Ghostly apparitions of the ship under sail, a guardian water witch protecting the site from discovery, and the fabled wealth of millions of dollars of gold aboard are stories forming part of the many legends, traditions, and myths surrounding the ship and its tragic loss nearly 200 years ago in 1798. This is but a small part that has secured the DeBraak is prominent place in the Maritime history and lore of the Delaware Coast.
The origins of the cutter DeBraak (Dutch for "The Beagle") are obscure. Although it was long believed that she was Dutch-built, analysis of the hull suggests that she was probably built in Britain. During the 1780s, she sailed against England under the Dutch flag, operating with a Mediterranean squadron out of Toulon, France. In 1793, she took part in the defense of Willemstad, uraçao, against a French Revolutionary army, and at the end of 1794, De Braak was ordered to escort a convoy of East Indiamen to Batavia. Not realizing that their country was again at war with England, the Dutch put into Falmouth where the twenty-four merchantmen and six warships were seized.
Brought into the Royal Navy as HM Sloop-of-War Braak, the cutter was re-rigged as a brig and rearmed with sixteen 24-pound carronades. She entered service under Captain James Drew on June 13, 1797, and remained on duty until dismasted in a storm at the end of the year. Upon her return to service in February 1798, Braak joined a convoy bound for the Virginia Capes, but on April 2, off the Azores, she was separated from the other ships. At the end of the month, she captured a Spanish ship worth £160,000 in prize money and on May 25, Captain Drew put into Delaware Bay. Shortly after a pilot boarded off Cape Henlopen, "a sudden flaw of wind" capsized the DeBraak and she sank with the loss of thirty-five of her crew, including Drew, and twelve Spanish prisoners.
Over the years, De Braak's seven-week solo cruise and the certain fact that she had captured one valuable prize became encrusted with myth. Over the years more than a dozen individuals and groups attempted to find the ship, and by the 1980s estimates of the value of the treasure aboard the humble convoy escort exceeded $500 million. Success of a sort finally came in 1984 when Harvey Harrington's Sub-Sal, Inc., raised a cannon, an anchor, and a ship's bell bearing the name "La Patrocle." Sub-Sal became legal custodian of the wreck on behalf of the U.S. District Court and with a one-year lease began working round-the-clock to retrieve as much as possible from the site. With almost total disregard for archaeological practice, divers tagged a portion of what they recovered and disposed of anything they considered worthless, including human remains, a rare stove, and objects too small to warrant their consideration.
In 1985, Sub-Sal was taken over by a New Hampshire investment group led by L. John Davidson. The state of Delaware began to take a more active interest in the project and assigned State personnel to tag retrieved artifacts, which ultimately included 26,000 items ranging from ship fittings, weapons, and ammunition to toothbrushes, combs, dominoes, a syringe, compasses and dividers, a mahogany telescope, an octant, a sink, 150 shoes, a sailor's "Monmouth" hat, three anchors, storage vessels, and hundreds of specimens of organic foodstuffs including peas, corn, and beans. The DeBraak is now
owned by the State of Delaware.