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The Armada's lost galleon

A diving team has located what it thinks are the remains of La Ragazzona

The ship, part of Philip II's fleet, sank in the bay of Ferrol, off Galicia, in 1588

A member of the University of Santiago de Compostela's diving team at work. Ampliar foto
A member of the University of Santiago de Compostela's diving team at work.

It was the biggest ship in the Spanish Armada - or the "Invincible Armada," as it was also known, although literal-minded historians are more inclined to say "so-called Invincible." The vessels that were not sunk during the lengthy running sea battle in the English Channel were finished off by a storm. On December 8, 1588, after the failed military campaign in England, the ship, named La Ragazzona, followed the wake of the ill-fated fleet of King Philip II and sank in the bay of Ferrol, off Galicia. All the artillery of the Spanish monarch's best galleon was not sufficient to deal with a stormy northwest wind, which left the craft at the mercy of hurricane gusts. Without sails or anchor, the wooden frame of La Ragazzona began to crack against the rocks, and the ship was lost to history.

Works to build a new outer port could have buried the shipwreck

The ghost of this sunken giant was evoked earlier this month by David Fernández Abella. The researcher from the University of Santiago de Compostela's (USC) History Faculty is the head of an archeological team called Arqueopat. Its members spent a week diving in the cold waters of the inlet, in search of the remains of galleon that has slept there, unsought, for 425 years.

Some years ago, a large new outer port was built a stone's throw away from the wreck zone, with no thought paid to the possibility that the works might have buried it. "It was completely ignored," explains Abella, pointing out that this is the first serious project - albeit a "modest and self-financed one" - to search for the remains of a wrecked ship that was spotted by a local diver in 1990.

The diving began last Monday with the support of Argos SL, a Galician underwater archaeology firm, and the Spanish Navy's Diving Unit, based nearby at Ferrol, which supplied logistic support in the form of divers, air tanks and boats. After three consecutive days of dives, they found the rusted remains of several large iron cannons, which appear to have belonged to La Ragazzona.

After three days of dives, they found the rusted remains of large iron cannons

But Abella prefers to err on the side of caution, and await "100-percent" confirmation via scientific methods that they do indeed belong to the lost ship. But intuition tells him they do, as everything fits in. The iron remains were found lying on the sand at depths between "seven and 12 meters," in a zone that is thick with algae, and thus reduces visibility. Two teams of seven divers took turns all week, on the bottom of an inlet that is rich in shellfish, staying under for between 60 and 90 minutes. The archeologists have been trying to find pieces of ceramic and wood, which will allow them to come up with a more accurate date much more quickly, and with which they can compare other pieces from shipwrecks that came to rest off the coast of Ireland.

"We hope to be able to produce more data, but we have attained one objective: the identification of a wreck that will be a point of archaeological interest, and be catalogued as such," says the lead researcher on this project, which began in 2008 but had to be put off due to a lack of funds.

La Ragazzona was hired by Philip II to swell the fleet he sent to fight England

La Ragazzona, meaning something like "grand girl" in Italian, was a galleon from the Republic of Venice, and was hired by Philip II to swell the great fleet he sent to fight England. The vessel, which was 36 meters long, was the flagship of the Levant squadron, which contributed nine ships under the orders of Martín de Bertendona, heir to a long lineage of Basque mariners. With 30 guns and 300 crew, it was heavily damaged in the Channel battle and limped back to Spain amid storm after storm, arriving in a bay near A Coruña in October 1588. Philip II ordered that it be repaired in A Coruña, but another storm broke its moorings and drove it onto the rocks near Ferrol on December 8 of that year. Since then it has lain on the bottom.

Some of its guns were saved, and the surviving sailors saw more service five months later, using them to defend A Coruña against Sir Francis Drake, in a battle where a Spanish officer's wife, María Pita, famously grabbed her dying husband's sword and dispatched an Englishman with it, before rallying the Spanish, who drove the English from the walls.