the period “swept” for the anchor with a chain strung across two ships, not with a grapple. The method was designed to snare one of the flukes, rather than hooking a link of chain.

Whatever the case, 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, the plan outlines.

The operation was 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 has accelerated those plans. Fearing the artifact will be pilfered by looters, Anchor Ventures has applied for emergency permits with the state and hopes to retrieve the anchor as soon as next week.

Once it is safely 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.

From our perspective

According to those who know about and are actively searching for the Chatham’s lost anchor, its discovery will be monumental.

Rick Castellano, executive director of the Island County Historical Society, said it ranks among the top archaeological finds in Puget Sound to date — “a Holy Grail” of European exploration of Washington.

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

Granat echoed the magnitude of such as discovery.

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

Some speculate that it will spark a local, and even international, debate over ownership. Anchor Ventures, however, contends the matter is largely settled, claiming they have secured legal ownership of the artifact through the courts.

But like many aspects of this mystery anchor, it’s a matter of debate.

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

Monk acknowledged 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.

Kramer agreed that some details still need to be resolved before a permit is issued, but ownership is not an immediate concern.

“They seem committed to preserving the historical integrity of the artifact, so as long no one comes along and recovers or damages it, it should be a win-win situation,” Kramer said.

It’s not right to sell it

But what happens after it’s recovered and preserved is at the top of many people’s minds. Will it go to a museum or will it be sold at auction?

Monk is hoping to recover his financial investment, but maintained 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.”

According to Kramer, sections of the State Environmental Policy Act specifically address issues concerning cultural or historical artifacts. For those who want to weigh in on matters such as the anchor’s final location and ownership, DNR’s public comment period is their chance, she said.

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

According to Castellano, the 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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