Sargent's view: Probing the mystery of a Plum Island shipwreck

Bill Sargent photoGraham McKay of  Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury holds what could be a rust-encrusted pistol from a 19th century shipwreck.

Aug. 30 was a hot summer day with just enough wind to keep the kelp flies at bay. The heat and the abundance of algae washed ashore during a recent storm had caused a bloom of these annoying dipterans.

The females need a good hearty meal of human blood so they can lay their eggs in the seaweed lining the wrack line. When they hatch, the larvae will feed off the bacteria coating the algae.

A misogynistic scientist gave the flies the modifier of their binomial name coelopa frigida from the females’ tendency to push small, would-be male mates off their backs, in effect selecting for larger males. The scientific literature does not state the height of the researcher who conducted this research.

Despite such amorous struggles, the flies still have the wherewithal to drive mere mortals off the beach, so we were happy they largely left us alone on our half-mile hike up the outer beach of the Parker River wildlife reservation. 

Finally, we arrived at our quarry, a large, old rusty anchor resting in moist sand high up in the intertidal zone. This would be where you might expect it to be if it had been thrown overboard to hold a ship from foundering offshore.

Massachusetts state marine archaeologist Victor Mastone started taking measurements of the anchor, helped by one of his students, Sarah Sierzago, and Graham McKay, a master boat builder and director of Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury.

The anchor was about nine feet long and its flukes were five feet from bill to bill. One of the flukes was severely bent and we could see heavily encrusted sections of rope and chain attached to a large ring with a massive heavy shackle. But the most diagnostic feature of the anchor was its crown that was sharp rather than rounded, which would date the anchor to the late 1800s. 

After taking the measurements, we walked back down the beach and came to a pile of round ballast rocks and an artifact that, despite being heavily encrusted, had the shape and heft of a short gun.

The rock pile was about 400 yards downwind from where the occupants of the vessel had tried to anchor to prevent their ship from being pounded to pieces on the offshore sandbar. 

Farther down the beach, we found the spruce keel of a Novi design fishing boat fitted together with metal nails. It was probable the two pieces of wreckage were from separate wrecks and that the older ship might have been the sloop Wayward that first grounded in 1894, then was washed south to its final resting place.

It was fitting that we were exploring the wreck on the same day a tropical wave had just spun off Africa to form the first Cape Verdean storm. 

Sept. 1 usually marks the beginning of Plum Island’s erosion season that commences when waves from the first Cape Verdean storms start to tip the balance from accretion to erosion along the island’s shores.

September is also the busiest month for Cape Verdean hurricanes. The month has spawned more than 400 Cape Verdean hurricanes since 1851. Had one of them led to the demise of the Wayward 124 years before? There was not enough evidence to know for sure but what was clear was that erosion season was about to begin and it would have severe consequences for the entire New England coast. 

Bill Sargent is a North Shore science writer and contributing columnist. His most recent book, “Plum Island 2018: Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back,” is available in local bookstores and through and