Shipwreck symbols – where’d they come from?

Whoever designed this symbol for “wreck showing any portion of hull or superstructure at level of chart datum” was a genius. It’s not the only symbol for a shipwreck used on American nautical charts, but it’s my favorite (NOAA lists at least dozen shipwreck symbols). I’m such a fan that I made it my twitter and wordpress picture. It does everything a good symbol should do–it’s easily recognizable, memorable, and just plain works. Better yet, it captures the complexity of a shipwreck as an event, process, and place.

So who designed it? When did they do it? Wish I knew. An quick internet search turned up nothing. So I looked at a couple of historic charts on the NOAA website and found two charts depicting the region around the port of New York which help… a bit. The oldest, “New York Bay and Harbor and the Environs,” was printed in 1845 and shows a wreck just northwest of Sandy Hook light. (Hard to see, but look near the top left between mud and the 30). On this chart “X” marks the spot.

1845 chart

Jump ahead a century to the 1944 chart titled “Approaches to New York.” See the unidentified wreck southeast of Barnegat Inlet? Pretty close to the current design, but not quite (and definitely not as effective). There’s also a “Dangerous wreck, depth unknown”–the football-looking symbol–between Barnegat and Inlet.

1944 chart

That’s all I know at this point. I’m putting off skimming the annual reports of the Coast Survey or spending any more time looking at old charts than I already do with the hope that someone out there might know the story of the shipwreck symbol. Can you help me track down its design history? If you can, many thanks! If not, check back to see how it goes.


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