2016 Fieldwork finishes on Christmas Island – now its off to Cocos Keeling Island.

We are now reasonably confident that the lost 1724 Dutch ship Fortuyn does not lie between 0-30 metres in the water off Christmas Island. We have re-run the priority areas on the south-west side of the island with a more sensitive magnetometer (for detecting magnetic iron objects such as anchors and cannon) than we employed in 2015. Divers have visually inspected all of the promising anomalies without seeing cultural material. Some of the anomalies have been discounted because they appear to have been affected by the magnetic basalt rock forming the core of the island.

Christmas Island is fringed with a thick underwater coral platform. Its width varies and most of it slopes gently before curving steeply downward into the depths.

A 500 ton, 35-metre long Dutch ship named the Vice Admiraal Rijk was lost on the south-west side of the island in 1852. Three men survived, managing to scale the cliffs and living ashore on raw seabirds for 57 days before being rescued by another passing ship. One of the three men left a detailed account of the wreck and his experience on the island. Around midnight the ship crashed onto the cliffs on the north side of the south-west point, breaking a large hole in the bow before turning out from the cliffs and immediately sinking entirely below the waves, with all sails still set.

We regard the Vice Admiraal Rijk as a useful model for assessing what would have happened to the Fortuyn if it struck the south-west coast. So we placed a major focus on inspecting the north side of the south-west point, carrying out a visual inspection of the anomalies and then swimming abreast along the coral platform. We saw no wreckage.

The coral covering on the Eisvold, a 1942 shipwreck elsewhere on the island, is up to 0.5 metres thick, and coral would be expected to conceal smaller cultural objects on a wreck on south-west point. However, if the Vice Admiraal Rijk had broken up on the platform we should have seen objects such as large anchors protruding above the coral. Much of the platform there is only around 50 metres wide, with a vertical dropoff into some 90 metres water depth. The Vice Admiraal Rijk must have slipped over the precipice without first breaking up.

Our theorising, about whether a vessel striking the cliffs would break up against the cliffs or bounce back from the cliffs and slide off the platform into deep water, was based on accounts of the sinking in 2010, near Flying Fish Cove, of the asylum boat SIEV 221. Residents saw that that vessel was trapped between the swells and the backwash, in a ‘washing machine’ effect.

At the south-west point we saw a lot of small pieces of plastic bags suspended in the water column – plastic brought from Indonesia on southerly water currents, then trapped close to the cliffs in the washing machine effect. It appears then, that the washing machine would trap small items such as plastic bags, and even a medium sized object such as the SIEV 221 (a light wooden fishing vessel probably under 20 metres), but not such a large object as the 35-metre hull of the Vice Admiraal Rijk. If the 500 ton, 35 metre Admiraal Rijk could escape the washing machine, then it is all the more likely that the 800 ton, 44-metre Fortuyn would have slid over the precipice into the depths, well beyond the 30-metres depth limit of our search.

This conclusion does not affect our theory that the Fortuyn struck Christmas Island. It remains possible but unlikely that the Fortuyn foundered in the open sea. It was described as a mast-carrying ship, which could make it less stable in a heavy storm, and because some of the vessels in the fleet were carrying large amounts of gunpowder when they left Amsterdam it is possible that an explosion occurred on the Fortuyn. It is also possible but unlikely that the reported longitude for the floating wreckage was some 800 kilometres in error and that the Fortuyn wreck lies at the Cocos Keeling Islands. We will in the coming week investigate this possibility.

A vessel travelling two weeks behind the Fortuyn reported seeing floating wreckage from the Fortuyn 260 kilometres south of Christmas island. It remains most likely that the Fortuyn, like the Vice Admiraal Rijk, struck the south-west side of Christmas Island, and that flotsam from the Fortuyn wreck was carried 260 kilometres southward by the currents. The archaeological survey indicates that like the Vice Admiraal Rijk the Fortuyn wreck lies in water more than 30 metres deep. Our Wreck Check search team has not come to Christmas Island prepared for searching in that depth – such a search would more appropriately be carried out by an aircraft equipped with a magnetometer or an autonomous underwater vehicle. Wreck Check will explore the possibilities of conducting such a search through 2016.

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