Class is in session, on wreck and under water

The USS Ticonderoga was transformed into a modern-day classroom last week as a group of scientists tried to further its knowledge of nautical archaeology.

A half dozen students and their instructors climbed aboard the ship — perhaps the first time in 200 years the schooner has been boarded — to explore how boats were constructed along Lake Champlain during the 19th century and to work on skills above water, they’ll need when they go below water.

The students were a group of anthropologists, archaeologists and other interested people from New York, Chicago, Texas, Canada and elsewhere who are enrolled in an underwater nautical archaeology course offered by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vt.

“We are trying to pass along the skills necessary to document a boat under water,” said Chris Sabick, a nautical archaeologist and director of conservation with the museum’s research institute. “This is the perfect place to learn those skills above water before actually going under water.”

The course is a rigorous two-week program that offers a mix of both academic instruction and hands-on underwater archaeological research that exposes participants to traditional methods of documentation and to cutting-edge technology.

Alex Lehning, a conservation technician and coordinator of the museum’s field school, said students split their time between the classroom and the field.

The program, which has been “rebooted” by museum staff and will be offered annually, began last Monday and will continue through the end of this week.

Students learn about the history of Lake Champlain, how to document artifacts and ships under water, and the ethical and legal issues involved with the field of underwater archaeology.

 

First week

The first week included class time and field work, including documentation of the USS Ticonderoga.

Last Wednesday, students climbed on, over and under the ship, feverishly jotting down measurements taken with tape measures and a goniometer, a device which Sabick describes as an “underwater carpenter’s level,” and is used to measure angles.

“We’re basically gathering all the information you would need to build a model of the ship,” said Chris Barron, a college graduate from Chicago who was hoping to further his education by enrolling in the program.

“The end result of what we are doing is a draft or drawing of the ship,” said Sabick.

This week the students were scheduled to do many of the same things they did last week, this time underneath the water.

“We’re actually going to spend time diving on Lake Champlain and they will apply some of the lessons they’ve learned,” said Lehning.

He said the methods used underwater are similar to those used above water, just with the added challenge of poor visibility and the inability to talk.

Lehning said the USS Ticonderoga is an ideal teaching tool for the sort of skills the students are trying to learn.

“It’s the absolute perfect learning environment because it’s an actual wreck,” Lehning said. “They’ll use and apply some of the same ideas and principles under water.

“And it ties into a lot of the educational components we are using at the museum in celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This is an actual ship that people served and died aboard during the Battle of Plattsburgh.”

 

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