BEDFORD -- RAY DEMERS and his son, John, were diving for sea scallops in New Castle when they came across silty mud. Ray stuck his hand in the muck and pulled out an object — an onion bottle dating back to 1723.
The two scuba divers had discovered debris from sunken ships that began their lifelong journey of researching the fate of the ships, and the objects that had been untouched for nearly 250 years.
"When I saw the bottle, I said, 'Holy smoke, this is unbelievable.' I put my hand in and I was plucking out hundreds of bottles," said Ray Demers.
Demers started diving in 1961; his son's first dive was at the age of 12. After 40 years of diving and collecting their sunken treasure, Demers, 73, and John, 53, of Merrimack, are hoping to bring the collection to the public. It's a project in the works with the New Hampshire Division of Natural Resources. The specimens have been cataloged, photographed and authenticated by professionals, and all documented in a manuscript written by Demers and his son. Authentication, Demers said, was the first priority.
The men worked on three sites at one time, including specimens from an English naval ship and two privateers, which are privately owned warships sanctioned by the governor to fight off shore.
The onion bottle's seal was the link to discovering the owner of the privateer, Capt. George Jackson, an Indian fighter and son-in-law to one of the first settlers along the Piscataqua River in Maine, Col. William Pepperell.
The seal was stamped with the name W. Darracott 1723 and was among other items found at the site, including a shipment of Devonshire Sgrafitto pottery and two cannons — all providing clues that revealed the origin of the privateer and its journey from England to the West Indies to North Carolina and New Hampshire.
"The bottle seal came first. It was a wedding date on Oct. 5, 1723, and the married couple were headed to the Barbary Coast on a diplomatic mission. The wine bottles were handed out to guests to commemorate the wedding and voyage," Demers said. "There was also a shipment of yellow Sgrafitto ware, painted with birds and flowers."
As Demers shows off his collection, his eyes light up.
"I have the oldest bottles discovered in this historic area," Demers said. "There's a tremendous amount of history in these waters."
The father and son also found hundreds of earthenware, pipes, bottles, mugs, cannon balls, animal bones, leather shoes, pewter ware, jars, a ship's knee and lower deadeye, a nautical divider and wooden bombs.
One of the bombs is kept in a bucket of water. Demers dons gloves and gingerly displays the 10-inch by 3-inch object — a rectangular bottom section, which had been carved centuries ago to hold flint, gunpowder and fragments of glass. The bomb was then covered with a wooden top and tied with wire or rawhide.
"They could shoot it out of a cannon or throw it, and it explodes. Have you ever seen pictures of seamen with eye patches or wooden legs?" he said.
One of the ships was the 20-gun HMS Astrea that burned in Portsmouth Harbor in 1744. The ship was of Spanish origin but had been defeated by the British in Porto Bello in Panama in 1739.
"The English Navy retained the Spanish name Astrae, but adopted a slight variation so it's pronounceable," he said. "In Greek mythology, the name means star maiden and the English translation is a daughter of Zeus and Themes."
Through research, Demers found that the HMS Astrea had been anchored somewhere in Portsmouth Harbor. The condition of the ship's lower deadeye gave him clues about the fire and the ship's demise.
"That's what I needed to identify the ship. The diameter of each hole tells me the size of the rope and then it tells me the size of the ship," he said. "I was trying to locate where the fire started, and because it's charred on one side it tells me the fire started in a kiln on the galley. The fire burned the rope first and the deadeye would have fallen over."
The men also found two 7-foot, 2,100-pound cannons that were discovered after Demers lost his scuba tanks. The cannons had been towed ashore by other divers, and had been encrusted through an electrolysis between the sand and metal, he said.
"We don't touch cannons because once you break the seal, the cannon crumbles," he said.
Demers and his wife of 54 years, Nancy, also have two daughters, Paula Gagne and Diane Denoncourt, both of Manchester. Nancy, a former St. Anselm College nursing instructor, was awarded three grants and traveled to Fortaleza, Brazil, with the Partners of the Americas in 1996-98, to set up an AIDS prevention program.
For her efforts, she received an award at the International Convention of the Partners of the Americas, and was recognized by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. With her husband and friends, she has traveled to 25 countries.