Wreck of Ship Lost to Storm 139 Years Ago Washes up on Massachusetts Beach

A shipwreck lost to the ocean since 1884 has re-emerged, washing up on a beach in Nantucket.

The watery remains of the ship were filmed on February 9 on Miacomet Beach by local resident Jesse Ahern.

Evan Schwanfelder of Egan Maritime was contacted to document the new fragment, local news site the Nantucket Current reported.

After seeing the wreck and analyzing fragments of the wooden beams, Dave Robinson, head of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archeological Resources, confirmed that it was likely a section of a renowned ship that had wrecked nearby: the Warren Sawyer—another remnant of which recently re-emerged.

massachusetts shipwreck
Screenshots from the video taken by Jesse Ahern in Nantucket. The shipwreck was determined to likely be that of the Warren Sawyer, which sank in the late 1800s. Jesse Ahern via Storyful

"That schooner wrecked on the beach in Miacomet December 1884, and was recently discovered this past December," Ahern told social media newswire Storyful. "So we walked up to what we thought was that and I noticed it didn't look like the images I saw from the first wreck."

The Warren Sawyer was traveling between New Orleans and Boston when it was blown off course by severe winds on December 22, 1884. The ship, which contained a cargo of cotton and scrap iron, was destroyed in the storm, but all members of the crew escaped and made it to shore, the Nantucket Current recounts.

Herman Melville based his book Moby Dick on the Nantucket whaling industry, which was dominant in the early 19th century.

Ships can be preserved for hundreds of years after they sink, depending on the conditions that they settle in.

"When we see historic ships preserved so well it is normally because they have sunk and quietly been buried in the sediment—when timbers are buried it protects them from erosion," Helen Farr, an associate professor in maritime archaeology at the University of Southampton in the U.K., told Newsweek. "Burial can also slow degradation by protecting ship's timbers from being damaged and eroded by little critters like teredo worms (shipworms) and other wood borers.

Teredo navalis, or the naval shipworm, is actually a worm-shaped species of clam that feeds on submerged wood in salty waters. They can grow up to 20 inches in length, and are voracious pests, damaging wooden ship hulls, shipwrecks and sea defenses. Shipworms have been capable of destroying entire 12 inch-wide tree trunks within a single year. They spread across the world via wooden ships and floating timbers, and despite many attempts to treat or protect the wood, no long-lasting defense against the worms has ever been found. The British Royal Navy ended up coppering the hulls of many of their ships to prevent them being bored by the worms in the 1700s.

Other marine organisms work to decompose shipwrecks, including bacteria. Halomonas titanicae, a bacteria species named after the Titanic, devours rusted iron in shipwrecks.

"Underwater decomposition is pretty different based on the type of water, the overall environment surrounding the artifact and the type or artifact, organic or inorganic," Paola Magni, a senior lecturer in forensic science at Murdoch University in Australia, told Newsweek. "Generally speaking the ocean is like a fridge that can maintain the artifact almost intact for long time. However, the aquatic fauna will colonize it, so it will be possible to look into that and estimate the period spent underwater and potentially where the artifact spent the majority of the time underwater."

Often, the reason that chunks of shipwrecks like the Warren Sawyer suddenly reappear on nearby beaches include shifts to the sedimentary environment.

"Changes to the 'post depositional' environment (I.e. shifting sands, sediment movement from storm surges, local dredging or other such changes) can uncover timbers and wrecks and they are exposed again on the seabed, shallow water or sometimes, are washed up on beaches," Farr said.

This can often occur in the aftermath of storms, which whip up the ocean waters and subsequently the seabed.

"Timber vessels on beaches are often uncovered after storms, which remove sand from the beach and expose the wreck," John McCarthy, maritime archaeologist and diver at Flinders University in Australia, told Newsweek. "It is often the lowest part of the vessel which is preserved as this part originally sank into the sediments after the ship was wrecked or beached."

Even if the ship has not been recognisably the Warren Sawyer, experts can use small pieces of a wreck washed up to garner more information about the history of the vessel.

"We can tell a lot about the vessel even from these fragmentary remains. Vessels can be dated using dendrochronology and the design and timber type can reveal the date and origin of the vessel," McCarthy said.

Dendrochronology is a scientific method of aging wood, using a tree's annual growth rings to determine how old a tree was and when or where it grew.

Upon exposure to the air, the decomposition of the ship can accelerate rapidly, so the fact that Ahern found the ship and experts were contacted rapidly means that they could learn more about the wreck and confirm it being the Warren Sawyer.

"As soon as the artifact that has spent a long time underwater is exposed to air, its decomposition can happen very fast, so experts in archaeology and conservations should be called in as soon as possible," Magni said.

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