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to Preserving Our Maritime Heritage

Founded by Clive Cussler

Presidential Yacht Sunk Off Assateague Island, Virginia

by | Feb 5, 2012 | 22 comments

Would you be interested in joining me on a search for the presidential yacht, Despatch, sunk off Assateague Island, Virginia? I’ve been thinking about this for years. I would need someone with a boat, someone who has side scan sonar or a magnetometer, and someone with marine archaeological experience. Another ship researcher might be good too. I could use some help in tying in some loose ends.  Summertime or early fall would be best for our venture. I would propose five, maybe six of us at most. We would share expenses and hopefully, some good times. I think it would be worth a try.



Historical records reveal that the Despatch, one of the largest and handsomest yachts afloat when it was built in 1873, was the pleasure craft for presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. President Harrison and Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy were planning to visit the naval proving grounds on the Potomac River in October, 1891, when the Despatch failed to show up at the dock. Returning from New York with just its officers and crew, the sleek, single-funnel steamer ran into a sudden squall off Virginia. The ship’s lieutenant, mistaking the orange glow from the Assateague lighthouse for the offshore red hue on the Winter Quarter Shoals lightship, steered the yacht off course and on to the shoals. Boxes of cigars, candles and canned hams were gathered by bystanders who watched the ship sink in 20 feet of water. The officers and crew made it safely to shore.

In 1997, Ben Benson, head of Sea Hunt, Inc., a New Hampshire salvage group, made a secondhand discovery while searching for the Spanish galleon, Juno. The Despatch, sunk in the same area as the Juno, was icing on the cake for Benson as he looked for the treasure galleon. He found the presidential yacht, but didn’t have time to survey it. He did a look-see, got a permit, and planned to return at a later date. Meanwhile, he turned his full attention toward his main objective.

Benson eventually found the Juno, sunk in 1802 with a large cache of silver pesos aboard, but ran into a bureaucratic nightmare. Spain promptly claimed the wreck and the U.S. government—egged on by the U.S. Park Service and Justice Department—overruled Benson and the state of Virginia and gave salvage rights to Spain. The Spanish did nothing with the shipwreck.  Benson tried to fight it, but finally packed up and returned to New Hampshire thoroughly disgusted with the legalities and litigation.

I called Tony Watkenson, Chief of the Habitat Division for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, who outlined all the particulars for our search. The wreck rests in shallow water not far from the beach. If we find it, he’ll issue a salvage permit. Any artifacts retrieved will be donated to the state for display in several of its museums.

So that’s it. Shall we do it? Think about it as you hum a few bars of Hail to the Chief! Like the legendary Phoenix that rose from its ashes, the remains of the Despatch–an historical American treasure, might rise from the sands of Assateague Island.


  1. I would be very interested in helping out any way I can. I have a small boat and can help with the diving. I have an underwater metal detector also. Just tell where and when and I will be there!!!!

  2. Sounds good Doug. E-mail me at: and give me some details, where you live, size of boat, etc. Looking forward to hearing from you. Best regards, Ellsworth

  3. I am a local, email sent.

  4. Get Dirk Pitt on the Job, you will have it found and raised in no time

  5. I do not mean to burst your bubble, but the Despatch was pulled off the rocks and sold for scrap on november 12, 1891.

  6. Thanks for your input. Can you send me a copy of where you found that info? My e-mail is: Ben Benson, in an interview with a Baltimore Sun reporter, says he found the wreck when he was searching for the Spanish galleon Juno. But he also said he wasn’t interested in further investigation of the presidential yacht. Thanks for any input you can send to me. Best regards, Ellsworth

  7. There are no rocks on Assateague where the ship supposedly wrecked.

  8. Ok so it was pulled off of the sand.

  9. There is only one way to settle this: to go & look for it! And to think, if we could only get hold of Ben Benson, he might solve the mystery pronto! From what I can gather, Ben was an honest guy and a respected salvor. I don’t think he was fibbing when he said he discovered the remains of the Despatch. Only tme will tell! E.B.–Wreckmaster

  10. I wonder, did they give any contact info on the article you read professor?

  11. I’m a DCBC certified unrestricted surface supplied diver as well as a Recreational Instructor for PADI i would love to help volunteer and help out anyway I can!

  12. Are you searching the wreck for the USS Despatch if so naval records could have the wreck as under the commercial steamer America

  13. I would love to help you find it or anything else I’m trying to get in to underwater exploration but no way of getting into it that I know of I hope you can help me start my dream and or tag along to learn thanks numa !

  14. Thanks for the inquiries. We’re getting a lot of interest in the Despatch. My main man, Earl Hemminger, is Operations Manager. E-mail me at: and I will give you Earl’s e-mail and he will forward further info to you. Thanks for your interest! Best regards, Ellsworth Boyd, Wreckmaster

  15. I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to come help you. Let me know when to pack, I can be ready in 20 minutes.

  16. Tommy, Linda: Drop me a line at my e-mail: and I will give you the address of our Operations Manager: Earl Hemminger. Thanks for your interest. Best regards, Ellsworth Boyd, Wreckmaster

  17. Ellsworth if you need any help with research I would be glad to do what I can to help out. Also, if you decide to go wreck hunting in the great lakes I know a ship you might be interested in, SS Bannockburn. It’s cargo was only grain, and know one even seems to know the names of the crew; but over the last 110 years it has earned the nickname of “The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes.” I wrote an article on it not long ago. Good luck, and keep up the great work.

  18. Hi Joe: Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. After you wrote, I dug out my copy of Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes by Dwight Boyer and read the chapter about the Bannockburn (Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior). It’s an interesting story and the vessel still hasn’t been found. I wonder if Clive might be interested in it? I would love to read your article. Keep me posted if you come up with any more info. Thanks for writing. Best regards, Ellsworth Boyd Wreckmaster

  19. The reference to the Despatch being sold for salvage comes from the official US Navy history of the vessel:

    How confident are you that the wreck is actually off the Virginia coast? Could it be confused with some other ship? Or is the Navy history mistaken, as can sometimes happen?

  20. There are some recent developments. A diver told me to contact Susan Langley, a marine archaeologist for the state of Maryland. Ms. Langley said that she and a team of divers found the Despatch four years ago and that it is now listed on a NOAA chart. So it looks like our expedition is foundering.

  21. Hi. Back in 1979-1980, I lived/worked/partied aboard a vessel at Berth 6 in Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale Florida. It was an old 1950 Norwegian Passenger Freighter converted into a research vessel. The R/V Researcher. Their owners son, Geoff (from British Colombia) tells me it was leased to EXXON at one time. We had quite a time on that scow. When we were ready to set sail, it was loaded with 70 cases of Heineken! The night before the trip, a ‘check valve’ went South and it almost sunk at the dock. Within a week it was struck by a huge Freighter that lost power and again almost sunk at the Port. It was jury-rigged to head to Nova Scotia but sunk off the coast of Virginia.
    Guess I’m just wondering if anyone knows where it is? Or any more to the story? I’m thinking of going to our local Coast Guard HQ here in FLL to see any records they may have. Any help would be appreciated.

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