WESTERLY, R.I. — For two centuries it rested a mile from shore, shrouded by a treacherous reef from the pleasure boaters and beachgoers who frequent New England's southern coast.
Now, researchers from the U.S. Navy are hoping to confirm what the men who discovered the wreck believe: that the sunken ship off the coast of Rhode Island is the USS Revenge, commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry and lost on a stormy January day in 1811.
"The Revenge was forgotten; it became a footnote," said Charlie Buffum, a brewery owner from Stonington, Conn., who found the shipwreck while diving with friend Craig Harger. "We are very confident this is it."
On Wednesday, Buffum and Harger braved the raw weather of Block Island Sound to accompany the researchers as they surveyed the wreck site. The Navy, along with help from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is using high-tech sensor equipment to locate artifacts that might prove the ship's identity.
If they're successful, they will illuminate a critical episode in the life of one of the nation's greatest naval officers. Perry is remembered as the Hero of Lake Erie for defeating the British navy in the War of 1812. He was famous for reporting simply "we have met the enemy and they are ours" after the decisive Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.
Two years earlier, the Revenge and its 25-year-old commander were en route from Newport, R.I. to New London, Conn., when the ship hit a reef in heavy fog. Perry ordered the crew to dump some of the ship's canons to lighten the load. The mast was cut. But it wasn't enough to free the ship.
The crew abandoned the Revenge, and not a single man died. But Perry's career was nearly scuttled with his ship. The Newport native was court-martialed, and though he was cleared, his career languished. Until he was posted to the Great Lakes.
"If it is the USS Revenge, then it's 200 years old and it's an incredibly important part of American history," said George Schwarz, an underwater archaeologist with the Navy's History and Heritage Command, which oversees the identification and management of sunken naval vessels.
On Wednesday, Schwarz and engineers from Woods Hole used a torpedo-shaped underwater robot to survey the wreck site. Once they have analyzed the data, they hope to return with divers to search for artifacts that might bear the ship's name or other evidence of its identity.