ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- The search is on for what could be the oldest French shipwrecked vessel in the New World.
A team from the St. Augustine Lighthouse is leading the charge.
A crew of marine archaeologists from St. Augustine just returned from the Canaveral coast line.
They are looking for the lost fleet of Jean Ribault, the Frenchman whose name is attached to Ribault High School and many other places around Jacksonville.
"This is something I've been think about since I was a little boy growing up in Jacksonville," Archaeologist Chuck Meide said Monday. He is talking about French colonist Ribault who was sent to help the French colonists in the New World. "When I became an archaeologist, I knew I wanted to find these ships."
In 1565, Ribault sailed from France to Fort Carolina near modern-day Jacksonville. After a short time at Fort Caroline, Ribault and his men sailed south to try to stop the Spanish in St. Augustine.
However, Ribualt's ships were caught up in a hurricane or nor'easter, "and wrecked down south of St. Augustine," Meide said.
Ribault and his survivors started hiking back on land, but they were slaughtered by Pedro Menendez and his Spanish men at the Matanzas Inlet. Ultimately, historians say, this changed the course for the French in the New World and helped establish Spanish control of Florida.
Meide said, "We know the ships were wrecked in the Canaveral area," based on documents and evidence from French survivor camps found in the Canaveral National Seashore.
So Meide, archaeologist Brendan Burke, and two others took a boat for a week to the waters off Cape Canaveral to map the ocean's floor. They used a magnetometer to detect metal, side-scan sonar, and a sub-bottom profile.
"What that entails is driving the boat back and forth miles at a time," Meide explained.
"It makes for long days," Burke noted, "There was 175 miles of survey at 4.5 knots." But he added, "We got it done and we have good data."
However, they do not yet know what the data shows them at this point.
"We just got this stuff so it's brand new" Burke said. "So we'll process over the next couple of weeks, and we'll come up with a target list to put divers on when we redeploy."
The St. Augustine Lighthouse is leading the effort with help from big players such as NOAA, the National Park Service and the Institute of Maritime History.
What could be found could be big.
Burke said it could be "everything from gold to sewing needles to cannon balls."
The discovery itself would make history.
"This would be the oldest French shipwreck vessel ever discovered anywhere in the new world," Meide said with excitement.
If the team is skilled and lucky enough to find the four ships of Ribault's lost fleet, it would shed light about the founding of the First Coast and more.
"Really it's a big deal for every American because this is the birth of our nation," Meide said.