Weathered drawing of architectural plans for a wooden ship.
Drawing of the HMS Loo's hull plan. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The British warship, His Majesty's Ship (HMS) Loo was a 44-gun Fifth-Rate that wrecked offshore of a low-lying island in the Lower Florida Keys. The island has since disappeared, but its adjacent reef would later be named Looe Key after the lost vessel. It is not clear as to when or why "Loo Key" became "Looe Key." A 1781 map of the reef retained its original spelling, but a 1790 map spelled it "Looe."


In 1743 the HMS Loo under the command of Captain Ashby Utting was sent to Charleston Station after the Lords of Trade and Plantations sought protection from the governor of South Carolina against possible Spanish invasion of the colony resulting from the war between Spain and Great Britain. While on patrol in the Straits of Havana off Cuba in early 1744, HMS Loo came across another vessel that its crew recognized as being a British vessel that had been captured by the Spanish. Captain Utting recaptured Billander Betty and set sail for Charleston, South Carolina to return it to its colonial owners.

On the night of February 5, 1744 as HMS Loo sailed northward along the Florida Keys, the vessel mistakenly came too close to the reef. The warship's crew tried to tack away from the reef, but the headsail was caught across the wind and the vessel was blown onto the reef. Although efforts to lighten the ship took place immediately, it was hard aground and taking on water. Through the next day the crew salvaged cargo and supplies; moving what they rescued to the adjacent sand island. While salvaging what they could, Captain Utting sent a raiding party in Loo's boat to capture a Spanish sloop that sailed by. Ultimately, 274 sailors headed for South Carolina in the Spanish sloop and Loo's boats after blowing up what was left of their ship.


Shipwreck artifacts on the seafloor
Iron ballast ingots from HMS Loo. Photo: Brenda Altmeier/NOAA

The shipwreck was discovered by local waterman William Thompson. In 1951, the Smithsonian Institution's curator of the Division of Naval History, Mendel L. Peterson, led a team who dived on the site and collected many artifacts. The cannons found on the shipwreck indicated to Peterson that the vessel was a warship. A crowned rose found on one of the cannon barrels substantiated a conclusion that the lost ship had sank before 1750. This evidence coupled with broad arrows found on the cannon and cannon balls indicated clearly that the ship was British. These markings were used to identify property belonging to the British crown. Mendel Peterson's archival research in the register of British lost ships in America during that period, together with the fact that the reef was named for the lost ship, a custom during the period, clearly identified the vessel on Looe Key Reef.

(Peterson, 1955)

Shipwreck artifacts scattered in a sandy groove between coral heads.
HMS Loo wrecksite perspective capture of a 3D model. Created by NOAA and East Carolina University's Maritime Studies Program.