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ST.THOMAS

BOTTLEDIVERS PORT OF PLENTY
Text& Photos by Dale Sanders

Through history St. Thomas has been a crossroads ofmaritime shipping. First contact came when Columbus anchored offof St. Croix on his second voyage in 1493. During this visitColumbus named the entire group of islands in honor of St. Ursulaand her 11,000 martyred “virgins”. Hence the VirginIslands were claimed by Spain and warred over during the next 200years with the Dutch, English and French. All towards the pursuitof growing sugarcane to distill and bottle rum… a prizedcommodity in Europe during that era.
The French finally won out only to be outdone by the Danes in1671. In 1764 St. Thomas was declared a free port by Danish KingFrederick V. This single event opened the door to trading vesselsof every nation venturing into the Caribbean. From this date tillthe 1850’s (when slavery was abolished curtailing sugar andrum production and the concurrent advent of the steamship) St.Thomas was a bustling seaport, and the bottles which come fromits surrounding waters are testament to these rich times.

 

Doug and Tejo with twin ‘Web’

torpedo’s aboard their boat with

Bolongo Bay in the background

Diving for bottles in the waters around St.Thomas is markedly different from other Caribbean islands. Thediving that occurs in this area is done at locations other thanthe harbor, a distinct contrast to many other islanddestinations. Here in St. Thomas, diving is not allowed in theharbor adjacent to Charlotte Amalie. Consequently, diving forbottles is done in areas where one of several events took placein olden days of yore:

a. Refuge was jettisoned outside the port, of whichbottles were included.
b. Many ships actually anchored just outside ofmajor harbors, and constantly disposed of their waste by simplydiscarding them overboard.
c. Numerous ships havebeen known to capsizethereby unexpectedly dumping their contents overboard. Thisusually occurred due to hitting obstacles, swamping duringhurricanes, or as a result of fluke rogue waves (see headlinesfrom newspaper) also known universally as tsunamis.

Nearby wreck offers divers an underwater

view of marine history

One of the large cruise ships docked in the harbor A view of Charlotte Amalie from the top of the tram..

We had the pleasure of visiting St. Thomasduring the Month of Feb. and were hosted by Bolongo Bay Resortand St. Thomas Diving Club (which is located on property).Bolongo Bay offers an ideal location for visiting bottle divers.It is located just a few miles to the east of the harbor entranceand just north of a submerged area known as Packete Rock. Itsunique location and excellent accommodations, beautiful beach andaccommodating PADI dive operator, make this the property ofchoice for visiting divers in search of bottles.
During our visit we had the fortune to dive with Sigrid“Tejo” and Doug Sprotte both veteran dive instructorsas well as avid bottle collectors. On one of our many dives wetraversed featureless bottom in 60 feet where Tejo came upon twinWebb torpedoes. As the sand was quite deep in this area it wasnoted that many of the bottles that were found came from stingrayholes. These being areas where stingrays have dug into the sandeither to hide themselves or to search for invertebrate marinelife that they feed on. Although the water on most dives here wasfairly clear 50-80’, on one dive late in the day we learnedthe importance of good navigational skills and experienced divemasters. In fact, the only way to do this dive is with aflorescent dive line on a reel (similar to those used in cavediving or wreck penetration). Reason being is that you will needto return to the boats anchor for a safe ascent (as boat trafficin this area is heavy). Other dives during our trip at thislocation yielded: three part mold ales, a German embossed blobtop beer, one half of a ships serving platter with a unicorn andlion crest, a Dutch seltzer water, J. Webbs torpedo, and a rareodd form shear top ink.
There are many other collectors who over time have accumulated aninteresting assortment of bottles. One collector who offered toshow us her collection during our visit was Jeanne Bowen who isthe owner of Dive World located at Coral World at Coki Point.Jeanne recounted several stories of how she has stumbled onbottles just laying in the sand during her many guided dives shehas done over the years. Perhaps her favorite item is that of asmallish Grey Poupon stoneware crock.

Jeanne with some of her collection.   Two bottles found on diving trip.

If you visit St. Thomas you should also plan tospend some time “in town” at Charlotte Amalie which isdirectly in front of historical St. Thomas Harbor. Bottlecollectors will want to visit several sights while visiting thiswaterfront district, such as Fort Christian and its 17thcentury museum and related Danish relics. The S.O.S. MaritimeAntique Shop is also a not to be missed stop, with its diversecollection of bottles, amphoras, and countless historicalrarities. Then stop off at the Shipwreck Tavern to look over theowners private collection while you have a modern day ale orgrog. Lastly, head over to where all the cruise ships dock atParadise Point to take the tramway to the top. Here you will notonly get a dramatic view of the harbor and the nearby areascommon to bottle diving, but you must stop in at the PiratesChest. Bring some cash….as it will he hard to resist some ofthe offerings from these interesting shops.
Another extremely interesting dive offered by St. Thomas DivingClub is that of “Packete Rock”. This coral encrustedmini pinnacle lies directly in front of Bolongo Bay, almost midchannel. Hence, this barely submerged obstacle to navigation hasproduced many a hull scrape or actual sinking. Although there arethought to be numerous wrecks in and around this underwaterformation, it is known that the wreck of the Warick (an1800’s British sailing ship) went down on Packete Rock. Thisvessel commonly traversed this channel during its deliveries ofmail and cargo to this island group before sinking.

(left and right)

Some of the bottles on display at the

S.O.S. Maritime Antique Shop.

Divers who are lucky enough to visit this sighton a calm day will be treated to dramatic color changes createdby the shallower part of the mini sea mount. Upon entering thewater it will be obvious that cargo has been spilled from thehull of one or more ships. Shards of roofing tiles and othermiscellaneous wreckage are scattered everywhere. Soon you arebound to come across cannons, anchors, or ballast stones whichhave become a permanent part of this reef. As this is a knownwreck site current USVI laws restrict the collection ofartifacts. None the less, this is a great shallow dive and awonderful primer to get you ready for hunting in thepseudo-barren sand bottom areas known to produce great bottlefinds. Numerous other great dives are also nearby including moremodern day wrecks, and traditional reefs.
Back on shore, we had an opportunity to have dinner with Doug andTejo at their condo overlooking Bolongo Bay. This invite allowedus to see just how robust their bottle and stoneware collectionreally is. Hundreds of black glass specimens lined theirbookshelves. Interspersed amongst these blown and 3 partspecimens, Doug & Tejo have on display numerous sodas, beers,inks, varietal torpedos, limitless plates, bowls, and cups, aswell as “clay” Dutch wines and pipes. Other findsinclude a few onions, some case gins, and even an amphora! Beyondthis, Doug also allowed me to view and photograph some of hishistorical newspaper clippings. Most notable are the front pagefeatures showing lithos of maritime tragedies.

A view of Bolongo Bay. A few pieces from Doug and Tejo’s collection.

Our host for this trip to explore bottle divingopportunities in the U.S. Virgin Islands were Bolongo Bay resortand St. Thomas Diving Club. Bolongo Bay is situated directly ontheir own private pristine beach, and features 75 ocean frontrooms…as well as a great restaurant. They can be reached bycalling (340) 775-1800. Paul and Richard Doumeng are localowners, who see that all guest have an optimum visit. Paul hasalso collected bottles over the years. The other great thingabout staying here is St. Thomas Diving Club (which is locatedright on property). You are mere steps from the shop or pierwhere they dock their boats. The driving force behind thisdecades old five star PADI operation is Bill Letts. The best wayto contact Bill is by email to simply ask questions or arrange atrip. Bill can be reached at bill2381@viaccess.net whereby he will be happy to arrange a trip anditinerary of interest to individuals or even a small group. GoodHunting!!!!


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