TREACHEROUS TRAVELS AT CARYSFORT REEF

Cannons from the Winchester at Lignumvitae Key. BILL WESTRAY COLLECTION/Contributed

A natural-born adventurer, Kirk Munroe traveled extensively. One of those adventures led him to South Florida, where, in 1886, he moved into the growing mainland community of Coconut Grove. He was 36 years old.

Munroe might best be remembered as a writer who authored 40 books. A few of his books were novels, but mostly he wrote travelogues detailing his adventures. His works included stories about his experiences in South Florida and the Keys. Living in Coconut Grove and an excellent sailor, Munroe readily explored Biscayne Bay, the Florida Reef and the Keys. 

He penned the following description of the water surrounding the Florida Keys: “The terrible Florida reef, with its bewildering maze of shoals, tortuous channels, fierce currents and coral heads lifted almost to the surface, is an ever present menace to the mariners of the waters. Since the date of its discovery it has probably been the cause of more disasters than any other region of similar extent in the world.”

One of the reefs that he would have been familiar with, which may have inspired the quote, was Carysfort Reef. It is one of the oldest, most mature reefs in the chain and the result of thousands of years of tedious work by reef-building coral polyps. The extensive reef system stretches for four miles in the shallow Atlantic waters, approximately six miles off the coast of North Key Largo. Not only massive in size, but it is also a shallow reef with depths ranging from 5 to 25 feet. Corals grow so near the surface that a frothy meringue is left behind when the Atlantic washes over some of the shallower reef heads. 

Carysfort, too, is one of the most dangerous tracts of coral making up the Florida Reef. 

According to the historical record, approximately one-quarter of all the ships wrecked along the reef line in the early to mid-1800s succumbed to Carysfort Reef. One reason for the high wreck count was that Carysfort was used as an umbrella term for many reefs growing off of the coast of Key Largo. 

One of the ships to meet its end at Carysfort was the H.M.S. Winchester. The 60-gun British warship was built in Bursledon, England, in 1693. At just over 146 feet long and 38 feet wide, the square-rigged vessel maintained a crew of 285 sailors and soldiers. The captain was a man named Edward Bibb.

The Winchester was given orders to sail to the Caribbean and disrupt French business interests. Captain Bibb, with the support of the 60-gun warship Dunkirk, made a successful raid against the French colony at St. Dominique (now known as Haiti) in January of 1695. After the attack, the Winchester and the Dunkirk, along with a captured French brigantine, sailed to the temporary home port of Kingston. Jamaica’s infamous Port Royal had fallen into the Caribbean two years prior after a devastating earthquake. 

In Kingston, however, all was not well aboard the Winchester. Men were dying as quickly as one every day. Some accounts attribute scurvy as the source of the sickness, and others to yellow fever. Scurvy seems to make less sense as there would have been loads of citrus available while in port. One hundred forty members of the Winchester’s crew died. Among the dead was Captain Bibb. John Soule was given command of the ship.

In September, Captain Soule sailed out of Kingston Harbor and joined the Dunkirk and the captured French brigantine. The death toll aboard the Winchester continued to rise as they sailed for the Straits of Florida. Soule, too, fell ill and, no longer able to perform his duties as captain, relegated his command to the next in line, Master Andrew Mallard. 

Only 60 men were still alive on the Winchester; of those survivors, only 10 were deemed healthy enough to work. As if things were not going poorly enough, the Winchester struck a large, shallow reef hard and fast. It was just after midnight on September 24, 1695. Seeing the Winchester in peril, the captain of the Dunkirk ordered the French brigantine to approach the wreck and rescue the surviving crew. Captain Soule sustained injuries in the impact and was transferred to the brigantine, where he later died.

The Winchester was left on the reef, where it splintered apart and spilled its cannons along the ocean floor. However, the Winchester was not the ship to leave the most indelible mark on the reef. That honor went to the H.M.S. Carysfort, a 118-foot- long British frigate armed with 24 9-pound cannons, four 3-pound cannons, and several guns on swivels. She hit the reef on October 23, 1770. The good news about the Carysfort was that no one lost their lives, the ship was ultimately refloated, and it sailed away. 

More than 200 years after the Winchester hit the reef that would become Carysfort, remains of the ship were discovered by two Miami fishermen, Sam Lynch and Jacob Munroe. In 1938, six cannons from the wreck of the Winchester were salvaged and brought to Lignumvitae Key. Those cannons can still be seen on the gently sloping lawn leading away from the island’s coral rock house.

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Brad Bertelli is an author, speaker, Florida Keys historian, and Honorary Conch who has been writing about the local history for two decades. Brad has called the Florida Keys home since 2001. He is the author of eight books, including The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files, a book of historical fiction that blends two of his favorite subjects, the local history and Florida’s Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape. His latest book, Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, Volume 1, shares fascinating glimpses into the rich and sometimes surprising histories of the Florida Keys. To satisfy your daily history fix, join his Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli.