Watch Hill

Divers say they’ve found wreck of Oliver Hazard Perry’s ship off Westerly

By Tom Mooney - Projo

A team of Connecticut scuba divers say they’ve discovered off the Westerly coast the wreck of a ship once commanded by Rhode Island naval war hero Oliver Hazard Perry, whose actions helped the United States defeat the British during the War of 1812.

It was after the naval victory at Lake Erie in September 1813 — during which Perry had one ship founder beneath him before transferring to another and continuing the battle — that his message to his commanders would become immortalized: “We have met the enemy and they are ours ...”

Now, divers Charles Buffum and Craig Harger say Perry would have never been at the Battle of Lake Erie had his schooner not sunk off the reefs of Watch Hill.

Buffum, the owner of a Pawcatuck brewery, declined to name the ship they’ve discovered until a planned announcement Friday afternoon in Westerly.

But local marine archeologists, who have heard of the find, identified the vessel as the Revenge, a schooner that sank on Jan. 8, 1811 –– exactly 200 years ago Saturday.

Rhode Island marine archaeologist D.K. “Kathy” Abbass wrote a history of Rhode Island’s early navy for the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., and is leading much of the underwater mapping of sunken ships in Rhode Island waters. She is familiar with the Revenge.

She says it’s a “long stretch” to say, as the divers have, that the vessel’s sinking “changed the course of U.S. history” merely because Perry ended up on Lake Erie two years later.

Further, because of how the Revenge sank –– and the likelihood that hundreds of other wooden vessels have fallen victim to the rocks and rip currents in the area known as The Race — she wonders if the divers have definitive proof they’ve found the Revenge.