1. Santa Maria
Christopher Columbus famously set sail on his first voyage to the Americas with three ships—the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria—but only two returned to Spain. On Christmas Eve 1492, the sailor charged with steering the flagship Santa Maria handed the wheel over to an inexperienced cabin boy, who promptly ran the vessel onto a coral reef near modern-day Haiti.
Crewmen managed to empty the ship of its cargo with the help of local natives, but it sank the following day and may have later been buried by sediment. Its precise location has since been lost to history. Underwater explorer Barry Clifford made headlines in 2014 after he claimed to have found the Santa Maria using information from Columbus’ journals, but an examination by UNESCO experts later found proof that the wreck belonged to a different ship from the 17th or 18th centuries.
2. HMS Endeavour
HMS Endeavour is most famous for carrying Captain James Cook around the globe during his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771. The ship was the first European vessel to visit the east coast of Australia and circumnavigate New Zealand, but only a few years after returning home, it was unceremoniously sold to a private buyer and renamed the Lord Sandwich. It was later chartered by the British Royal Navy and used to ferry troops to New England during the American Revolution.
While moored in Rhode Island’s Newport Harbor in 1778, it became one of 13 vessels that were intentionally sunk to form a blockade against an approaching French fleet. The ship’s decaying remains are now the target of an ongoing search by the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum, which have spent several years mapping and exploring the silt-laden waters around Newport.
3. The Griffin
The first sailing ship to cruise the Great Lakes, Griffin (or Le Griffon) was a three-masted vessel built by the French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle during an early expedition to the North American frontier. La Salle used Griffin to travel the Niagara River and explore parts of Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, but the ship later disappeared in September 1679 after setting sail from present-day Green Bay with six crewmen and a cargo of furs. Its true fate remains a mystery, though it’s commonly believed that the ship may have foundered in a storm or been scuttled by a mutinous crew.
Legions of searchers have tried to track down its watery grave, but so far none of their discoveries has been confirmed to be the so-called “holy grail of Great Lakes shipwrecks.” A false alarm came in 2014, when two treasure hunters were reported to have found the fabled ship in the waters of Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, a subsequent investigation revealed that the wreck was most likely a steam-powered ship from the 19th or 20th centuries.
4. Bonhomme Richard
Few Continental Navy ships chalked up a more distinguished combat record than Bonhomme Richard. A French donation to the Patriot cause, the aging frigate set sail in 1779 under Captain John Paul Jones and proceeded to capture 16 British vessels in a matter of weeks. On September 23, it squared off against the HMS Serapis in a ferocious battle off the northeast coast of England. Brushing off an early call to surrender with the immortal words “I have not yet begun to fight,” Jones rallied his men and successfully captured Serapis after several hours of combat.
Unfortunately, his victory came too late for Bonhomme Richard, which had caught fire during the exchange and taken several shots below its waterline. After spending 36 hours trying to keep it afloat, Jones and his crew reluctantly abandoned the ship and let it sink in the choppy waters of the North Sea. Its wreckage has since become the target of expeditions by everyone from British locals to professional salvage companies, the U.S. Navy and even author and adventurer Clive Cussler. A few of the teams have found wrecks matching the Bonhomme Richard’s description, but none of them has yet been positively identified as the missing ship.