A tour of Cape Cod shipwrecks

By Jack Sheedy - The Barnstable Patriot


The waters and sands around Cape Cod form the final resting place for hundreds of shipwrecks that occurred here over the past four centuries.

Dangerous shoals and bars along the backside of the peninsula snagged so many of these hapless vessels that 13 lifesaving stations were built to aid shipwrecked mariners. Eventually, the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 allowed vessels to avoid the treacherous Atlantic coastline and significantly reduced the number of disasters.

In fact, it is said that if all the vessels that came to woe here were lined up bow to stern they would form an unbroken chain from Monomoy to Provincetown. Many of these wrecks have become lost over time beneath the unceasing rhythms of sea and sand.

Others were picked over so thoroughly by Cape Codders of old that they no longer exist intact, but rather in pieces – perhaps as a door in a house or as boards forming an old barn.

A shipwreck along the shore in those days was a bounty from the sea to be scavenged by the locals. Nothing was left to waste. Yet, some memorable Cape wrecks, or pieces left behind from those wrecks, can still be viewed today – if you know where to look. And you won’t even need scuba gear.

To commence any tour of Cape Cod shipwrecks, one should start at the very beginning with the Cape’s first recorded shipwreck – the Sparrow-Hawk, which grounded off Nauset Beach in 1626.

Not only are her English elm keel and oak ribs viewable today, but these timbers are in remarkably good condition given their antiquity and the fact that they were exposed to the elements for more than 200 years.

The story of the Sparrow-Hawk mirrors that of the Mayflower – a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new life in a new world.

Like the Mayflower, the Sparrow-Hawk arrived at Cape Cod, north of her intended destination at Virginia, and like the Mayflower, headed south along the coastline.

Unlike Captain Christopher Jones of the Mayflower, though, who realized the dangers of the shoals along the outer Cape and promptly turned his vessel around for the safety of Provincetown Harbor, the captain of the Sparrow-Hawk eventually wrecked his vessel.

All hands survived, spending the winter with the Pilgrims in Plymouth.

As for the wreck, it was said to be burned to the waterline by Natives and her remains became sanded in until they were discovered in the 1860s and exhumed to go on display around New England.

The ship’s skeletal timbers later landed at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, and are now on loan to the Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis, where they can be viewed.

Another museum in Barnstable that holds a remnant of an impressive shipwreck is the Centerville Historical Museum. On exhibit is the ship’s wheel from the 291-foot paddlewheel steamer, Portland, which sank during a terrible storm in November 1898 with some 175 people on board.

Wreckage from this disaster washed up all along the Lower Cape coastline, ending up in private homes and, eventually, in museums around the Cape, such as at the Jericho House Barn Museum in Dennis, where a Portland deck post is on display.

Provincetown’s Macmillan Wharf is home to the Expedition Whydah Sea Lab & Learning Center, where artifacts can be seen from the wreck of the pirate ship, Whydah, which foundered off Wellfleet in 1717.

The vessel was under the command of legendary pirate “Black” Sam Bellamy, who, as lore suggests, romanced an Eastham woman named Maria Hallett before setting off to make his fortune through piracy. During his return voyage to the area, Bellamy ran into a storm and his prize Whydah wrecked just off his former lover’s coast.




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