Archaeologists have hailed the discovery of a sunken British warship which vanished during the American War of Independence. In what is being described as one of the most significant maritime finds ever made in North America, the wreck of HMS Ontario was discovered almost intact in deep water at the bottom of Lake Ontario.
After 228 years, the ship's final resting place was pinpointed by enthusiasts Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville. The 22-gun warship went down during a severe gale in 1780 with 120 people on board. The mystery of its fate spawned a host of rumours, including the possibility of it carrying priceless war booty.
Using side-scanning sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle, the two men located and identified the 80ft sloop earlier this month. The ship sits on the lake bottom at a 45-degree angle, with its deck completely out of the mud and its two 70ft masts still in place.
Kennard described HMS Ontario as the "holy grail of lost ships on the Great Lakes". The Canadian author Arthur Britton Smith said: "To have a Revolutionary War vessel that's practically intact is unbelievable. It's an archaeological miracle."
Mr Kennard and Mr Scoville refused to reveal the exact location of the wreck yesterday for fear it will be disturbed by treasure hunters. They said they had passed on details of the find to authorities in New York who declared it property of the British Admiralty. "It's a war grave and should be respected as such," Mr Kennard said.
Mr Scoville said: "We want to keep the site private and protected, so that it remains archaeologically intact until the authorities want to survey it."
The condition of the vessel is said to be "excellent", to the extent that glass within some of its windows is still intact. Underwater film shot by the two men reveals the ship's distinctive features, including crow's nests on each of its masts, a "beautifully carved scroll bow stern", and quarter galleries on either side of the stern. The men said the cold water and the lack of oxygen in the water around the wreck was the reason it was so well preserved.
HMS Ontario was returning to Carleton Island from Fort Niagara when it went down with a crew of about 40 – mostly Canadians – 60 British soldiers and a number of American prisoners of war.
Letters found among the correspondence of a governor of Quebec to narrow helped the archaeologists narrow down their search, which covered 200 square miles and took three years.