If you’re interested in diving a wreck from the late 1800s off a stretch of beautiful beach near Stuart, Florida, it’s time dive the Georges Valentine. But first, visit the House of Refuge Museum at Gilbert’s Bar. Here you can learn about the shipwreck, which is one of Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves. Tour the museum, formerly a “house of refuge” for shipwrecked sailors. Built as one of 10 along the then-sparsely populated Atlantic coast of Florida, the houses were used at the turn of the century. After your visit, load up your dive gear and walk south of the museum wall. Enter the water and swim east 100 yards to dive the wreck that sank in 1904 so close to the House of Refuge.
The history of Georges Valentine
Built in 1869 in England as the Cape Clear, the the iron-hulled screw steamer was meant to carry goods and passengers to Australia from England. In 1889, its owners sold it to a French company. They rechristened it the Georges Valentine, and outfitted it as a three-masted barkentine. Italian purchasers bought it in 1895, and used it to transport lumber from Pensacola, Florida to South America.
The Georges Valentine has a harrowing story concerning its ill-fated wrecking event. In October 1904, after returning from South America with a load of lumber, Captain Prosporo Martolo was working his way through the Straits of Florida. There, he and his crew of 11 encountered gale-force winds. Waves battered the ship for three days as the captain struggled to keep the ship away from shallow shoals. Torrents of rain and turbulent seas forced the crew to jettison some of the cargo. Unfortunately, in the evening the stern grounded and the ship veered toward shore. As waves broke apart the ship, the three masts fell, killing one crewman.
Five other crewmembers washed overboard and were never seen again. Two men struggled to reach the dangerously rocky shoreline and were able to rouse Captain William E. Rea, the keeper of the House of Refuge. Captain Rea helped the men and set out to rescue the others. Aided by a crewman who held a lantern onshore to guide the rest of the survivors, Captain Rea ultimately saved five more men. This brought the total rescued to seven. Without Captain Rea’s efforts, and the fact that the ship wrecked so close to the House of Refuge, none of the sailors would have survived.
Rescuing the crewmen
The Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge played an important role in rescuing those washed ashore. It stands today as a testament to the dramatic events that took place in Stuart 113 years ago. Today, it serves as a museum and the only remaining House of Refuge. The museum features a pictorial history of the house over time, as well as naval and life-saving artifacts.
Diving the Georges Valentine
Today, divers will find the Georges Valentine 100 yards offshore from the House of Refuge. Visitors can park at the museum and access the site from shore. The wreckage covers a massive area, approximately 270 by 280 feet, and lies in five prominent sections about 22 feet (7 m) deep. Watch for the boiler and large section of hull that protrudes 12 feet (4 m) off the seafloor. Depending on sand coverage, curious divers can traverse a few swim-throughs. The wreck is home to plentiful sea life, such as snook, angelfish, sheepshead, moray eels, wrasse and soft corals. Keep in mind, sand can migrate drastically, covering and exposing various sections of the site. This change is common and allows divers to experience a new adventure with every visit.
Local dive shops can provide information about sea conditions and brochures about the wreck. While visiting this monument to the past and final resting place of five crewmen, please be respectful, taking only pictures and leaving only bubbles. Learn about the 11 other Underwater Archaeological Preserves here. Photos are the result of a project funded in part by Visit Florida.