Investigation Into Nantucket Shipwreck Set To Begin

Jason Graziadei •

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“It is not unusual for wrecks to surface after storms but nothing of this size has been seen on Nantucket in many years,” said the Egan Maritime Institute's director of education Evan Schwanfelder.

He was talking about the discovery of the remains of what is believed to be a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century shipwreck along Nantucket's south shore last weekend.

The shipwreck has already garnered international attention, and captivated the imagination of island residents and those on the mainland. But what happens next in the investigation to identify the shipwreck? We asked Egan Maritime's executive director Carlisle Barron Jensen.

"The wreck is under the jurisdiction of both the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources (BUAR) and the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC)," Barron Jensen wrote in a message to the Current. The two organizations "share overlapping jurisdictional permitting and regulatory authority for archaeological resources located within Massachusetts's intertidal zone. Once they visit the site we can work together to determine next steps. At this moment we are doing everything possible to not disturb the site and keep the wreck intact."

Barron Jensen believes a state archeologist will be on Nantucket as early as tomorrow to begin investigating the wreck. While Egan has already raised the idea of carbon dating a sample of wood from the remnants of the wreck, that process is on hold until the initial investigation is conducted by the two state agencies.

According to Egan Maritime, "treacherous shoals and inclement weather led to over 750 shipwrecks in the island's waters. As a result, the area was often called 'a graveyard of the Atlantic'." While many local residents recalled a time decades ago when such shipwrecks were commonplace along Nantucket's shorelines - and how islanders would scavenge them for wood - a discovery like this one found by Nantucket landscaper Matt Palka last weekend is now rare.

"On Nantucket Island, erosion is typically the reason that shipwrecks surface out of the sand," Egan Maritime stated in an announcement released on Monday. "Ships that wrecked around Nantucket were usually victims of New England’s powerful winter storms. As a consequence, it is rare that a good-sized hull, like this one, would remain intact after the wreck. Almost all the shipwrecks around our island were fishing boats or coastal schooners carrying mail, timber, coal, or live pigs."

For Egan Maritime, the shipwreck represents an unparalleled opportunity to pair its mission and education programming with a real-life discovery that will continue to play out over the next year.

"This is an incredible opportunity for Egan Maritime Institute to combine the work we do at the museum with our Sea of Opportunities maritime education classes," Jensen said. "We look forward to diving into historical records to learn more about this ship and the individuals who may have lost their lives at sea. We hope to turn the site into an outdoor classroom and allow our students to join us every step of the way as we work to discover the story of what happened. Please stay tuned as we continue to uncover the mystery of this wreck."

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Some on Nantucket are already sleuthing to try to identify the wreck.

Island resident John Allen's theory is that the wreck could be a piece of The Warren Sawyer, a three-masted schooner built in the late 19th century that wrecked west of Surfside Beach in December 1884.

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