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Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves: The Regina

In only 12 to 20 feet of water, the wreck of the Regina off Bradenton Beach, Florida, is one of Florida’s most accessible Underwater Archaeological Preserves.

Only 75 yards off Bradenton Beach, and resting in 12 to 20 feet (4 to 6 m) of water, the Regina is one of Florida’s 12 Underwater Archaeological Preserves. The Preserves consist of historically significant shipwrecks, protected under state law and interpreted for the public with brochures, plaques, and a website. Members of the public or organizations, such as dive groups, historical commissions, and teachers nominate and choose potential preserves.

What happened to the Regina?

Regina became the 10th preserve in 2001, and the National Register of Historic Places listed it in 2004. Built in 1904, in Belfast, Ireland, the steel-hulled tanker-barge was bound for the molasses trade. The 1,155-ton ship measured 247 feet (75 m) long, with a 36-foot (10 m) beam and a 14-foot (4 m) draft. It was the first steamer to bring molasses from a newly independent Cuba to the United States. New Orleans was a hub in the molasses industry and a transfer point for sending tankers and barges upriver to Midwestern cities, which used molasses to produce animal feed.

Regina was being towed to New Orleans in March 1940 when a cold front moved across the Gulf of Mexico, bringing gale-force winds and eight to 12-foot seas. Regina became disconnected from its towboat as the pair attempted to seek shelter in Tampa Bay. Regina floated helplessly toward shore and grounded on a sandbar off Bradenton Beach. The heavy surf began to beat against the ship, leaving the eight crewmen stranded.

Rescuing the Regina crew

Because the ship grounded so close to shore, there are many accounts of the event as well as historical photographs depicting the rescue of the crewmen. The crew stayed onboard overnight, afraid to abandon ship in rough conditions. Local community members gathered on shore and built fires to reassure the crew that they were not alone. Various boats unsuccessfully attempted to approach the barge, but because of the heavy surf, efforts to drop life vests or swim a line to the barge were ineffective. Eventually, the ship’s cook and his dog attempted to swim to shore but both disappeared beneath the surf and perished. Two other crewmen tried to swim and were rescued when an 18-year-old tied a rope around his waist and swam out to the crewmen as residents pulled them all to safety.

In time, rescuers brought a small yachting dingy to the scene. Coast Guard Gunner’s Mate Frank Barnett rowed out to the barge and rescued Captain José Urquida. The small dingy capsized near shore, but townsfolk rescued the two men. Rescuers saved the remaining crew after successfully securing a line from the beach to the barge.

Diving the Regina

Today, the site consists of the stern section, collapsed hull material, boiler, and winch. Divers have frequented the site over the years, especially since its designation as a Preserve. In addition to its historical value, Regina is a fixed point offshore and can shed light on sediment movement, which continuously buries and exposes the ship. As recently as September 2016, most of the wreck, including the informational plaque designating the Preserve, was buried. In 2015, more of the wreck was exposed than at any time in recent memory. Since then, the site has accumulated up to four feet of sand. Beach replenishment activities, currents, and storms factor into this sediment movement. Periodically monitoring the wreck can us understand the dynamism of this area.

Regina divers can expect company from a variety of sea life. Bait fish, juvenile pufferfish, crabs, and the occasional flounder frequent the wreckage. Visitors can stop by Sea Kat Divers to collect brochures about Regina, view a map of the wreck, and receive instructions for finding the dive site. Please preserve the integrity of the site for future generations — take only pictures and leave only bubbles.

By guest authors Melissa R. Price and Franklin H. Price