Charlie Buffum, avid diver and owner of Connecticut’s Cottrell Brewing, makes a historic maritime discovery.
by Christopher Staten | photo by Photography RI
During the War of 1812, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry became one of the most famous naval officers in history by defeating an entire British squadron on Lake Erie; his famous motto, “Don’t give up the ship,” is still a rallying cry. But a lesser-known story of his career isn’t quite so flattering: A few years earlier, on a stormy January night off Rhode Island’s Watch Hill Beach, heavy fog, violent waves and a cold, hard rock took down Perry’s ship, the USS Revenge.
Perry detailed the mishap in a letter written to then-squadron commander John Rodgers. After discovering his ship had drifted dangerously close to land, Perry dropped anchor to steady the 75-foot schooner in the frigid winter waters, but the ship tailed around and crashed against a reef. Thinking quickly, Perry cut the anchor cable and tried desperately to catch a gust of wind to propel the ship back into the waters. No wind came and the Revenge was pummeled further up the reef, cracking the hull. His crew tossed eight heavy cannons overboard, to no avail. Realizing the futility, Perry—then only 24 years old—ordered his crew to abandon ship. The next day, Perry and company returned to salvage the schooner, but the angry ocean had snapped it in two. Six cannons were saved, but the Atlantic kept the rest, relegating the Revenge to a small, largely forgotten mark on the U.S. Navy commodore’s career. That is, until the owner of Cottrell Brewing unearthed the wreckage.
Ask Charlie Buffum which passion came first, brewing or diving, and he’ll say they arrived around the same time, during college. He eventually went pro in beer when he opened Cottrell Brewing back in 1996, but Buffum never gave up his love for underwater adventure. After years exploring the New England coast, it was an account he read of the little-known Revenge that captured his passion: “What really took my interest was that there was possibly still an anchor down there, and a bunch of stuff [Perry] couldn’t take,” he remembers. Buffum teamed up with Craig Harger, the brewery’s carbon dioxide salesman who is also an avid diver, and struck out in the summer of 2005 to search for the ship along a series of reefs on Watch Hill.
Over a period of four weeks, Buffum and Harger scanned the ocean bed with a metal detector, not far from a freighter wreckage popular with local divers. On their third dive, the duo began to question their efforts—then the metal detector started to sing. Buffum looked down to find he was standing at the base of a large metal object covered in barnacles. After closer inspection, the two realized it was a cannon. “If you ever watch the old cartoons when their eyes are bugging out, that’s what it was like,” remembers Buffum. “If you could jump up and down under water, that’s what we’d be doing.” They discovered two cannons that day, the first of many remains from the Revenge.
For the next six years, Buffum and Harger kept the discovery a tightly sealed secret. They continued to explore the wreckage, uncovering six of the eight possible cannons left behind, the ship’s anchor and a series of other artifacts. Although the location of the shipwreck was mainly hidden—heavy currents and rising surf kept all but a few spear fishermen out of the area—Buffum was still worried that another intrepid diver would stumble across it. Last January, the 200th anniversary of the Revenge’s sinking, Buffum and Harger decided it was finally time to announce the news. They held a press conference at a hotel in Watch Hill and made headlines.
Although Buffum’s now handed the expedition over to the Naval History and Heritage Command, which deals with researching and preserving shipwrecks, he’s still closely involved with keeping the Revenge’s legacy alive. On top of helping the Command map the wreckage, he honors the ship with Perry’s Revenge Ale, a strong Scotch ale. (The style is a nod to Perry’s Scottish bloodline, which includes distant relative William Wallace, depicted in “Braveheart.”) As for further exploration, Buffum hints at a few notable wrecks he might be pursuing. But, like the long-kept secrecy surrounding the Revenge, who’s to say he hasn’t already found them?