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The January Wreck: Trove of Treasures

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Early in the fall of 1980, Captain Dennis Bogan invited George Hoffman to investigate a small wreck south of Manasquan Inlet. Bogan’s grandfather had discovered the site in the early 1930s. Dennis became more interested in this and other such sites after becoming a certified diver. Already familiar with much larger well-known sites, he became curious about his family’s scroll of smaller secret sites. Bogan’s grandfather and his descendants had been in the fishing business since the turn of the last century. Dennis conveyed the story to Hoffman of how the little wreck was discovered. He expounded that his grandfather had happened upon the wreck by accident, when he noticed a thick school of fish splashing on the surface. Dennis recanted how many sites were found in the same way, when virgin fishing grounds decorated the coastline. George Hoffman was a distinguished New Jersey dive boat captain. For that reason, Bogan sought out his friendship and valued insight. Hoffman’s legendary diving exploits led to the discovery of numerous wrecks along the coast. Bogan would benefit through his guidance and Hoffman would nourish this new kinship to become privy to a fleet of virgin Bogan family wrecks.   

By Gene Peterson

This relationship compensated Hoffman with many new wrecks, and the first day of their joint venture proved to be distinctly rewarding. On a chilly fall weekday, they sailed out of Manasquan Inlet on the party boat Paramount. The voyage was barely a secretive excursion in the hundred-foot vessel. Perhaps Bogan assumed, the routine of his daily fishing journeys would conceal the clandestine mission in searching for a virgin dive site. The Bogan family fleet, Jamaica and the Paramount were familiar sites making daily fishing jaunts off the coast. A keen observer may have noticed the skeleton crew consisted only of Hoffman, his loyal mate Carl Fenton and a deck hand as the large vessel passed beyond the sea wall. After passing the jetty, Captain Dennis steered south and shortly reached the first set of coordinates. He and Captain George starred at the scanner as a small edge rose slightly off the bottom. Bogan hesitated in anchoring, but Hoffman was convinced it was a worthy mark. A large Danforth was dropped ahead of the position and a grapnel was lowered directly into the snag hooking the debris. The trip was scheduled to be a look and see only, but as fate would dictate, the day escalated into the most notable of Hoffman and Bogan’s joint searches.

The mate tied off the anchor and secured the tether tenuously held into the debris below. Carl Fenton leaped off the high bow and landed in the briny sea swimming down a line to secure the hook. Fenton soon ascended proclaiming they were in wreckage and returned to the boat. Bogan and Hoffman wasted little time leaping in and sinking to a stack of outstretched wood beams. George immediately knew this was a fortuitous venture as the outline of the small wooden ship appeared in the white sand. He waited at the grapnel for Dennis to descend, hovering over the tiny wreck scanning the remains. In the pristine visibility, the outline of the wreck appeared. Hoffman saw no boilers and felt it was very small schooner. It was less than 70 feet in length, about half the size of the party boat anchored over it. Enthusiastic over the discovery, Hoffman had to contain his emotions to objectively access the remains. Uniting with Bogan, they finned to the mid-section of the wreck. Fanning the sand with just a few the waves of a hand, he uncovered some small decorative relics just beneath the silt. George was ecstatic, but this was just the tip of the iceberg. Much more treasure lay buried deep beneath years of accumulating sand and concretion.

Some of the first discoveries included elaborate lantern pieces, a small bell and a fancy dragon’s head cane top. To George, the ornamental nature of the finds made the wreck unlike anything he had dived before. As Dennis returned to the anchor, he swam to a shadow lying just off a small debris field in the stern. There he knelt and fanned an outline of a short pipe like silhouette. The form immediately grasped his attention. It was heavy brass, tapered, and the end was rounded with no opening. As he pried under the narrow end, the three-foot-long object popped free from the protective suction. Unmistakably, the elongated form now revealed its identity. “A cannon!” he shouted to himself, loud enough that even through his regulator, George hovering over his shoulder, could hear his exclamations. Hoffman recognized the significance of the find and at once marked the piece with his hundred-pound lift bag. Together both divers dragged the heavy treasure over to the boat’s grapple line. Unprepared to lift the prized find properly, George secured it to the wreck and signaled for Dennis to ascend with him. Dennis hesitated to leave the valuable piece of artillery but did so knowing that Hoffman was an expert at recovery, and he must have had a good reason to leave the find. Back on the Paramount, both divers rejoiced in their luck, but their job was not done. George explained that they needed to secure a line from the boat, switch to a larger two- hundred-pound bag, and then they could safely raise the heavy cannon to the surface. George realized that if the bag sank due to a misfortunate event such as a steep wave or leaky bag, they could retrace the line from the boat back to the cannon. In the past, overzealous divers have lost grand artifacts by shooting untethered bags to the surface, only to have them drift out of sight and sink in unsearchable waters. Hoffman was too smart a diver to allow this to happen, especially to a once in a lifetime discovery, such as a brass cannon. However, this little wreck would yield many more, unparalleled discoveries in next few months.

Hoffman’s expertise prevailed. The cannon recovery went smoothly without a hitch. This small signal cannon served on vessels for warnings in fog and for protection when necessary. Now it clarified his persistence as a wreck hunter. The wreck would prove to be the highlight of Captain Hoffman’s well touted career. This day’s events remained a secret for months and for good reason. Due to the decorative discoveries including the cannon and a fancy dragon head, Hoffman believed this may be a treasure ship. To discuss the find would invite piracy of the coveted location. The fall offered only a few more opportunities to return to the location. Hoffman knew all too well his competition would jump at the chance to find any virgin site, much less a bountiful wreck like this. He would never go back to the wreck on a good weather weekend day and he would not sit on the wreck in such an advertisement like the Bogan’s massive Paramount. He waited, and under the veil of secrecy, he picked his days, but the opportunities remained scant.

As a dive coordinator for the Dive Shop of New Jersey, I stayed in close contact with Captain George Hoffman. Over the years, he gained a respect and trust for the group of divers I had gathered to dive with him. This kindled a mutual friendship and regard. He trusted my discretion when chartering his boat, the Sea Lion. To put it in George’s words, “There were wreck divers and then there were tourists.” The Sea Lion was not a boat for tourists. I was privy to some incidentals of his secret wreck and over the next few months he made a commitment to take my group there. He stressed his great concerns of being caught on the wreck. To avoid the risk of being detected, he insisted that we wait until the bitter winter had forced all his competitors to drydock. “January”, George promised we would make our first attempt to dive the mystery wreck. This may seem overprotective and covert, but Hoffman had been caught on some of his special wrecks before and had become all too cautious after losing good lobster haunts. His secret wreck was no lobster snag. This was a barrel of future charter money and possibly a real treasure trove.

One noted wreck George had lost was the Bonanza, his favorite lobster wreck. Hoffman nicknamed it the Bonanza, because of the plentiful number of large lobster captured on the first trips and thereafter. On one such trip to the wreck, unbeknownst to him, a small fishing boat passing by made note of the Sea Lion anchored over his confidential spot. Shortly thereafter, the fisherman passed the location on to Captain Ray Ettel of the legendary White Star from Barnegat Light. Ettel also took out divers, in fact specifically chartered by the Dive Shop of New Jersey. Ironically, Ettel took the charter out to the wreck on the same day that George had taken his group there. The White Star was already anchored on the site as the Sea Lion steamed up to what George thought was his own private hunting ground. Hoffman had a temper; I bore witness to his outbursts, where chairs flew out of his wheelhouse and he stamped his feet. Hoffman’s fury erupted. He radioed Ettel curiously, questioning his being there. George and Ray were friends, but Hoffman was furious discovering the White Star brazenly moored over his precious site. As the conversation continued, Hoffman’s temperature began to drop as he licked his wounds. George finally asked Ray what he called the wreck? The sharp-witted Captain Ray tactfully replied. “I call it George’s Secret Wreck”. The radio deadened…   

As winters go, November, December 1980, and January 1981 were viciously cold and wet. Hoffman and his mates had to shovel snow and break ice off the Sea Lion twice to prevent it from capsizing at the dock. Furthermore, the wind relentlessly prevailed. Despite the bad weather in November, George had managed to get out to the site once more with a handful of his mates. This weekday trip unearthed another significant find, a sextant, plus some silver spoons, and china. George provided me with just enough details to lengthen the waiting list. The sextant, another once in a lifetime discovery added fuel to the fire. Yet, the harsh weather continued. After months of discouragement, the weekly phone calls to George and prospective divers stagnated with obscure discussions of the election of Reagan, the Iran hostages release, and football. The Eagles lost the Super Bowl and now divers were eager to roll off the couch. While others sensibly hung their fins and traded them for ski boots, this group of wreck diving addicts remained anxious to get in the water. It was late February, the long-awaited day finally arrived. The cold bit through our outerwear as we waited for the mates to crank up the diesel. After a short procession of equipment loading, we gathered around the stove below deck to ward off the chill. George barked out the familiar order “Cut me loose.” Carl Fenton hung up the icy dock lines and we plowed out of the slip.

The day started with a frozen intake line to the head, which to the delight of the heavy coffee drinkers, was remedied with a few capfuls of antifreeze. Soon we rounded the south rock jetty and cruised through the mottled seas toward the little wreck. Within an hour we were over the site. John Moyer and I prepared for the dive strapping on our heavy weight belts, double tanks, and the further burden of tools, and lights. Others were doing the same as the Styrofoam cup floated to the surface indicating the mate had secured the hook. Together we plunged over the rail. As we descended, the outline of the small wreck appeared. Others were fanning out in a collaborated effort seeking a spot to dig and blow a century of camouflaging sand off the wreck. Creative divers reversed their scooters, wedged themselves up against the wreckage and blasted away sand effectively. This scooter technique was used for the first time, in the past, to unveil the Brunette. After digging up doorknobs, keys, locks, bottles, powder horns, and hardware, divers soon realized the tool was extremely productive. The digging technique was used on the “January Wreck”, as it became known. George’s promise to go there that January stuck, even though we did not actually make it there until late February. The wreck lies on its port side and one can quickly cover the limited length of the disintegrated hull. I moved methodically along the contagious pile of timbers, fanning by hand looking for dark muck. From past experiences, I knew this was where decomposing materials protected cargo and personal items. Swimming along the bottom, I pulled up a loose teak deck grate, a brass lock, a dish, and a silver spoon. As I moved from point to point, I kept digging and searching. I stumbled over a spot where the deck laid horizontal with the bottom. As I gently feathered the floor, a sparkling gold coin rolled out. The moment was surreal, as a euphoric condition induced me. Carefully, I tucked the glistening coin inside my glove. As I continued to fan as another appeared and then a few more; I had to catch my breath. The limits of time, cold and air narrowed my search to a halt. It was chilly on the bottom and remained so during the long hang. Enduring the long painful decompression in the winter water, I was warmed by the jubilation of the discovery that my numb fingers clutched in my mitt. John Moyer decompressed by my side aware of my elation, but not able to understand what had just transpired. I could hardly wait to confide with him privately on the boat.

Onboard, a few divers gathered in the back of the boat showing their finds. My deck grate amused them as they displayed their bottles, spoons, cups, and collections. When they spurned my grate, I realized the irony of their touts. In my mitt I held a divers most prized recovery, treasure, gold coins. I bit my tongue, knowing what would occur if I revealed my secret. Carefully I put my mitt down on the bench and started to take off my gear. Moyer ascended the ladder, he intuitively questioned me about my dive. “What have you found? You can’t be this excited about that broken old grate? My expression must have been a tell. Before I could get out of my gear completely and grab the mitt, fellow diver, Don Stone, knocked my mitt off the bench making room for Moyer to break down his gear. Unable to react in time, he picked up the mitt. With the boat clogged with curious divers, Stone shook the mitt, clinking the coins inside. Noticing the sudden conflagration of bodies pushing to the back deck, Hoffman came out of the wheelhouse and stood next to me. “What’s in the mitt Peterson?” I could not deflect George’s inquiry. I reluctantly opened the mitt and out rolled the double eagles. All on the deck, shouted enthusiastically “GOLD!”. George reach out his hand and congratulated me saying “Good grab, partner.” I figured this was going to happen. It was his wreck; his boat, and he had hinted this mutual understanding to all before the find. If anything of significant value was discovered, the captain was privy to a share. Hoffman figured this was just the beginning of the cornucopia.

During the surface interval, it was difficult to fend off the pirates demanding the booty location. They soon became impatient waiting for me to enter the water and set out on their own. After all the divers had finally splashed, I waited anxiously, hoping to enter when their time, gas, and warmth diminished. When I finally got in, they were waiting at the bottom of the anchor line. Like sharks chasing a bleeding fish, they followed me. I managed to bait the claim jumpers to a worthless patch of real estate. There I fanned the sand as a congregation of dive lights began to hover. Soon they were digging and scratching in a frenzy. As the cloud of silt thickened, I fled in the fogbank to my secret cache. Moyer had naively swum to the exact spot of my discovery. His foggy mask allowed me to dig another coin right out from under him. I elbowed him and exhibited the find to his chagrin. As the boat cruised back to the dock, George insisted we go back to his house and discuss the business of our newly formed partnership. Moyer and I sat at George’s kitchen table where the coins were laid out. George placed a bottle of Yukon Jack on the table and gingerly dispensed the spirit into three shot glasses. “Let’s toast boys”. He started. “To more good days like this.” As we sipped, he exclaimed “This is good stuff.” He continued. “A couple shots of this and you’ll slap your mother”. I have little recollection of the discussion afterwards. Within the next few days, George had the coins graded and a fair trade was made between the two of us.

As the months passed, the identity of the wreck was discovered when some chards of glass were pieced together. The last four letters of a window glass spelled out K I N S. This information was passed on to diver and historian Eric Garay. Eric researched through his micro files of wreck data and found a name and a location. The Francis Perkins appeared to be the conclusive match. The “Francis Perkins” was a pilot vessel which foundered on January 24, 1887. The schooner Francis Perkins was built in Green Point NY in 1876. She was 78 feet long had only a 20-foot beam and displaced 52 tons. On January 24, 1887 this ornately decorated pilot boat foundered in a heavy seas. A lifeboat with two was lost in the surf after escaping from the inundated sailboat. Rigging and sails were torn from the hull and weeks later washed up onshore.

After the gold discovery, news soon spread among the local wreck diving community. Pioneer diver, Norman Lichtman hired George Hoffman’s boat and put together a commercial salvage team to work the wreck in the early spring. The Sea Lion was loaded with recovery equipment, including surface supplied hard hats, compressors, an air lift, and dredging equipment. Some interesting finds included false teeth, deadeyes, portholes, several large serving platters, dishes, cups, silverware, an ornate boat hook and a few dozen silver coins. As a part of the team I set up a dredge and an airlift on the wreck to mine the site. The continuous flow of bottom growth made an effective chum slick drawing bluefish and curious sharks. A few mako sharks chased divers from the water throughout the operation. Fortunately, when wearing a commercial dive helmet, much of your vision is precluded. I knew there was something amiss during one of my dives, when my safety diver disappeared. When a big shark is touring, your surface coms goes silent. Topsiders figure you might bail out of your required decompression. An alarming episode occurred when Dennis Bogan was chased back to the boat. He barely made it up the ladder as a curious mako passed behind him. Only a few more coins were dredged during the operation, due to poor weather and the escalating shark activity.

The secret location of the January wreck was short lived. Hoffman’s rival, Captain Charlie Stratton of the Bottom Time nailed the Sea Lion over the wreck on a weekday afternoon that August. Hoffman cursed a smokey wooden boat cruising toward us. Stratton stacked all the dive tanks on one side of his boat giving it a familiar tilt when motoring across the water. The silhouette was unmistakable. Captain George wanted to pull the hook, but John Dudas was still hanging at his ten-foot stop. Stratton circled, stopping his boat abeam of the Sea Lion. Opening his window, Stratton gazed out his window with binoculars and then dramatically wrote down the loran numbers. He did this on both sides of our position, while George helplessly stewed.

Now that the wreck was no longer a secret, other dive boats made weekly excursions to the sight. Another group made efforts to salvage the Perkins as late as the 1990’s. An exhausting attempt was made to mine more gold without success. Further efforts failed to produce the quantity of booty recovered by the original groups. Currently, Captain Al Pyatak of the Sea Lion, still runs trips to the January Wreck. Over the years, I have been back to the Francis Perkins a handful of times. There, buried beneath the sand are many memories and still the possibility of a lost treasure. Perhaps some lucky diver will happen upon the right spot and find the real bonanza.