HMS Looe

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H.M.S. LOOE by Captain Dan Berg

The 5th Rate 46 gun British Frigate H.M.S. Looe was built on the Thames by Lime house Ship Builders. She was launched on December 29, 1741, and was completed at Deftford. Her dimensions are as follows: length of gun deck 124’4″, length of keel 101’4″, beam 35’8″, depth of hold 14’6″ and 685 tons. 

The Looe was originally commissioned in January of 1742, under the command of Lord Northesk. Her command was later given to Captain Ashby Utting in 1743, while Great Britain and Spain were at war. Captain Ashby Utting was commanded by his majesty to sail to North America to guard the coast of Carolina, Georgia and Florida from an impending invasion from Spain. On February 4, 1744, the Looe captured a ship flying the French flag. Captain Utting determined that the ship was under the command of Spain when his men discovered documents during their search. He decided to tow her back to Charleston. At about 1:30 AM, on February 5, 1744, the crew of the Looe spotted a reef about 100 feet in front of them. Although great efforts were made to change course, they were unsuccessful, and the Looe smashed rudder first into the coral. Fortunately, the lives of the crew were spared. Some sources claim that the Looe was towing the disguised French Ship Snow at the time of her demise. 

The wreck of the Looe was discovered in 1950. Early treasure hunters recovered quite an assortment of artifacts from her, but to the best of our knowledge, no one has ever located the ship she was towing. When the wreck was first discovered, Mendel Peterson was called in to examine the artifacts that had been found. He determined that the wreck was an English warship and while checking his records for the area he found a notation about the Looe. According to THE TREASURE DIVER’S GUIDE by John Potter, “the name of the reef, like so many others, had been taken from the ship which it sent to the bottom.” Today remnants of the Looe can be seen on the eastern edge of Looe reef. She sits in 25 feet of water.

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The word Looe is a misnomer, mostly. The discrepancy concerns the last letter, the e. Mistakenly, some accounts attribute the H.M.S. Looe as the ship that wrecked here and left her name. This is not the vessel that crashed into the reef in 1744. The captain, Ashby Utting, sometimes associated with that vessel, has been wrongly placed aboard the H.M.S. Looe. Ashby Utting commanded the H.M.S. Loo, a fifth-class British frigate built around 1706.

A ship of war, the Loo carried between 40 and 44 cannons and spent her early years sailing between Newfoundland and Russia. She also spent time in service as a hospital ship before intercepting pirates and smugglers sailing the high seas. Confusing the two ships is understandable as both ships were active during those early years of the 1740s when Great Britain and Spain were at war.

While the territories of South Carolina and Georgia were under British control, La Florida belonged to Spain and at least once already Spanish privateers had ventured into the Georgia territory to attack. A fleet of Royal Navy ships headed by Capt. Utting and the H.M.S. Loo was sent to Charleston, S.C., to help protect the coastline. During fall and winter months, when hurricanes and the other squalls of summer were not threatening the tight passage through the Florida Straits, the Loo was ordered to make the trip south and disrupt Spanish trade between Europe, St. Augustine and Havana.

It was Feb. 2, 1744, when Capt. Utting came upon a suspicious-looking ship flying the French flag near Cuba. It is not clear what “suspicious” means, perhaps what was suspicious were some of the dark-skinned “Frenchmen” sailing the vessel. Utting gave orders to chase the vessel down and when his marines boarded the ship, something caught the captain’s attention. One of the men aboard the French ship was observed tossing papers overboard. The crew of the Loo was quick to scoop the contraband out of the water and when Capt. Utting read the papers, it was discovered that while the vessel was indeed flying French flags, the ship was the captured English merchant vessel Billander Betty. Furthermore, the ship was being used by the Spanish.

Capt. Utting took control of the vessel and began towing it back to Charleston. On night two of the trip, theH.M.S. Loo sailed past Cayo Hueso (Key West). Every half hour the crew dropped a sounding line to mark the water depth and around midnight, on Feb. 4, satisfied with the safety of the ship, Capt. Utting went below deck to his quarters. About an hour later, the men on watch suddenly saw waves breaking over a shallow reef system. An alarm was sounded and evasive actions were taken, but the rudder struck the reef, broke off, and the ship, unable to steer, was pounded by swells and beaten against the coral beds. She was sinking — and sinking fast. To make matters worse, a few minutes later the towed Billander Betty crashed behind her.

When the sun emerged over the Atlantic’s horizon the following morning, there must have been a mixture of emotions percolating among the 274 survivors crowding the thin layer of sand rising about a foot out of the clear turquoise waters. According to Capt. Utting’s written account, the small beach of an islet was approximately 300 yards long and 100 yards wide.

The dilemma for the survivors was threefold. Not only was this Spanish territory, but Calusa Indians inhabited the archipelago and unfortunately for those men standing on the barren key, the Calusa made a sporadic living off of shipwrecks and ship wrecking and were prone to killing survivors, except in the case of Spaniards who could be captured and held for ransom. Also, there was always the chance a storm could roll through and sweep the beach clean.

All was not lost, however, as the survivors had managed to salvage a handful of launches, 20 bags of bread and six barrels of gunpowder. There was even a glimmer of hope when a Spanish sloop passed by the wreck site — though spying the English, it quickly sailed off. Capt. Utting ordered three launches packed with armed marines to capture the ship at all costs. Those hopes seemed to fade when, over the course of the night, none of the ships returned. The following day, however, the captured sloop sailed up with the three launches in tow. How three launches armed with marines captured the sloop is not clear. Maybe the sailors aboard the sloop set anchor for the night. What is clear is that in the end, with the help of the captured Spanish sloop, all survivors sailed away to safety.

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Looe Key Reef History by Bob “Frogfoot” Weller

Six miles south of Big Pine Key, and just a skip of the stone from blue water, is a spit of land that 262 years ago was the scene of a dramatic shipwreck and rescue. Like many Keys and reefs scattered along the edge of the Bahama Channel, Looe Key bears the name of a British Frigate that scattered her timbers and treasure over the forward fingers of the reef. The HMS Looe was outfitted in Longreach, England, with 190 crewmen and 42 cannon. Her first eight years of service were in patrolling the English Channel as part of the Dunkirk Squadron. Afterwards, she “cruized” the coast of Sallee in the hunt for Barbary pirates. Her first real action took place as a 44 gun frigate off the coast of Spain. She raided Vigo Bay and captured four Spanish vessels in the harbor. As a result the Spanish began attacking Fort Frederick in Georgia, as well as harassing the British settlers along the east coast of the Carolinas. The governor of South Carolina sent a petition to have a warship protect their coastline. The final voyage of the HMS Looe was about to begin.

Captain Ashby Utting had assumed command of the Looe and was directed to Charleston to provide the protection requested. His orders read, “To cruize between Cape Florida and the northwest part of the Grand Bahamas when the season of the year will not permit the cruizing of the Carolinas. You are to look out for the enemy ships passing through the gulph of Florida for Europe, and use your utmost endeavor to take, sink, burn, or destroy them.” To Utting, this meant he could “fish” for rich Spanish merchantmen.
While in Charleston harbor, a four-day storm with gale winds damaged the Looe’s rigging and main mast. Only the shipyard in Kingston, Jamaica could repair the damage. The Looe sailed south around the southern tip of Cuba to Jamaica where on December 3, 1743 the ship was ready for sea again. By Saturday, February 4, 1744, the Looe was on station in the Bahama Channel.

About 8 a.m. a sail was sighted and by noon-time the Looe captured a Spanish “Snow” or small merchantman. Crewmembers recognized the Snow as the Bilander Betty, a British ship that had recently been captured by the Spanish. Before the Snow could be dispatched to Charleston, someone noticed an “Irish Gentlemen” on board throw a large oilskin packet overboard. Utting recovered the packet and discovered papers in French and Spanish. Considering this important information, Utting decided to escort the Snow back to Charleston. It was late in the day with the sun setting, so with a bearing on the “Pan of Matnaza,” a flat top mountain on the coast of Cuba, he ordered a course NE by E to clear the Double Headed Shot Key off Salt Key Bank. Before retiring, he ordered the lead line thrown every 30 minutes to sound for depth.

At 1:00 a.m. the following morning, the lead line was thrown and no bottom found at 300 feet. Dramatically, 15 minutes later, the officer of the watch was surprised to find white water with breakers dead ahead. Just as the ship veered off, the sails caught a cross wind and the stern struck the reef. Soon a large wave struck the ship, shearing off her rudder, and the stern began to fill quickly with water. Realizing the ship was lost, the Captain ordered his Chief Gunner to save as much of the bread and gunpowder as possible. In the meantime, the Snow was being pounded to pieces on a reef nearby. Utting shouted to the prize crew to throw her cannon and anchors overboard—which they did—but the ship was lost.

As daylight broke Utting and his men found themselves on a “small sandy key about 1-1/2 cables long and 1/2 broad which lay on the edge of the bank of the Matires” (a cable was 600 feet). Everyone thought they were on Double Shot Key, when about 10 a.m. they sighted a sloop offshore. Utting tried to signal the sloop, but instead it stood out towards a low line of mangroves. The Captain armed his small boats and sent them in pursuit; it was their only hope of survival. If a wind came up, the small sandy key would have been covered with water. There was jubilation when, the following morning, the small boats were back with the sloop in tow. On Wednesday, February 8,1744, the entire crew of the Looe and the Snow, all 274 men, loaded into the long boats and sloop. Before leaving, Utting set fire to the ship, and as flames raced over the deck it blew up, scattering the ship in several pieces. The Captain and crew arrived in Jamaica on February 13.
In 1951 Dr. and Mrs. Barney Crile, Art McKee and Mendel Peterson dove the wreck site and managed to recover one of the Looe’s cannon, along with a number of artifacts. The following year, after learning that the Looe had a prize when it sank, the group returned and located one of the Snow’s anchors. Also recovered were a number of cannon balls, a pewter cup, a pewter tankard, 3 coins, brass buttons, a brass basin, remains of a fine unguent jar, utensils, a porcelain bowl, copper spun plates, a brass door knocker, pewter teapot and several clay pipes.

Not far from the stepped iron ballast of the Looe, Ed Link recovered a bronze bell inscribed “Soli Deo Gloria, AO 1751”. This date, 7 years after the Looe sank, is from another wreck, possibly Spanish. In the early 1970s Art Hartman and Bobby Jordan worked the site of the Looe and recovered silver candlestick holders, pewter mugs, pewter jugs, cannonballs, buttons, forks and spoons, and the top of a snuff box. Many of the artifacts were in conglomerates that had badly burned wood and other shipwreck material. One day, while searching the shoreward side of Looe Key, Art and Bobby discovered another wreck site, 1/2 to 3/4 mile from the Key. From this site they recovered two 5’ bronze cannon, each with a French Fleur de Lis insignia, 67 muskets with bayonets attached, 2 tridents–one inlaid with gold, the other with silver–and several swords. They determined the ship probably sank between 1825-50, and was undoubtedly a French warship. Bobby Jordan later recovered two more bronze cannon from the site. 

The Looe’s stair stepped iron casting ballast is located at mooring buoy #15, about 700-800 feet west of marker #24 at the east end of Looe Key. Artifacts are possibly scattered several hundred feet due to the explosion when the ship burned. Looe Key is a sanctuary now, a beautiful living reef that is a diving pleasure. Salvaging artifacts is illegal, but sightseeing is encouraged.