SYRACUSE, N.Y. - A 22-gun British warship that sank during the American Revolution and has long been regarded as one of the Holy Grail shipwrecks in the Great Lakes has been discovered at the bottom of Lake Ontario, astonishingly well preserved in the cold, deep water, explorers announced yesterday.
Shipwreck enthusiasts Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville used side-scanning sonar and an unmanned submersible to locate the HMS Ontario, which was lost with barely a trace and as many as 130 people aboard during a gale in 1780.
The 80-foot sloop of war is the oldest shipwreck and the only fully intact British warship ever found in the Great Lakes, Scoville and Kennard said.
"To have a Revolutionary War vessel that's practically intact is unbelievable," said Canadian author Arthur Britton Smith, whose 1997 book "The Legend of the Lake" chronicled the history of the HMS Ontario. "It's an archaeological miracle."
The finders of the wreck said they regard it as a war grave and have no plans to raise it or remove any of its artifacts. They said the ship is still considered the property of the British Admiralty.
Although the vessel sits in an area where the water is up to 500 feet deep and cannot be reached by anyone but the most experienced divers, Kennard and Scoville declined to give its exact location, saying only that it was found off the southern shore.
The sloop was discovered resting partially on its side, with two masts extending more than 70 feet above the lake bottom.
"Usually when ships go down in big storms, they get beat up quite a bit," Scoville said. "They don't sink nice and square. This went down in a huge storm, and it still managed to stay intact. There are even two windows that aren't broken. Just going down, the pressure difference, can break the windows. It's a beautiful ship."
Smith, who was shown underwater video of the find, said: "If it wasn't for the zebra mussels, she looks like she only sunk last week."
The dark, cold freshwater acts as a perfect preservative, Smith said. At that depth, there is no light and no oxygen to hasten decomposition, and little marine life to feed on the wood.
The Ontario went down on Oct. 31, 1780, with a garrison of 60 British soldiers, a crew of about 40, mostly Canadians, and possibly about 30 American war prisoners.
The warship had been launched only five months earlier and was used to ferry troops and supplies along upstate New York's frontier.
Although it was the biggest British ship on the Great Lakes at the time, it never saw battle, Smith said.
After the ship disappeared, the British conducted a sweeping search but tried to keep the sinking secret from General George Washington's troops because of the blow to the British defenses.
Explorers have been searching for the Ontario for decades, and there have been numerous false finds over the years, said Eric Bloomquist, interpretative programs manager at Old Fort Niagara.
Kennard - an electrical engineer who has been diving for nearly 40 years and has found more than 200 wrecks in the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, the Finger Lakes, and in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers - began searching for the Ontario 35 years ago but quit after several frustrating and fruitless years.
After locating the wreck with the sonar, the explorers used the submersible to confirm their find, documenting their discovery with more than 80 minutes of underwater video.
A rare feature that helped identify the ship: the two crow's nests on each mast. Another was the decoratively carved scroll bow stem. The explorers also found two cannons, two anchors and the ship's bell.
The clincher was the quarter galleries on either side of the stern - a kind of balcony with windows typically placed on the sides of the stern-castle, a high, tower-like structure at the back of a ship that housed the officers' quarters.
Kennard said he and his partner have gathered enough video that it will not be necessary to return to the site. He added that they hope to make a documentary about the discovery.