Four underwater technicians aboard a tiny bubble-cockpit submarine yesterday recovered the distinctive four-fluked anchor from the 120-year-old wreck of the USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Eddying Gulf Stream currents and high seas foiled a similar effort last week.
The 1,300-pound anchor, largest artifact ever recovered from the historic Civil War ironclad, bobbed to the surface shortly before 10 a.m., according to William N. Still Jr., professor of history at East Carolina University and a trustee of the Monitor Research and Recovery Foundation.
Still said the anchor and six feet of growth-encrusted chain appeared to be in excellent condition as they were hoisted safely aboard the oceanographic research vessel R/V Johnson 16 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras.
The anchor and chain will be kept bathed in seawater pending their arrival at East Carolina's archeological preservation laboratories in Greenville, N.C., later this week, Still said. Subsequent plans for their display have yet to be announced.
Yesterday's effort was a last-ditch bid to salvage a five-day archeological expedition frustrated by bad weather and technical difficulties last week.
Despite murky visibility underwater and intermittent rough seas above, diver-archeologists located the Monitor's anchor and severed its chain but had to abandon it Thursday on the ocean floor 220 feet down.
The R/V Johnson and its 23-foot-long submarine, the Johnson Sea Link I, had been scheduled to move on from the Monitor site Saturday to perform a fish population survey nearby for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which funded most of the $98,700 expedition and administers both the fisheries service and the marine sanctuary in which the Monitor lies, arranged Friday to return the ship and sub briefly to the Monitor site yesterday if weather improved.
It did. Sunday night when the Johnson arrived back on the wreck site seas had moderated substantially. By 7:30 a.m. yesterday, when the sub was launched, they were less than two feet.
Manipulating the submarine's articulated arms in the flood-lit gloom of 36 fathoms, pilot Tim Askew attached a 1,000-pound capacity and a 2,000-pound capacity lift bags of nylon-like fabric to the anchor and inflated the two bags with an air hose.
A similar maneuver last week ended in frustration when a single lift bag unexplainedly burst. The two bags held yesterday and carried the anchor aloft.
Like the Monitor itself, whose flush decks, screw propeller and rotating turret revolutionized naval warfare, the anchor was designed by John Ericsson, a Swedish-born engineer and inventor of extraordinary brilliance and volcanic temperament.
Bolted together from pieces of forged wrought iron, it consisted of four arms or flukes instead of the traditional two, somewhat like an underwater grappling hook.
It was four feet across and designed to fit the ironclad's distinctive anchor well, which permitted crewmen to drop and weigh anchor from below deck, out of sight and danger of enemy guns.
Archeologists hope that by comparing it with Ericsson's drawings they can learn more about the ship that saved the Union blockade and, some historians argue, the Union itself.
Built in 100 days to counter the doomsday threat of the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly the Merrimack) the Monitor was assembled so fast many of Ericsson's drawings for it were lost in the process and others bear the smudged fingerprints of harried workmen.
"The drawings tell us what Ericsson wanted but we know that wasn't always what he got," Gordon Watts, chief archeologist of the Monitor project said last week.
Further confusion about the ship has arisen over the years with the discovery of often contradictory blueprints drawn or commissioned by European military observers after the Monitor's historic battle against the Virginia on March 9, 1862, in Hampton Roads.
"By comparing the anchor against its drawings we hope to get an idea how close the final ship was to what we know of Ericsson's design," Watts said.
To historians the anchor may be more valued as a symbol of the last desperate minutes before the Monitor sank in a gale off Cape Hatteras, Dec. 31, l862.
Overwhelmed by heavy seas while under tow by the paddlewheel battleship Rhode Island to blockade duty at Beaufort, N.C., the ironclad was shipping water faster than her pumps could discharge it, when anxious crewmen loosed the anchor to steady the foundering vessel until the Rhode Island's boats could arrive to save them.
Forty-six of the 62-man crew made it to safety, but the other 16 went down with the vessel or were swept out to sea and never found. One crewman, seasick and bereft of hope, was last reported staggering to his bunk with a bottle of champagne.