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[Historical photo above - Permission granted from the owner: Steve Priske/Tall Ships of San Francisco.]

scale of item found near shipwreck

NOAA maritime archaeologist holding a folding ruler near a large deadeye, part of the standing rigging. (Photo: Kelly Gleason, National Marine Sanctuary Program)
By Matt Dozier
National Marine Sanctuary Program

On a recent two-week mission to explore the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a team of NOAA scientists uncovered clues that may have solved the mystery of an unidentified shipwreck first discovered at French Frigate Shoals in 2005. Based on data gathered during the expedition, researchers have deduced that the vessel, a 19th-century wooden sailing ship, is most likely the four-masted schooner Churchill, which sank in the area in 1917.

While the identity of the ship has not yet been determined conclusively, diagnostic artifacts at the site - including parts of the windlass, three large iron anchors, and numerous blocks and rigging components - appear consistent with the 178-foot, 600-ton Churchill’s size and design. National Marine Sanctuary Program staff are currently working to analyze the evidence and provide a positive identification of the wreck, which was initially discovered by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division in October 2005. 

The Churchill, which is the best candidate from the list of known ship losses in the area, was built in North Bend, Ore., and launched in April 1900 by shipwright Asa Meade Simpson. Large wooden schooners were the economic mainstay of American shipping between the Civil War period and World War I. 

The Churchill was carrying a cargo of copra (the dried meat or nut of the coconut) from Nukualofa, Tonga, to Seattle, Wash., when she ran aground on a reef at French Frigate Shoals on Sept. 27, 1917. All members of her 12-man crew were rescued by a nearby vessel. Subsequently, the Churchill’s crew filed affidavits charging Captain Charles Granzow with the intentional destruction of the ship. The captain was later arrested on charges of espionage.

diver hovering over mystery ship wreck

NOAA maritime archaeologist hovers over the rigging and bow portion of an unidentified wooden sailing vessel wreck at French Frigate Shoals. (Photo: Tane Casserley, National Marine Sanctuary Program)

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