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Ryan Piurek
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Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

IUB research team explores Gold Rush-era shipwreck on Northern California coast

Team to be featured as part of History Channel documentary

EDITORS: Some images of the Frolic project are available at the Point Cabrillo Web site at http://www.pointcabrillo.org. Those interested in high-resolution images and video of the Frolic project should contact dive team member Sean Bradley at 812-855-4270 or sepbradl @indiana.edu.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On a foggy July night in 1850, the Frolic, a majestic Baltimore clipper en route from Hong Kong to San Francisco, collided with a rocky reef off the treacherous Mendocino, Calif., coastline. The ship and its valuable cargo of Chinese household goods sank, but the door to California's untapped North Coast and its vast reserves of redwood had swung wide open.

More than a century and a half later, a team from Indiana University Bloomington, including Charles Beeker, director of the Underwater Science Program in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, and four IUB students, traveled across the country to direct the underwater field research on one of California's most important Gold Rush-era shipwrecks.

Beeker and his students, Sean Bradley, Jaime Brown, Mikel Esher and Adam Gutwein, wrapped up work on a two-week underwater mapping project on Aug. 8. The team and its findings will be featured on an hour-long History Channel documentary on the Frolic, which is scheduled to air Nov. 11 as part of a new series, Deep Sea Detective.

The Frolic and its cargo, which was worth approximately $150,000, crashed into the Mendocino coast on July 25, 1850, at the north end of what is now the Point Cabrillo Light Station and Preserve (about 100 miles north of San Francisco). Had the Frolic arrived routinely in San Francisco, California's North Coast might have escaped development for years. Instead, the region became a commercial hot-spot and a lumberman's dream.

Beeker, who has led several years of shipwreck research in California, served as underwater park specialist for the Frolic project and was part of a dive team that included several prominent maritime archeologists and students from both IUB and East Carolina University. Together, the team explored and mapped the remains of the Frolic from July 28 to Aug. 8.

The team made several discoveries, including significant remains of the ship's hull and a new (for 1850) technology that was found unassembled in the cargo section of the vessel: a troutman-type anchor that included an unusual kind of chain called "stud-link." Beeker said that, prior to the discovery, he had no evidence that such stud construction existed before 1855. "Today, right on our 1850 Frolic, we're rewriting maritime history," he wrote in his daily dive journal.

Over the two weeks, the team battled the cold and remote Pacific waters, rocks and big surges, but Beeker said the conditions were far better than expected. The team hoped to complete, at most, four days of diving, but were able to double that amount. "The weather has been very good for this coastline," he said, "and we completed eight full days of diving."

For Beeker's students, who will continue to work on the data, video, photos and illustrations compiled at the Frolic site, it was a thrilling experience. It was also an opportunity to research a historic site that had an enormous impact on California's culture and history. In their dive journals, which are posted at http://www.mcn.org/1/pointcabrillo/dailydivejrn.html, the students discussed their own involvement with the project, the challenges they faced, their overall experience and their impressions of the local community, which was highly supportive of the team's research efforts.

In his own journal, Beeker, a pioneer in underwater park development in Florida, California and the Caribbean, discussed his hopes for the preservation of the Frolic. He said he believes that all of the elements are in place to turn the cove where the ship is buried into an underwater state park, which would protect the site through state oversight, return actual relics or replicas, and allow visitors to experience an historic shipwreck from the same year California became a state.

To learn more about the Frolic dive project, go to http://www.mcn.org/1/pointcabrillo.

To speak to Charles Beeker or the IUB students involved in the project, contact Ryan Piurek at 812-855-5393 or rpiurek@indiana.edu.