Digital Library

Highbourne Cay Shipwreck

Nicholas Budsberg and Filipe Castro


Country: Bahamas

Place: North of Highbourne Cay, Exuma Islands, in a swift channel known as Allen’s Cut, approximately 35 nautical miles southeast of the capital city of Nassau.

Coordinates (approximate): Lat. 24°44’10.87″N; Long. 76°49’10.08″W

Type: Unknown

Identified: No

Dated: Circa 1525.

Highbourne Cay


The identity of the ship is unknown, and is thought to date from the first quarter of the 16th century.  The ship most likely wrecked during the first half of the 16th century, however it is thought to date as early as 1500 – 1525 A.D.  It was initially dated between 1500 and 1570 by Mendel Peterson, based on the wrought iron ordnance and the lead-cored iron shot.  The date was further refined through comparative analysis of similar sites, as well as through a study of the artifact collection retrieved by the INA team in the 1980s.


This site was found in 1965 by three American spear fishermen, Robert Wilkie, Jack Robinson, and Clint Hinchman, who contacted Mendel Peterson of the Smithsonian Institute for assistance (Peterson 1974).

Mendel Peterson plan (1976).

Peterson, in turn, contacted Teddy Tucker and Robert Canton of Bermuda, and the team salvaged most visible artifacts between 1966 and 1967 (Peterson 1972a, 1972b, 1973; Smith 1978; Smith et al. 1985; Smith and Keith 1986).

The salvage operations were poorly documented and it is difficult to reconstruct the site as it was first found, or inventory the artifacts that were raised at the time.


The Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) conducted a survey on the site in 1983, and a partial excavation was performed in 1986 (Keith and Smith 1983; Oertling 1987).

Site plan after the 1980s excavation by the INA team.

The ends of the ballast mound were exposed and partially recorded in 1967, and were re-exposed in 1986. A 2 m transverse trench was dug amidships, and all areas excavated were back-filled at the end of the work.


The site was visited in 2015 by a Texas A&M team directed by Nicholas Budsberg, and a 1.5 meter longitudinal test trench was dug on the southeastern side amidships and backfilled as well (Budsberg et al. forthcoming).

Site plan after the 2015 excavation season (Nicholas Budsberg 2015).

The timbers were exposed and recorded, and the ballast mound moved aside, after the corals that colonized this artificial reef were removed and replanted.


The 2017 Highbourne Cay Project was planned as a community archaeology project.

Story of the Ship

There is little known about the ship, due to the lack of overtly diagnostic artifacts suggesting that when the vessel sank there was enough time to offload any personal items or cargo aboard.


None of the surviving hull structure provides any evidence why the ship sank. Earlier investigations claim that two anchors were found 150 yards north of the wreck site.


The shipwreck rests on a scoured bed of limestone in approximately 6 to 8 meters of depth. It covers an area roughly 20 m x 15 m.

In 1965 the concreted ballast pile formed a raised mound with a sharp undercut along the perimeter. The undercut has been continuously forming since the vessel wrecked due to the swift, alternating current that passes back and forth through the channel.

The INA intervention, in the 1980s, exposed part of the hull structure and yielded important information on its construction features.

As of May 2015, the site has no visible artifacts with the exception of a few examples of overlooked shot and fasteners. The mound is low and undulating, and extends for approximately 10 m in length, 4 m in breadth, and 1.2 m in height at the tallest point.  Timbers from the ships lower hull have been documented in 1967, 1986, and 2015.

Site Formation Process

The wreck is positioned in Allen’s Cut, several hundred yards off the northwestern tip of Highbourne Cay. The site is 6-8 m deep and rests on a bed of porous limestone with little sediment in the area. There is a 3+ knot current on the site that runs on a north-south axis and switches every 12 hours. Archaeological surveys in the area conclude that ship fasteners, hardware, artifacts, and various other materials are scattered over 40 m in every direction. The main hull structure is only 20 x 15 m and pinned beneath a concreted ballast mound. Over the course of the last 30 years the current has undercut the ballast pile and was slowly eroding all surviving hull remains beneath until the 2017 excavation.


There was a prominent concreted ballast mound (20 x 15) on the site until the 2017 excavation. Bowls formed into the limestone from shipwreck include smaller ballast and crushed coral remains.


The ballast pile was one large concretion when discovered in 1965.  However, after intensive salvage and excavation, and probably periodic looting over the past five decades, the extents of the ballast have been reduced, and much of the once-protective layer of concreted stones is now a porous layer of loose rock. Two areas fore and aft of the midship trench remain concreted together, and represent the areas where no intensive excavations have taken place. Peterson estimated the ship’s ballast to weigh approximately 50 tons, and Keith reported the Highbourne Cay shipwreck’s ballast to be close to 70 metric tons, approximately twice as much as that found on Molasses Reef, a contemporary shipwreck in the Turks and Caicos (Keith 1998).

Ship Fittings

A number of chain links are seen in the images but probably none survived with conservation treatment.


The site was marked by a wrought-iron anchor lying on top of the ballast. In total, three wrought iron anchors are assumed to belong to the shipwreck.  One anchor was found lying directly on top of the ballast mound, and two others were found approximately 150 meters to the north of the site.

Two of the three anchors were the same size and weight; the anchor found on top of the site and one of the two anchors found to the north.  The other anchor found to the north was the largest of the complement and is considered to be the sheet anchor that had been rigged as a bower.

A fourth anchor, not currently believed to belong to the Highbourne Cay shipwreck, was found in 1973 or 1974 by Jack Robinson, and was removed from Allen’s Cut and redeposited in the Highbourne Cay Marina where it remains today.  A wrought iron harpoon was also recovered in 1967, and represents a unique artifact not usually found on 15th- or 16th-century shipwrecks.


Over a dozen wrought-iron artillery, breech chambers, and shot lay off the northeast end (bow) of the ship. The artillery and shot known to have been recovered include two wrought iron bombardetas and two compatible breech chambers.  At least 13 wrought iron versos – two of which thought to be verso dobles, a longer type of swivel gun – and eighteen compatible breech chambers (one loaded with powder and sealed with a wooden plug) were also removed from the site in the 1960s. Iron wedges for the locking the breech chambers into the back of the artillery were also found, although the exact number is unknown. Lead-cored iron shot of predominantly three sizes (3.5 – 6.3 cm) were documented in both 1967, 1986, and in 2015.

Hull Remains

The ship wrecked in relatively fast current and shallow water, and as a result not much of the structure of the vessel has survived.  During both the 1967 and 1986 investigations, sections of the wooden vessel survived exterior to the ballast mound pinched between the artillery and the sea bed. In 2015 only timbers trapped beneath the ballast mound were preserved.  The ship settled upright but with a slight list to port, preserving the central construction features of the main mast step and lower, central hull.
















15-17 x 65






Floor timbers







At central frames









Main mast Ø








The keel was not preserved to its full length, but a trough worn into the limestone seabed left an impression of the full length of the keel.  It was estimated to 12.6 m in original length, and the cross section measured 15-16.5 cm sided by 21 cm molded.


The keel was joined to the stem by a flat vertical scarf with a 30 cm table.  The curve of the stem was tangent to the keel.


There is a single master frame located beneath the expanded keelson section for the mainmast. The master frame is positioned before the mainmast mortise and only is the only frame with futtocks attached on the fore and aft faces of the floor timber. Three central frames (master frame and the neighboring fore and aft frames) have a room and space 30 cm that was smaller than the average 40 cm found throughout the rest of the hull.

The floors are averaged 16.5cm sided by 17.5 cm molded.  From an estimated total of 30 or 31 frames, it is not known how many were pre-assembled.

The futtocks are joined to the frames with dovetail scarfs. The trapezoidal mortises and tenons were wider on the lower side and narrower on top. Forward of the master frame, the futtocks were joined to the forward face of the floors, and aft of the master frame the futtocks were joined to the aft face of the floors.


The planking is 6 cm in thickness and 8-25 cm in width. Strakes were fastened to the frames with treenails and iron nails using an average pattern of 2:3 per frame/plank connection.


No direct evidence of caulking material has been found so far. Multiple expeditions to the wreck site repeatedly identify lead strips that were either inserted between or fastened to cover plank seams.


Surviving evidence includes iron nails of various lengths, through bolts connecting the keel, frames, and keelson together, along with treenails.


Of a set of fifteen samples taken from several timbers on the wreck, all but two were a species of oak (Quercus sp.).  The two exceptions were planks from the pump well that were from the Salicaceae family (includes willows) and the Cupressaceae family (which includes cedars).


Little to no cargo survives, due to the rough conditions where the ship sank.

Personal Items

Only a knife with gold inlay was originally reported by the treasure salvors. The limited amount of artifacts found on the site could suggest that the crew was able to remove their possessions prior to sinking or that a lot of it was removed over the centuries.


Fragments of the ship’s rigging were recovered by the treasure salvors in 1967. These fragments included three sections of chainplate with deadeye straps connected to three pieces of forged chain and bolt. Parts of a sheave and line associated with a fairlead were also recovered along


Because the 2017 field season did not entail the disassembly of the hull remains, we need another field season to remove the ceiling planking and record the frame curves, in order to attempt a reconstruction of the ship’s hull.

Tentative reconstruction of the ship size (Koutaro Yamafune 2015).

Beam: Estimated 5 to 5.7 m.

Keel Length: Estimated 12.6 m.

Length Overall: Estimated 19 m.

Number of Masts: Unknown, possibly three plus bowsprit.



The 2017 report is available here.


A number of videos were produced to illustrate the 2017 field season.

The 2018 Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Conference

The Highbourne Cay Symposium

A session on the 2017 Filed Season was presented at the 2018 Annual Conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology, in New Orleans.


Budsberg, N., Bendig, C., Meide, C., and Turner, S., 2016. “The Highbourne Shipwreck Revisited: 2015 Field Season and Preliminary Assessment” (forthcoming publication).

Keith, D. and Smith, R., 1983. “The Highborn Cay wreck: A report submitted to the Ministry of External Affairs concerning the sixteenth-century shipwreck at Highborn Cut, northern Exuma Islands, Nassau, Bahamas.

Keith, D., 1998. “Shipwrecks of the Explorers”, in G.F. Bass (ed.), Ships and Shipwrecks in the Americas. London: Thames and Hudson.

Oertling, T., 1987. “The Highborn Cay wreck: Limited excavations, September 1-19, 1986”. A proprietary report to the Ministry of Transport, Government of the Bahamas, BWI.

Oertling, T., 1988. “The Molasses Reef and Highborn Cay Wrecks: Two Early Sixteenth-century Hulls”, in J.P. Delgado (ed.), Proceedings from the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference.

Oertling, T., 1989. “The Highborn Cay Wreck: the 1986 field season” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 18.3: 244-253.

Oertling, T., 1996. Ships’ Bilge Pumps: A History of Their Development, 1500-1900. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Peterson, M., 1972. “Buried treasure beneath the Spanish main” Unesco Courrier, May: 23-27.

Peterson, M., 1972. “Traders and privateers across the Atlantic: 1492-1733” in A History of Seafaring based on underwater archaeology, ed. G. F. Bass. London: Thames and Hudson.

Peterson, M., 1973. “Les sites d’epaves des Americues” in L ‘archeologie subaquatique une discipline naissante, Unesco, Paris, 83-92.

Peterson, M., 1974. “Exploration of a l 61h-century Bahaman Shipwreck”, National Geographic Society Research Reports: I967 Projects, 231-42.

Smith, R., 1978. New World Shipwrecks 1500-1800: A Compendium of Sites Salvaged Or Excavated. Manuscript at Texas A&M University Library.

Smith, R. and Keith, D., 1986. “Ships of Discovery”, Archaeology, 39.2: 30-5.

Smith, R., Keith, D., Lakey, D., 1985. “The Highborn Cay Wreck: Further exploration of a 16th century Bahaman shipwreck” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 14.1: 63-72.