The fisherman was diving near Whidbey Island gathering sea cucumbers when his air hose snagged on a massive object jutting from the muck at the bottom of Puget Sound.
Doug Monk followed his hose back until he reached a barnacle-encrusted hunk of metal as tall as him. It was the massive arm of an old ship’s anchor.
Since stumbling upon the 9-foot-long anchor in January 2008, Monk and a group of amateur sleuths have argued with historians, scoured books and explorers’ journals, unearthed centuries-old patents and British court documents and asked the U.S. government’s weather experts to recreate 18th-century currents.
They’ve come to believe that what Monk found is one of the most sought-after relics of European exploration in the Pacific Northwest: an anchor lost in 1792 from the ship that accompanied Capt. George Vancouver during his famed foray into Puget Sound aboard HMS Discovery.
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Conventional wisdom suggests they are wrong, and no one will be able to say for certain until their team carefully excavates the anchor this spring. They hope to have it tested by experts at Texas A & M University.
But after years of detective work and quiet wrestling with skeptics, the men have finally convinced some noted authorities that they might, in fact, be right.
“I’ve looked at their images and their analysis, and they make a very compelling case,” said James Delgado, who oversees maritime history for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and led archaeological mapping of the Titanic wreck site. “If it does turn out to be from that voyage, it’s a very significant find.”
Monk and amateur historian Scott Grimm believe they’ve uncovered a 900-pound stream anchor that broke free in heavy currents on June 9, 1792, from the HMS Chatham. The Chatham was an armed tender to Vancouver’s ship Discovery and eventually would be captained by Peter Puget.
The size, shape and style of the anchor suggest it’s at least two centuries old. And the loss of the Chatham’s anchor was described in logbooks and journals by a half-dozen members of the voyage.
But inconsistencies in the record have made it difficult to ferret out precisely where the Chatham was at the time.
For decades, most historians have presumed the anchor was probably lost in Bellingham Channel off Cypress Island.
But the anchor Monk found was lodged nearly 30 miles away, on the northwest side of Whidbey Island.
“Over the years we talked to a lot of people, and it was hard to get a lot of positive responses,” Monk said.
Even a Canadian historian they hired to review their work suggested the anchor could not be from the Chatham. But Monk and Grimm just kept digging.
Link to earlier times
The present Northwest is still inescapably tied to Vancouver’s five-year journey to Washington state. It was Vancouver himself who plucked the names of some of the 145 or so members of his expedition — as well as his own and those of several old friends — and attached them to Northwest landmarks: Whidbey, Puget, Rainier, Hood, Baker, Vashon.
Not surprisingly, historians and maritime enthusiasts, with varying degrees of obsessiveness, have wondered about and sought after the Chatham’s prize for years.
“In some ways, lost anchors are right up there with place names on the land — tangible links to earlier times,” Delgado said.
Some have spent thousands of dollars looking for it in Bellingham Channel. Most probably still believe it’s there, said Northwest historian Richard Blumenthal, who has studied logbooks from Vancouver’s expedition and has edited books of his own about the journey.
“I would have staked my life on the fact that it was in Bellingham Channel,” Blumenthal said. “But Scott is absolutely convinced and he has made a credible argument. It’s becoming tough to argue with his logic.”
Here’s why: Vancouver’s ships sailed into Puget Sound in early May, exploring all the way down to Olympia. On the return trip north they intended to head to a bay west of Anacortes.
But days after Vancouver, in early June, formally laid claim to all he saw on behalf of the British crown, the ships hit strong currents. The journals indicate Discovery headed north. But where was the Chatham?
Some journal entries suggest the ships were together on the night the anchor broke. But Grimm noticed the language in several journals was identical — suggesting sailors were copying each other’s notes, probably at a later date. So he started emphasizing the journals written by the Chatham’s crew — the eyewitnesses — and ignoring those written aboard Discovery.
He examined the ships’ logged compass bearings. And he wrote to weather experts at NOAA and asked if they could look back in time and determine currents for that night in Bellingham Channel and for the area northwest of Whidbey.
When taken together, all that information suggested to Grimm the ships were many miles apart.
“At this point, everybody has assumed the Chatham was still traveling with Discovery,” Grimm said. “But they weren’t together.”
There were other problems, too. A length of chain found attached to the anchor appeared to be of a type not patented until the early 1800s. So Grimm sent a friend in London to the patent office and the courts. He found a legal challenge involving the patent holder that argued the style of chain had been in common use for decades before being patented.
Delgado, at NOAA, was impressed.
“They did some good detective work,” Delgado said. “They thought way outside the box.”
Grimm, who lives in Magnolia and makes his living as a medical-device salesman, readily agrees he’s become a bit obsessed. He’s studied the shape and size of the anchors and reviewed all the other possible voyages to see if their find could be from another journey.
“I’ve probably done 800 or 900 hours of analysis on this thing,” he said. “I’d be up until 4 a.m. drawing these things out on the charts.”
After years of people’s hunting through Bellingham Channel, Blumenthal suggests one of the best pieces of evidence in favor of Monk and Grimm is the anchor itself.
“They indeed found an anchor that fits the description of the anchor lost at that time,” he said.
It’s still possible this anchor could be from another journey, from a fur-trading ship that came through and left no record or from an expedition that never described losing an anchor, Delgado said. It’s nearly impossible at this point to say for certain.
So they are in the final stages of getting a permit to retrieve the anchor. Later this spring they hope to haul it up and preserve it, and have experts clean it and scan for markings.
“For 100 years people have been looking for this thing,” Grimm said. “It was discovered by pure accident. That’s the real story — that the history was screwed up. I want to correct the history books.”
Grimm admits that if he and Monk are somehow proven wrong or if more analysis proves inconclusive, he would be greatly disappointed. But he doesn’t think that will happen.
And if it did, that would leave an even greater mystery.
“Would it break my heart? Sure,” Grimm said. “But it would still beg the question. How did an 18th-century anchor get there? What’s it from? And where’s the Chatham’s?”
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @craigawelch