Caring for the HMS DeBraak

By Paul Nasca, curator of archaeology at the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

Without a doubt, the single largest and most challenging artifact to care for in the state’s archaeological collections is the hull remnant of the HMS DeBraak.

Capsizing of the DeBraak

The HMS DeBraak was a British warship that was escorting and protecting a convoy of British and American merchant ships en route to the United States when it capsized and lost off the Delaware coast on May 25, 1798. The remaining section of the ship’s hull and associated artifact collection have been curated by the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs since they were acquired by the state of Delaware in 1992.

Since the 1990s, this one-of-a-kind artifact has been housed in a specially built curatorial facility located in a restricted area at Cape Henlopen State Park. The recent pandemic has further limited public access to this artifact, but this time has provided the Division with the opportunity to do some much-needed repairs to the building and systems that maintain the integrity of the artifact. 

Foremost of these needs has been addressing the watering system that keeps the hull wet. A new system was installed, greatly reducing the amount of water needed to preserve the artifact and providing a gentler delivery so that the spray does not erode the fragile wood. 

Due to this continuously wet environment needed for the hull, the building itself had shown signs of advanced decay. To remedy this, all of the building’s walls were replaced one by one, so as not to interrupt the controlled environment maintained within. In addition to the walls, the building’s interior lighting and security systems were also upgraded. A new water filtration system is planned for 2023.

A glimpse under the hull of the DeBraak showing damage sustained during recovery.

To assess the condition of the hull, the Division turned to the ship conservation experts at The Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University. Their report warned of elevated bacterial levels that threatened parts of the artifact, as well as adding needed support to the areas of the hull damaged during its hasty salvage. The most encouraging finding of the report is that even after more than 30 years since its recovery, the DeBraak hull is still viable to undergo full conservation. 

This window of viability, however, is narrowing. Until conservation funding can be found, the DeBraak will continue to be skillfully cared for by the Division. The hope is that one day the DeBraak hull and the thousands of other artifacts from the ship will be brought together in a museum for all the world to see and enjoy. Until that time, the journey of the DeBraak will continue.