2013-07-04 / Community

Hunt for shipwreck lands in Fairport

Locals wrapped up in quest for the ‘Griffin’

FAIRPORT, Mich. (AP) – Commercial fisherman Larry Barbeau’s comings and goings usually don’t create much of a stir in this windswept Lake Michigan outpost, but in the past few days, his phone jangles the minute he arrives home.

Barbeau’s 46-foot boat is the offshore nerve center for an expedition seeking the underwater grave of the Griffin, the first ship of European design to traverse the upper Great Lakes. Built on orders of legendary French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de la Salle, it ventured from Niagara Falls to Lake Michigan’s Green Bay but disappeared during its return in 1679.

Divers and scientists who combed a section of northern Lake Michigan for the 17th century shipwreck have retrieved a nearly 20-foot-long wooden beam that could belong to the long-lost Griffin, expedition leaders said recently.

U.S. and French experts insist it is too early to say whether there’s a shipwreck — let alone the Griffin. But anticipation is building at the prospect of solving a maritime puzzle that’s more than three centuries old.

“After we get done for the day, everybody calls or comes to the house and they’re like, ‘What did you find? What did you see? Can you tell me anything?’” Barbeau said in a recent interview aboard his ship, the Viking, which holds crucial expedition equipment, including

“umbilical” cables that supply oxygen to divers. “People are really interested and they’re excited to see what it is.”

His neighbors aren’t the only curious ones. The roughly 40-member expedition team consists of archaeologists, historians, boat pilots, divers, an underwater salvage crew and assorted helpers. When not on the water, they stay in cottages and tents by the lake in the unincorporated village of Fairport, in one of the most remote corners of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Some are relatives or longtime friends of mission chief Steve Libert, who has sought the ship for three decades. While researching the Griffin long ago, Libert ran across Mike Behrens, a Milwaukee sheet-metal worker whose grandfather had searched the lake for chests of gold that legend says smugglers lost during the Civil War.

“I came up here one year to witness what Steve was doing, and I asked if I could dive with him,” said Behrens, 54. “Been doing it ever since. … I’ve never met anyone as good at research as him, and he’s a very ethical guy. If he says it’s the Griffin, I absolutely believe him.”

Others have come aboard more recently, including three archaeologists from France.

The hands-on excavation work is being handled by a three-man crew from Great Lakes Diving and Salvage, a Michigan company that ordinarily deals with mundane tasks: repairing pumps or scraping zebra mussels off intake pipes.

“We’re basically underwater janitors,” said Tom Gouin, vice president of operations. The Griffin, he said, is “like a play job for us. We’re loving it.”

The team has had to adjust its strategy, as the excavation is proving to be a bigger-than-expected challenge.

Sonar scans in years past had suggested that an object similar to the Griffin’s reputed size rested about 2 feet beneath the lake floor. Libert’s team removed the beam from the lake last week but waited to announce it until arrangements for its safekeeping were completed, said Ken Vrana, the expedition’s project manager. Crews lifted the heavy object onto a commercial fishing boat and hauled it to shore, then loaded it into a refrigerated truck for transport to a safe location, Libert said. It was wrapped in protective cloth and kept wet.

“It’s not a smoking gun,” Vrana said. “It could have come from other early wooden sailing vessels. But based on architectural drawings, overall length, construction details ... we cannot rule out this piece as being from the Griffin.”

Libert bumped into the beam during a 2001 dive and battled the state of Michigan in court over custody of what he suspected was buried wreckage. After finally securing state and federal permits to excavate in the area, his organization dug a deep pit at the base of the timber but found nothing except bedrock. The beam, they learned, was simply wedged in hard-packed, clay-like mud.

Even so, the French archaeologists who inspected the timber said it appeared to be a bowsprit — a spur or pole that extends from a vessel’s stem — that was hundreds of years old. Libert said he believes the rest of the Griffin is nearby and plans to resume his search but needs to raise more money first. He says he’s spent more than $1 million on his lengthy quest and the cost of last week’s privately financed mission was “six figures.”

In the meantime, the timber is being stored in a safe place, Libert said. He wouldn’t reveal the location but said it’s submerged in cold water and a chemical solution recommended by Rob Reedy, an underwater archaeologist and specialist in preserving shipwreck artifacts.

Vrana said the team is preparing a proposal to the state Department of Natural Resources for experts to study the beam in hopes of determining its age and where the tree from which it was hewn originated.

Libert disputes the DNR’s contention that the state owns shipwrecks embedded in Great Lakes bottomlands within its jurisdiction. But the two sides agreed the timber would be on loan to the expedition team for 30 days.

“We did this as an interim measure, to give us time to talk to them about what kind of testing and conservation comes next,” said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center, the DNR office that issued the excavation permit. She said she still wasn’t convinced the timber was part of the Griffin or any other shipwreck.

Libert said he wants to redo a sonar scan that previously indicated the presence of an object field buried near the timber. As it turned out, the readings apparently picked up a thick layer of mussel shells and sediment layers. But if re-calibrated to penetrate the mussels, the sub-bottom profile might detect a buried deck or hull, he said.

“That area is definitely a shipwreck site,” he said. “There probably will be another expedition going out before summer’s end to do more probing.”

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Editor’s Note: AP Correspondent John Flesher is embedded with members of the Great Lakes Exploration Group, which is searching for remains of the Griffin in northern Lake Michigan. He is filing periodic updates on the search progress.

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