Joint Rotary Clubs Finally Buoy Caponka in the Rappahannock River
Nearly one hundred years ago the ill-fated ship Caponka was launched in Seattle as part of an accelerated Emergency Fleet federal program to build a large cargo fleet to support World War One trade and logistics. Caponka broke records by being one of the fastest constructed vessels from the laying down of keel to shipyard launch in less than five months. Her first and only voyage sent her to the Philippines, the Far East, Asia and onwards with multiple mechanical mishaps to Marseille in the Mediterranean Sea where she was put up for sale less than two years after launch. The post WWI economy was in depression and the shipping market was awash with freighters. She was eventually sent back to the USA to join the wooden ghost ship fleet in the Potomac.
Enter "Capt" Plummard Derieux who purchased Caponka in 1924, moved her to Reedville, and finally up the Rappahannock River to Tappahannock arriving in 1926. Captain Plumer’s intent may have been storage for his grain and feed business, and she was beached near the foot of Prince Street where was the object of disputes with town officials. Part of the superstructure was removed and became part of the Ferry Point building in Richmond County, a building that is still standing approximately one mile upstream from the Downing Bridge. Throughout this period the ship was stripped of valuable metals while Capt Plumer maintained a running battle keeping local folks off his property.
Storms in the early 1930's stranded the hulk in her current position. The suction of the mud condemned her to this location where the Caponka remained an iconic shape on the Tappahannock skyline for the next two decades until it is reportedly said an oil lamp was spilled and set fire to the vessel - the fire lasted several days. She burnt to the water line and the remains have been a hazard sitting on the edge of the main channel navigable waterway since those fateful days. Being a wood hull construction secured by long steel pins, the wood decomposed over time leaving long exposed steel rods protruding vertically from the water and providing many opportunities to damage unsuspecting or wayward navigators on the river especially at night. Further compounding the danger, erosion, weather and tides have reduced the visible profile of the wreck resulting in the visible wreck disappearing mid tide and hiding the treacherous remains a few inches below water at high water.
Navigating the byzantine nautical bureaucracy proved to be a challenge to Tappahannock Town Councilman, attorney and Rotarian Peter Trible, Jr., in heading up the Tappahannock Rotary Club’s quest to resolve the unmarked and hazardous wreck on our river doorstep. Most folks are bewildered by the lack of interest by the nautical authorities in placing marks at the wreck site but Trible determined through research that a process was possible for private groups or citizens to place their own buoyage in the absence of federal, state or local action, most noticeably absent due to the wreck not interfering with the river channel. Complicating the situation, the Essex County boundary with Richmond County follows the low water mark on the Essex shoreline thereby placing the wreck under the jurisdiction of Richmond County.
At Trible’s suggestion, Bill Croxton sought the participation of the Warsaw Rotary Club to partner on this project and share costs. Warsaw Rotary Club members Greg White, Charles Lewis and Walt Winegar came onboard and speedily approved the joint effort. With a buoyage plan in place and funded, Trible next requested a resolution by the Richmond County Board of Supervisors for permission to place private marks around the wreck to comply with Virginia law and regulations for establishing regulatory markings on public waters. That approval then allowed for formal application to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for the placement of buoys at specific longitude and latitude geo-referenced locations. Once approved, David Broad acquired the buoys and graphics, worked with Kent Cooke of Essex Concrete to provide 70 lb. concrete anchors and asked father and son team Joe and Jes Sgroi of Edgewater Marine to design the moorings and couplings and finally to manage the installation accomplished on Thursday, May 15th. Trible concluded “It is amazing what a community can do when they work together – this is fine example of a project completed by citizens when the situation should have been resolved by a government entity”.
Finally, 96 years after her launch on the West Coast, Caponka now rests in her watery grave with three distinctive buoys with reflective night signs marking her last resting place and indicating a dangerous area for boaters to steer clear of. Tappahannock and Warsaw Rotary Clubs feel justifiably proud to have marked this major hazard and taken on this project to protect the boating public, however, the danger still exists lurking below the water line. Bill Croxton reflected “It came up in conversation with Joe Spruill several years ago and the Tappahannock Rotary formed a committee to navigate through this complicated process. The time it took to finally drop the buoys reflects the obstacles and determination to complete this potentially life saving project”.
The Tappahannock Rotary Club has established a fund to maintain and replace the markers. If you value the contribution the club has made to boating safety in your neighborhood please help by sending your tax deductible donation to Tappahannock Rotary Caponka Fund, PO Box 2672, Tappahannock VA 22560.
Some of the history of the Caponka and photos from her inglorious history can be seen at www.tappahannockrotary.org/caponka/ Further recommended reading at the Essex County Museum, “The Caponka Caper” by Caroll M. Garnett is available for $10.