ancestryink fisherman

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why A Wreck?

Once again, the news caught my attention this morning as it spotlighted another effect of the current drought:  exposed shipwrecks.  The 133 yr. old ribs of the  steamboat "Montana"  (1879 - 1884) have emerged from the parched Missouri River.  It's an interesting story, and a well-documented wreck.

Shipwrecks!  Everyone loves a good shipwreck story.
Here is one that is a little more personal:

One of my neighbors on Martha's Vineyard, many moons ago, was Barry Clifford.  Barry is the renowned salvage expert who located the "Whydah," slave ship turned pirate ship dating back to 1715, captained by the infamous pirate Sam Bellamy.  For decades, Clifford has continued to dive on the wreck every summer off the coast of Provincetown.   Barry Clifford's expeditions have ranged far and wide:  Scotland, Madagascar, Haiti to name just a few.  His work has graced the cover of National Geographic, been featured on the Discovery Channel, and he has written numerous books.  Clifford's museum is located on MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown.  National Geographic Society now sponsors a traveling exhibit about the Whydah.  More about Clifford and the Whydah, can be found at the museum website. 

Painting of the Whydah, courtesy Expedition Whydah website
 On the Vineyard, Barry Clifford was sort of our home-town hero.  Discovering the Whydah was one thing, but living the life of a "treasure hunter" (we'll skip the practical details of maintenance of his vessel the Vast Explorer, sophisticated sonar equipment, endless fund-seeking, government permits, archaeology rights, vigilance over wreck sites, etc etc.)  just re-ignited the childhood fantasies of many a man - and woman.  Give up your day job.  Become a shipwreck sleuth. 

 Mysteries are exciting.  History is exciting.  When the ribs of an old ship emerge from the waters, most of us are imagining decks teeming with panicked passengers, a frenzied crew, and a desperate attempt to survive a disaster.  We all want to know "exactly what happened."  Who survived?  How did they die? Obviously, the Titanic is another ship that has held us captive for years, for the same reasons.

I suddenly realized today, as I was watching that news spot about that steamer in the Missouri River, that I have an uncommon association with shipwrecks.  Really unusual, actually.

About ten years after I met Barry Clifford, I became re-associated with him and his crew now located permanently in Provincetown, through one of his close friends.*  At this point in time,
Whydah treasure: cvr
Barry's crew (and myself, for a couple of short visits) traveled to Scotland as they searched for another ship, this time located in the Firth of Forth.  This project would continue for a number of years.  Weather, funding, film rights, all dragged out the duration of salvage efforts.

During this same period, another possible wreck off the sands of St. Andrews, drew me into research at the University of St. Andrews, and the National Library of Scotland located in Edinburgh. It was the researcher's Garden of Eden.  I probably sat next to J.K. Rowling at the local cafe as she penned Harry Potter into existence.

Later, the salvage group traveled to Madagascar looking for Capt. Kidd's "Adventure Galley."  My graphic design skills brought me into the fray, and I ended up contributing to the creation of a photo mosaic of the debris field - cannons and pottery at that point - of the shipwreck which had been careened close to the shore of Ile Ste. Marie.  Pretty fascinating: using hundreds and hundreds of video images of the ocean floor, shot by divers with underwater cameras, and then re-constructing them into a whole image.

Why recount all this past history?   I am sure it sounds like a lot of nostalgic, personal rumination.

However, I had become hooked.  Shipwrecks are ripe, tantalizing fodder for the imagination, for sure.  And yet it was the pursuit of clues, facts, solving the questions of the "unknown,"  that sealed the deal for me.  I became hooked on research.

More importantly, I finally began to envision historical events as synapses that actively and colorfully connect us backwards - and forwards  - in time.  It was a way of beginning to truly understand my place in the "timeline" of our universe.   A quest of a very different nature.

Source:  All images accessed from the Whydah Museum website.

*This same mutual 'friend' of ours would also become one of the few to make an early dive on the Titanic, preceded only by Robert Cameron,  giving me yet another close "relationship" with a fascinating relic of "deep" historical significance.

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