The Benwood

Site Description

The Benwood is located one mile northeast of French Reef within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. She has a minimum depth of 25 feet (stern) with a maximum depth of 48 feet (bow). The stern houses the engineÕs support platforms and four propeller shaft pillow mounts. One hundred feet southeast of the bow lies an anchor facing seaward. Although its association with the Benwood is questionable, it is still considered a major feature of the site.

Due to the shallow waters, the Benwood is inhabited by a variety of corals and sponges, specifically fire coral, sea fans, and Elkhorn coral. There are also many species of tropical fish ranging from yellow tail snapper, trumpet fish, parrot fish, hog fish, and angel fish. Tom Scott claims that because of the BenwoodÕs easy access, shallow waters, and variety of marine biology, it is considered the most popular dive site in the Florida Keys (Scott, 1994).

Historical Background

The Benwood was built in 1910 at Sunderland, England, but her home port was Newcastle, England and she was registered to Kristiansand, Norway. She has a length of 360 feet, a beam of 31 feet and a water displacement of 3,931 tons. Owned by Skjelbred Company, Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission, this merchant marine freighter was powered by a steam engine yielding 1800 horsepower at 9.5 knots (see Appendix B). She sailed with a crew of 38, and an armament of 12 rifles, one four-inch gun, 60 depth charges, and 36 bombs (Scott, 1994).

Wrecking Event

The sinking of the Benwood has been a controversy for many years with accounts of submarine involvement at the heart of the controversy. According to Scott's research, there is no documented evidence by the Americans nor the Germans of torpedo attack against the Benwood. The more likely explanation follows:

On the night of April 9, 1942 the Benwood, under command of Captain Torbjorn Skjelbred, was on a routine voyage from Tampa, Florida to Norfolk, Virginia carrying phosphate rock. Rumors of German U-boats invading the area forced the Benwood to travel the Key coastal lights three miles abeam and completely blacked out. On the same evening the Robert C. Tuttle, 544-feet long and 70.2-feet at beam, traveling to Atreco, Texas, under Captain Martin Johansen, was ordered to travel the Key lights one and one-half miles abeam and was also blacked out.

It is reported that at 12:45 a.m. of that same night the Robert C. Tuttle ordered right rudder to turn the vessel starboard due to a black object spotted just ahead of the ship. Captain Johansen sounded one whistle indicating to the object, "I intend to turn starboard." Her signal was not reported to be heard by the Benwood.

At 12:50 a.m., the Benwood reported to have sighted a blacked out ship just off starboard in her direct path. Captain Skjelbred sounded the whistle twice indicating, "I intend to turn port." Again, no acknowledgment was heard or reported. In an attempt by both ships to avoid an accident, they had unintentionally set a course for collision.

Just before the collision, Captain Skjelbred made final efforts to avoid the Robert C. Tuttle by ordering the engine full astern. It was too late. The bow of the Benwood crashed into the port side of the Robert C. Tuttle.

The Robert C. Tuttle was found to be in no immediate danger. The Benwood however, was flooding due to her crushed bow. Realizing this, Captain Skjelbred, in an attempt to ground and save the ship, turned the vessel toward land. The Benwood took on water too rapidly. A half an hour after the collision, Captain Skjelbred gave the order to abandon ship.

On April 10, 1942, the crew of the salvage tug Willet determined that the keel of the Benwood was broken and declared the ship a total loss.

Unreported salvaging on the ship over the years prompted John Pennekamp State Park to form a protection program in 1959 to prevent further damage to the wreck. Today, the Benwood is a protected resource under the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary due to changes in the state parkÕs borders in 1973, and the formation of the Sanctuary in 1975.

Archaeological Value

A casualty of many salvage attempts at the time of its sinking, and military target practice until the 1950's, the remains of the Benwood are scattered over a wide area ( see Appendix B). Major sections of hull plating can be seen on the port side where they have been wrenched from the ship's frames. Other metal plates and pieces are also scattered over a 100-foot radius from the hull outline. These are probably pieces of the upper works and superstructure that posed a hazard to navigation. It is said that the Benwood was dynamited to reduce its profile and lessen its threat to modern vessels, but according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there was no evidence of wreck clearing.

The result of these activities as well as the storms and currents that batter the shallow reef has been to reduce the Benwood to about one-third of its former height. Whereas it originally attained a hull depth of 25 feet 4 inches, only about 8 feet of hull can now be measured amidships. The bow is the most intact, forming an impressive 25-foot profile in the water column.

Previous studies have documented wreck elements that may be associated with the BenwoodÕs demise. The remains of a metal cargo mast assembly has been noted some 800 yards away (Brown 1994:6). It is accompanied by a mast partner at a depth of 18 feet. These elements match historic photographs showing the Benwood with its large cargo masts, and they may have been blasted to their present location or carried by the strong currents.

Wreck Features

The Benwood was originally powered by a 342 hp triple expansion steam engine which pushed her along at 9.5 knots (Berg and Berg 1991:97; Scott 1994:33). While the engine, boilers, drive shaft and propeller are missing, the propulsion system can still be visualized from the engine mount and pillow blocks that held it in place (see Appendix B). The engine was situated on a rectangular plate measuring 12' 8" (l) by 6' 3" (w) by 2' 8" (h) (Nuttal 1994). Large bronze bolts with threads still intact are evidence to the dismantling and removal of the engine from its resting place.

Thrust was conveyed from the engine to the propeller along a drive shaft. It was supported by four lead-lined pillow blocks. These are spaced approximately 21'-22' apart which allows the propulsion system to be easily reconfigured (see Appendix B, Nuttal, 1994).

The Benwood's hull structure is mostly intact up to the level of the first deck (see Appendix B). Only a small midships section has had these deck plates removed, exposing the lower frames and keels on. Large steel knees join the deck plate to the outer hull and sides of the vessel. These are massive reinforced triangles of steel which outline the curve of the hull. Thus, they tend to be elongated triangles in the midships region where the hull bows out, and more equal-sided in the bow where the hull rises sharply. The result is that the ship's hull shape can be seen from these knees even though the hull plates themselves are mostly torn free.

The primary deck has been punctured in many places forming a network of "nooks and crannies." These provide important fish habitat but are not large enough to allow diver entry. Several holes enable divers to peer into the cargo hold where ore was carried for many years.

Applying the National Register Criteria

This report takes the position that the Benwood shipwreck MAY BE eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and should be considered a significant maritime archaeological resource. The reasons for arriving at this evaluation are:

Biological Value

In May 1992, Indiana University conducted field investigations of the Benwood in order to prepare a comprehensive site plan, create a biological inventory, and establish a baseline for biological assessments on two sections of the hull. (Brown 1994) Assistant Professor, William Ruf, of the Indiana University Biology Department, led the biological survey. The team sectioned a 10' x 10' grid pattern on the bow of the shipwreck. The researchers chose this site on the bow for the vast array of aquatic life and the potential growth. The process was repeated on a section of the stern that contained an abundance of fragile Fire Coral, millepora complanata. The four engine mounts were also photographed and biology was noted (see Appendix B).

During 1994 field investigations, the bow, stern and four engine mounts were again pictured. Biological data were again gathered by research assistants of the Underwater Science and Educational Resources Department of Indiana University.

Field investigations in 1994 and May 1996 indicate that the majority of coral found on the bow section consisted of sea fans and sea whips. In this area, a brain coral and red sponges were also present. The mounts contained predominantly soft corals, including again sea whips and sea fans. The stern section contained fire coral, millepora complanata. A qualitative inventory of fishes present was conducted as well (see Appendix B).

Biology at the bow section of the Benwood was most abundant and diverse. An inventory revealed 20 hard corals and 15 soft corals on the bow section alone, including encrusting corals, deep water sea fans, sea whips and gorgonians.

The mount sections of the Benwood contained a large number of corals. Mount #1 contained eight hard corals and 11 soft corals. Mount #2 contained eight hard corals and 15 soft corals. Mount #3 contained six hard corals and 17 soft corals. Finally, Mount #4 contained three hard corals and 16 soft corals. Again, sea fans and sea whips were the prevalent corals.

The stern section of the Benwood contained the fewest number of corals monitored. The stern had nine hard corals and eight soft ones. The stern section of the Benwood contained fire coral and one area of star coral. Future investigations may examine why the bow and stern sections differ in the abundance of coral growth.

Because of time constraints, specific naming of the corals is not available. However, an on-going inventory has been maintained at the aforementioned biological monitoring stations. Indiana University will continue to monitor this site for changes in biological patterns. These studies will reveal information about reef ecology at the site, and may lead to a better understanding of human effects on coral reef systems.