A Cape Cod Notebook 2/26/08

listenA Mystery Wrapped in a Conundrum

(A Cape Cod Notebook is now available as a podcast).

By Robert Finch

On the night of January 28, a fierce northeaster pried the ancient hull of a wooden schooner off the ocean bottom and, with incomprehensible force, lifted it intact onto the upper beach, just south of Newcomb Hollow in Wellfleet. In the weeks since, thousands of off-season visitors have come from all over New England, and beyond, to see this latest mystery thrown up by the sea.

The wreck is an impressive object. About 60 feet long, it's composed of a series of massive curved 6"x10"oak ribs, with 3" thick planking attached to them by means of wooden pegs and iron spikes. Although the hulk must have sat on the sea bottom for close to a hundred years, the wood appears to be in a perfectly preserved state.

All shipwrecks attract crowds, but one of the things that have added to the lure of this particular wreck is the mystery of its identity. Despite its massive size and well-preserved state, there seem to be no definite clues to its identity. Experts who have looked at it have offered dates of its age that ra nge from the 1700s to the late 19th century. With over 3000 wrecks along this coast over the centuries, there are plenty of candidates for the identity of this one, and several have been offered, but no one can say with certainty what ship it is, when was wrecked, or how long it has lain under the sea.

But beyond the mystery of the ship's origin and identity, the whole scene has been wrapped in severa l conundrums as well. The other day I visited the wreck again with several dozen other people. A youn g boy who was there with his father said in wide-eyed wonder, "Do you think it?s a Viking ship, Dad?" The grown-ups around him, including me, smiled and chuckled condescendingly at his naivete. But then, I thought, do we adults really know any more about the ship's identity than the boy did? Oh, we stood around commenting on it, but weren't we really just repeating things we had heard or read somebody else say about it? Could any of us really have said how we knew it wasn't a Viking ship?

Another conundrum is the wreck's legal status. There are several small National Park Service signs surrounding the wooden hull, warning visitors that the wreck is, under federal law, a "protected cul tural resource" and that it is therefore illegal "to excavate, remove, disturb, deface or destroy" any par t of it. Fair enough, I thought, if the National Seashore planned to preserve the wreck for study, or to make an exhibit of it. But they don?t. The signs themselves admit that the wreck will, in time, be reclaimed by the ocean, "to be buried again until the next time the sea uncovers it."

Just a couple of generations ago, any shipwreck on the beach was fair game for local residents, who saw it as a valuable source of usable lumber. And there were signs that the old instinct for wreckin g was still alive. Despite the warnings, several chunks of the ship?s ribs had already been sawn or chipped away, and I heard one man mutter what many must have been thinking: "I wish there weren't so many people around ? that peg there looks pretty loose."

And why not? I thought. If the wreck was going to be reclaimed by the sea anyway, why not let us gr ab some piece of it before it goes, something that will give us some connection, if only in our imaginations, with a more adventurous and earnest past? In our increasingly digital and virtual worl d, we seem to crave, more than ever, some contact with something so solid, something fashioned by hand from oak beams and iron spikes, something that could last so long at the bottom of the sea, and be thrown up, as if in rebuke, to our wondering eyes.