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Shipwreck Central: Bay County Could Get Third Preserve

August 26, 2007

By David Angier, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.

Aug. 26–The tugboat E.E. Simpson would come to rest on the sea floor as a harsh wind whipped the waves above her. She landed next to the schooner she was trying to rescue.

“We were helpless and the tug was sinking fast,” Capt. Bennie Rocheblave said in a newspaper interview in October 1929. “Darkness came to add to our danger.”

Now, state and local officials are trying to bring the ship’s story to light by making it an underwater historic preserve. If the Simpson is named a preserve, it would join the Tarpon and Vamar as Bay County’s archeological sites, the most of any county in the state.

“Panama City is sometimes referred to as the wreck diving capital of the United States,” said Roger Smith, state underwater archeologist. “A lot of people come to dive the shipwrecks and artificial reefs in Bay County. Possibly, Miami-Dade is the next most shipwreck-filled county in the state.”

This month, the Bay County Commission adopted a resolution asking the state to add the Simpson to the list of historic preserves.

Smith said the wreck of the Simpson was charted in 1997, when five historic Bay County wrecks were looked at for historic designation. At that time, the Tarpon, a 130-foot steamer that sank in 1937 with the loss of 18 men, was the top site and made it on the registry. In 2003, the Vamar was added. That cargo ship that had been sent with Adm. Richard E. Byrd to Antarctica sank off Mexico Beach in 1942.

Smith said the next step would be for state officials to review all information out of Bay County to decide whether to go forward. That includes steps to be taken locally to preserve the site and create educational material about the Simpson.

“The site has to accessible, it can’t be too deep or too far away,” Smith said. “It has to be in state waters and it has to have a verifiable identification and history. Typically, the local community will organize together and help us to keep it clean and keep it in a state where people will visit it.”

Another step, he said, will be public meetings.

“We need to know from the people in Bay County how this site should be featured,” Smith said.

Doug Hough, the Museum of Man in the Sea executive director, said the Simpson should be a prominent feature of Bay County’s history.

“The Simpson went down trying to save another ship,” he said. “It was doing the best it could for mankind.”

Tugged under

The Simpson was a 58-year-old, 93-foot-long, steam-powered tug owned by the Aiken Tugboat Co. of Pensacola. On Oct. 27, 1929, it was working to free the 65-foot fishing boat Tecumseh from a sandbar near the old pass into St. Andrew Bay at the east end of Shell Island.

Rocheblave couldn’t pry the schooner off the bar and decided to blast a trench using the tug’s propeller. He was trying to free the stranded boat when an inshore wind started to blow and picked up the waves with it.

“The waves began to pound against the sides of the vessel,” Rocheblave told the Pensacola Journal in a story that was reprinted on Oct. 31, 1929, in the Panama City Pilot. “The continued pounding of the waves started her to leaking. Then about three hours later, the wind took off our smokestack. This carried some steam lines with it and allowed the steam to escape.”

Leaking and without power, the Simpson floundered, and her crew of eight grabbed personal items they could before boarding a lifeboat. Rocheblave took his log and time book.

The Simpson settled on the bottom at 25 feet, leaning into the pounding waves.

“This left her open to destruction sooner than ever,” Rocheblave said.

On the lifeboat, the crew struggled against the waves and darkness.

“We had a lantern, but it was of no use,” Rocheblave said. “Then we started to row blindly in the direction we knew to be the shore and reached it.”

They spent a cold night on Shell Island before reaching Panama City the next day.

Tourism sites

This was both Rocheblave’s and the tug’s second brush with disaster. Rocheblave had to abandon a tug in 1918 that was sinking in a hurricane. The Simpson was pushed onshore in Pensacola during a 1906 hurricane.

After the 1929 storm, no trace of the schooner was ever found. Rocheblave guessed the waves had torn her to pieces. The Simpson, however, rested upright a few feet beneath the surface. Her cabin had been washed off and the hull settled somewhat in the sand. In 1979, a vessel hit a submerged object, presumably the Simpson, and sank.

Today, the tug’s bow and midships sit upright on the bottom with about 12 feet of intact bow visible. The boiler is a large feature of the wreck.

Hough said making the Simpson a historic site is “just a matter of completing the program.” He’ll try to organize with state and local officials to lower a plaque onto the wreck. The state also would require an onshore informational site.

The three historic dive sites, Hough said, would be a tourism draw.

“The tourism is not the main reason for doing this, of course, but it is a side benefit,” he said. Hough said preservation is the main reason. “The preservation of the happening. These boats are eventually going to deteriorate. The preservation of the historical happening, that is part of Florida’s history.”

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Copyright (c) 2007, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.

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