Federal judge rejects Mobile man's claim to shipwreck

David Anderson (far left), with Fathom Exploration and Frank White, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission

By  Brendan Kirby - Al

A federal judge ruled Monday that a local man and his family have no claim to a shipwreck discovered at the mouth of Mobile Bay 7½ years ago.

In an opinion laced with whimsical references to the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” Chief U.S. District Judge William Steele agreed with the conclusion made by the explorer who found the shipwreck — that it is the British barque Amstel and not the clipper ship Robert H. Dixey.

Thus, the judge wrote, descendents of the Dixey’s captain — who was named Richard Dixey — have no claim to the ship or its cargo.

The explorer, David Anderson, could not be reached for comment. Nor could his legal representative. An attorney for the Dixey descendants, David Bagwell, said via email that he could not comment.

Steele gave lawyers for Anderson’s company, Fathom Exploration, and the state of Alabama until April 9 to recommend a procedure to determine whether the ship was legally abandoned, which would determine whether the state has a claim to the wreck.

The judge wrote that there is no “‘smoking gun’ evidence’ to definitively determine that the wreck is the Amstel. He wrote, “No direct proof has been found (or is likely ever to be found) carved into a beam, fitting, equipment, dishes, or bell.” 

And he expressed discomfort with settling the issue, writing that “the proper identity of Shipwreck #1 is a matter better suited for spirited scholarly discourse than black-letter judicial construction.

Yet the parties have submitted their dispute to a federal judge, not a 19th century maritime historian.”

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