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Frank A. Palmer

The Frank A. Palmer collided with the Louise B. Crary and both sank together on December 10, 1902 as the two enormous coal ships were transporting much-needed coal to Boston during a hard winter.  Poor seamanship on the part of the Crary's first mate was reported to have caused the accident.  The Palmer is believed to be the largest 4-masted schooner ever built at 274 ft. in length, with a beam of 43 ft.  Similarly sized, the 5-masted Crary's bow plowed into the Palmer's port bow and the two ships sank almost immediately.  Of the 21 crew on both ships, 6 were lost during the collision and the remaining seamen escaped in one of the Palmers lifeboats.  The lifeboat drifted for 4 days during which time 5 additional men died from exposure.

The location of the wrecks was discovered by John Fish and Arnold Carr of American Underwater Search and Survey within the Stellwagen Bank Underwater National Marine Sanctuary.  The sanctuary has since performed several surveys of the two wrecks with ROVs, but has kept the location of the wrecks a closely guarded secret.

I determined the probable location of the wrecks a year ago, but at the time wasn't prepared for the logistics of a dive to 365FSW out in the Bank.  However, after working our way through several wrecks and many dives in the 300FSW range, Slav Mlch and I decided to give it a go in 2007.  An exploratory trip in July showed us the expected "double bump" on the bottom finder, and after getting Tom Huff and Dave Faye (esquire) on board with a couple deep practice dives on the Augustus Snow, we headed out to dive the Palmer.  We chose the Palmer first based on the wonderful videos of the stern section collected by the NOAA team, but felt we'd be lucky to just drop the shot line near the wreck the first time around.  Stellwagen rules do not permit tying into the wreck, so we used a live-boating method we perfected for the project with Doug Currier on the Donna III. 

The first dive on the Palmer was better than any one of us had dared to hope.  Visibility was cave-like, very dark but with visual range limited only by the reach of our HID lights.  The line had dropped perfectly just outside the starboard rail near the aft loading hatch.  The ship appears in relatively good shape, and with much less marine growth than we're used to seeing on wrecks nearer to shore.  This may in part be due to the depth, but more likely is due to more exposure to currents in this area.  Damage to the ship is significant as with most other wrecks in the area, the result of 100 years of fishing nets which were prevalent on or around the wreck.  With Slav as my buddy, I swam aft, and we immediately saw the remnants of a storage area with plates, pitchers, and dinnerware stacked neatly in the remains of a cabinet.  Further aft, I spotted a lone clay jug and recognized it from the ROV video - at that point I knew we had dropped right next to the captains cabin area and I shone my light up to illuminate the broken iron ships wheel still in place.  My guess is that the dinnerware was originally part of the captain's pantry. We explored the aft section of the wreck thoroughly using the memory of the ROV footage to guide us to the remaining identifiable items including the sink and head. 

The lower deck immediately beneath the captain's cabin is heavily silted in and will likely limit any exploration in that area.  Just forward of the remains of the aft mast, the open cargo hatch shows coal loaded to within a foot of the deck.  A large manual winch lies tilted on the port side of the ship, appearing as two large ships wheels linked with a narrow drum.  The visibility on this dive was so good that from the stern of the wreck, the strobes left on the line appeared as pin-pricks of light as they flashed - far different from the normal unfocused light they produce in cloudy water. It was very hard to leave after only 20 minutes, but the long decompression times required and the cold water limit these dives. Run times varied on our dives to the Palmer from 140-150 minutes for us open circuit types, to 160 minutes plus for Tom and Dave with CCR and constant PO2.

A separate dive on the bow showed that end of the wreck to be swathed in fishing nets making identification of items difficult, but many pieces of the ship's rigging are scattered throughout this area, including large sections of the spars. On all subsequent dives the visibility was more typical of the area (20 - 30 ft.).

This wreck, and the forever-linked Crary are truly fantastic wreck dives and the best New England has to offer in wooden ships.  The sheer size of these ships is incredible, and they are in relatively excellent condition for salt water wrecks. While it's extremely hard for us wreck divers to pass over the wonderful artifacts we see everywhere, the Stellwagen rules do ensure they'll be there for the next team of divers that comes down for a look.

 

 

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