Hidden wonders: Storms expose historic ships in New Jersey waters

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New Jersey's coastline is marked by hundreds of wrecked ships, many of which still lie underwater and occasionally reappear after storms.

News 12 New Jersey’s Brian Donohue says that after some of the recent nor’easters, he found a 28-foot-long piece of timber with large iron spikes on the beach in Lavallette. Dive maps show a 1880s wreck right offshore there, so Donohue suspected that the wood came from that ship. He consulted two New Jersey historians who confirmed that the wood was likely off that shipwreck.

But then Stockton University professor of underwater archeology Steven Nagywcz told Donohue about an even more remarkable find a little further south of Lavallette. Nagywcz pointed Donohue to the home of Atlantic County resident Gary Cantell who was in possession of the keel of a Revolutionary War-era schooner.

Cantell told Donohue that he first saw it show up last year in the creek behind his house in Port Republic - the sight of the Battle of Chestnut Neck in 1778, where the British sunk dozens of ships to combat American privateers who were wreaking havoc with their supply lines. He says that with each passing nor’easter, he noticed the keel moving, exposing more of itself.

“My son and I were on the back porch and we're looking at this board and I said, ‘What do you think that board is?’ He said, ‘You want that board?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do,’” says Cantell.

Cantell recruited his daughter’s boyfriend to go out into the river to help bring the keel on to land.

“We were only going out five months at the time and I was like, ‘I gotta impress this guy,’” says Brian Klein.

Klein and Cantell’s daughter Amanda were able to get the keel out of the mud.

“Before you knew, it was spanning the whole thing…We had to get the paddleboard to float it. It was waterlogged, it was nuts,” Amanda says.

Several historians have since examined the find and have confirmed that it is a keel from a 1700s schooner - very likely one from an American pirate vessel that was destroyed by the British back in 1778.

Cantell’s wife Vicki says that she credits her husband for helping to expose the area’s history.

“If it wasn't for his excitement and his persistence, this thing would still be in the mud and no one would know about it,” she says.

The ship keel is currently on display in the family's driveway. Cantell says he is preserving it with linseed oil and other measures with the advice of scientists and preservationists who are helping with the effort.

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