SAN FRANCISCO, NOV. 10 -- The well-preserved wreck of the Somers, the scandal-wracked U.S. Navy vessel that inspired Herman Melville's novel "Billy Budd," has been discovered off Veracruz, Mexico.

The find has been kept a secret since June 1986 to preserve the vessel and its artifacts from possible vandalism, expedition leader George Belcher said at a news conference today.

Belcher said the wreck of the brig was discovered by divers, apparently where it was driven under by a gale 141 years ago with its crew of 32, in 110 feet of water five miles off Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the maiden voyage of the Somers in 1842, midshipman Philip Spencer, young son of the U.S. secretary of war, was hanged from the yardarm with two others for allegedly planning a mutiny. The captain was court-martialed. After that, sailors said the ship was cursed.

In the ensuing shock, Navy Secretary George Bancroft decided to stop recruiting Navy officers from miscellaneous ranks and instead to train the elite at a supervised, land-based academy. The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., opened in 1845.

Belcher said he used sophisticated detection equipment and, with the help of his brother, Joel, and magnetometer expert Daniel Koski Karell, discovered the Somers.

"The superstructure has crumbled, but her form and all of her artifacts are there just as they were on that fatal Dec. 8, 1846, when she sank while on blockade duty during the Mexican-American War," Belcher said.