- by Carol Standish
With the arrival of October, New Englanders who live along the coast begin to relax their weather eyes. After all, hurricane season is almost over. Time to take a breather before the arrival of blizzard season, curl up by the fire with a good book, maybe, and since escape from weather mayhem has almost been achieved, albeit temporarily, why not tempt fate and read all about it?
Shipwrecks & Maritime Disasters of the Maine Coast (The Provincial Press; 217pp; $16.50) by Peter Dow Bachelder is not a relaxing book. It contains fourteen stories of disasters at sea between the Isles of Shoals and Lubec, between 1710 and 1947. The stories are full of insurmountable danger and tragedy but not everybody dies. The focus of the book is on hair-raising rescues and selfless heroism. After all, somebody has to live to tell the tale. Author Bachelder has been fascinated with violent weather and the sea since he was a small boy. In the introduction to his book he recalls looking out the window of his parents' home in Cape Elizabeth into a swirling blizzard one March day in 1947. What he remembers the most was the howl of the wind and how that sound obliterated all other sounds, even the fog horn at nearby Portland Head Light. On that same day, just a few miles away from his home, the Oakey L. Alexander, a five thousand ton collier carrying eighty-two thousand tons of coal slammed onto the ledges below High Head.
Bachelder's book is thoroughly researched, full of fascinating and factual detail and well paced. He introduces the ten chapters of reportage of actual accidents and events with a short essay on the history of two separate agencies, the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Perhaps the most tantalizing material in the introduction is in the section of anecdotal accounts of the shipwrecks and mishaps of early European explorers…seldom if ever mentioned in history books, probably in deference to the dignity of the great men. Samuel de Champlain, for instance, " 'stove the undersides' " of his small patache on a ledge near the mouth of Otter Creek while mapping Mt. Desert Island in 1604. He obviously lived to tell the tale.
The Plymouth colony frequently sent the pinnace, Little James, to trade with various fishing colonies along what is now the Maine coast. While moored near Damariscove Island in April of 1624 she was driven onto ledges by a sudden storm, described by a witness as " 'violent and extraordinary' " making " 'a hole in her bulke, as a horse and cart might have gone in.' " The frugality of those colonists motivated them to try and raise the craft and ingenuity made the effort a success. They "summoned coopers who built and fastened 'many tun of cask, and being made tight' to the partially submerged hull at low water. As the tide rose, the Little James refloated and dozens of willing hands hauled her to shore with ropes." She was repaired on the beach and sailed back to Plymouth in August.
Bachelder's opens his book with a detailed account of the wreck of the Nottingham Galley on Boon Island in 1710. Gleaned from a manuscript written by the captain of the vessel, as well as the reports of several crew members and rescuers, the story is a harrowing account of endurance on a pile of rock less than seven hundred feet square at high tide, seven miles from the mainland of New Hampshire in the worst possible winter conditions. In the late fall of 1710, the 120 ton British vessel sailed from Ireland to trade in New England. Dense fog plagued the crossing for 12 days straight, causing the Captain to become disoriented. On December eleventh, a northeast gale blew the vessel onto the ledges of Boon Island, splintering it apart and forcing captain and the crew of fourteen men to jump overboard and swim for the rocks. They all made it. While they watched the ship break up in the pounding surf, the captain said a prayer of " 'humble and sincere Thanks to Divine Providence for their miraculous deliverance from so imminent a Danger." Thereby hangs the tale. They were finally rescued by a shore party on January 4th, twenty-four days later. Maine author, Kenneth Roberts, used this event as the basis of 1956 novel, Boon Island.
Also included in Shipwrecks & Maritime Disasters of the Maine Coast is the story of the Royal Tar, a four hundred ton, one hundred and sixty foot steamship built in New Brunswick in 1835 to carry freight, passengers, and mail between St. John and Portland. The ship succumbed to fire in Penobscot Bay in September of 1836. Unusual for this passage of the Royal Tar was the passenger list. A traveling circus complete with a managerie of exotic animals, a circus wagon, an omnibus, and a brass band were returning to Portland from a tour of the Maritimes. The elephant had to travel on deck being too large to go below. In fact, he took up so much space that two of the four life boats were left behind. A nearby revenue schooner, the Veto, saw the flames and dashed to the scene only to be forced to stand off because of her cargo of gunpowder. Nothing about the rescue attempt seemed to go right but not for lack of valiant effort on the part of the captains and crews of the two vessels and many brave passengers…but you have to read it for yourself.
At the beginning of each chapter, Bachelder has included a simplified marine map indicating the spot where each ship went down. He has chosen individual events for their unique character, all along the Maine coast and down the centuries. His prose is easy to read and packed with detail which enlivens and enriches each extraordinary event. This book is an exciting and painlessly informative read, a terrific gift for anyone with an eye toward the weather and the sea.