From the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the wedging in the Suez Canal of the Evergreen tanker earlier this year, ships in distress often gain the world’s attention. “Shipwrecks are endlessly fascinating,” said author Don Wilding, “and on Cape Cod, they are endless, period.”
Mr. Wilding, who has a home in Dennis and has been speaking on Cape history for over 20 years, has recently completed his third book on Cape history: “Shipwrecks of Cape Cod: Stories of Tragedy and Triumph.” His previous titles are “Henry Beston’s Cape Cod: How the Outermost House Inspired a National Seashore,” and “A Brief History of Eastham.”
Both previous books “had their share of shipwreck stories in them,” according to Mr. Wilding, “and so that just naturally branched out into this book.”
In addition to his three books, Mr. Wilding is the longtime author of the history column “Shore Lore,” which appeared in the Cape Codder newspaper.
While there are endless stories about shipwrecks, Mr. Wilding said he tried to find the human element in the 43 stories he chose for the book. “There are records and accounts, but not always details, so I tried to look for stories that had a human connection.”
“There’s an old saying that if you could raise every one of those shipwrecks, you could walk from P-Town to Chatham without getting your feet wet.”
The book starts with the wreck of the Sparrow-Hawk in 1626, en route to Jamestown, Virginia, generally classified as the “first wreck on Cape Cod shores.” The boat stranded twice off Nauset Beach before being abandoned by its passengers and crew, all of whom were rescued.
The final story in the book is that of the Eldia, a 471-foot freighter which beached off Nauset in 1984. The ship was stuck on the beach for seven weeks before it was finally dislodged from the sand. Local merchants created T-shirts and mugs commemorating the event and the town made over $80,000 by charging visitors $2 a day to park at Nauset Beach.
Reasoning that their stories have already been extensively told, Mr. Wilding has left out some of the more famous wrecks, including the Pendleton and the pirate ship Whydah.
Mr. Wilding documents shipwrecks that happened two and three at a time in unexpected storms, such as the Truro Gale of 1841 that wrecked 190 vessels off the New England coast, with 57 men lost from the Town of Truro alone. In one storm a pig was the sole survivor of the shipwreck, having swum ashore in Truro from a wreck that was swept across the bay and destroyed on the rocks in Scituate. Another account is the attempted rescue of men from the submarine S-4 off Provincetown after it was struck by a ship. Sadly, although most of the men survived the initial collision, they succumbed to carbon dioxide poisoning before the sub could be salvaged from underwater.
Even in a more modern age, ships got in trouble. In 1962 the Gloucester fishing vessel Margaret Rose lost its electrical navigation gear in a 60-mph gale and had to be rescued off Provincetown using a breeches buoy, a zip line-like device that would be attached to the foundering ship in order to hoist and remove crew one by one.
Often shipwrecked crew would climb into the ship’s rigging on the “hope and a prayer that someone would come along and get them,” said Mr. Wilding. Sometimes ships would break up, sinking both men and rigging. Other times worse fates occurred, such as in the wreck of the Castagna, which struck a sandbar off Wellfleet in February 1914. When rescue boats arrived early the next morning they found several crew members frozen among the ship’s rigging.
With shifting sands, dangerous shoals and storms, navigating around the Cape, before the building of the Cape Cod Canal, was a “nightmare” according to Mr. Wilding. The majority of the wrecks that have taken place off the shores of the Cape were commercial ships; some from all over the world. “That’s how everything got there. They would be carrying everything from sugar to fabric to bales of jute,” said Mr. Wilding. “The Italian ship Castagna was carrying guano and cattle horns, both used in the fertilizer process.”
The longest chapter in the book is given over to telling the story of the surfmen who manned first the US Life-Saving Service and later the Coast Guard’s 13 lifesaving stations along the Cape’s outer beaches. These men didn’t simply wait in a lifesaving station for a shipwreck to happen. Armed with a lantern they patrolled their areas, walking several miles up and down in the beach to look for ships in distress. Sometimes simply walking the beach could be perilous; rogue waves could wash a surfman into the water, high tides could also strand them. During Prohibition surfmen might encounter rumrunners and during WWI surfmen were under suspicion of being traitors signaling to an unseen enemy offshore. Mr. Wilding also reports on more humorous encounters, such as the surfman who was surprised on the beach by a Great Dane and another who accidentally fell into the carcass of a whale that had washed ashore and bemoaned the aroma recounting, “you could smell me for miles.”
“With the lifesaving service, what they had to do, these people put the lives on the line,” said Mr. Wilding, “their bravery was incredible.”
With his outgoing personality and ability to speak animatedly about the shipwrecks and personal stories of crew members and surfmen, Mr. Wilding is a natural for giving presentations and talks on local history. “I’ve always been a bit of a storyteller,” he said.
Mr. Wilding traces in interest in the ocean and Cape Cod history back to his first visit to the area from his home in New Jersey. “Even through I was just a little kid, I remember it very well. We went to Dennis and Provincetown and I just thought they were the coolest places. The dunes are like their own world. It’s different from anything you can experience anywhere else.”
Among the local resources Mr. Wilding used to research the book were the Eastham Historical Society, the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Thornton W. Burgess Society as well as local and Boston newspapers. While most of the research was finished before 2020, Mr. Wilding said that the pandemic allowed him time to step away from the world a little bit and concentrate on finishing the book.
One alluring aspect of shipwrecks is that the majority of them are still out there; periodically some of them become visible again above the sand or surf. “You still have the shipwrecks out there,” said Mr. Wilding, “they’re still in the sand. The timbers of the Montclair still come up. They were quite visible three years ago.” Other wrecks that now and then surface include the 1778 wreck of the HMS Somerset and the wreck of the 1872 German bark the Frances, which can be seen at low tide along Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro. Even the Sparrow-Hawk, sunk in 1626, resurfaced in the 1860s on the beach in Orleans.
Mr. Wilding will give a talk at the Bourne Historical Society’s Aptucxet Trading Post Museum on Wednesday, July 14, at 7 PM as well as a program and book-signing at Titcomb’s Bookshop on July 27 at 7 PM. Copies of “Shipwrecks of Cape Cod” are available at Titcomb’s Bookshop as well as at Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth. Talks are also scheduled in August at the Cape Cod Maritime Museum and as part of Tales of Cape Cod. A full list of events can be found on Mr. Wilding’s website: www.dwcapecod.com.