Belfast, Maine — Every low tide for generations, the wooden timbers of an old shipwreck emerge from the mudflats of the Passagassawakeag River in Belfast.
No one seems to know much about the ship. When did it sail and what did it carry? Was it the victim of a nor’easter or other storm, or was it intentionally scuttled in the river after it had outlived its usefulness? Who owned it, and what was its name?
Now, students from Belfast Area High School have begun to try to find some answers.
“You start with the basic questions,” maritime historian and writer Charles Lagerbom, who co-teaches a marine studies class at the high school, said recently. “We can still find out all kinds of things.”
On a bright, blustery morning last week, that’s exactly what the students were trying to do. They wore tall rubber boots as they splashed around the wooden ribs of the wreck that barely peeked up from the water. Normally, the shipwreck is more accessible at low tide, but a major autumn storm meant that low tide was not nearly as low as usual.
Jesse Cowan, 16, of Belfast, said he didn’t mind the cold water as he used a measuring tape to figure out how closely together the timbers, also known as futtocks, were spaced.
“I think it’s pretty fun,” he said. “I spent a whole year of school cooped up in my room. This is a blessing.”
Getting students outside for a field trip with a purpose is one of the benefits of the class, an elective which is designed to give teens more knowledge about the wide-range of possibilities in maritime studies, according to Jess Woods, the assistant principal of the high school. She hopes the class will eventually expand into something larger — a marine institute located at the high school, so students enrolled in a traditional high school can learn more about marine industries in a meaningful way.
“We’re trying to connect the students with the maritime industry, past, present and future,” she said, adding that the shipwreck offers a special opportunity. “Right now, we’re looking at the past.”
Students in the class do other things, too. They have practiced with a remotely operated vehicle that explores underwater, and tried a scuba diving exploration course at the high school pool. They’re also doing special individual projects, including Kaci Dusoe, 15, of Northport, who is looking at microplastics in the water, and Izik Marriner, 16, of Belfast, who is trying to find a market for the invasive green crabs that now are found everywhere on the Maine coast.
“There’s got to be something there,” he said. “If not, we can add the crabs to something.”
At the wreck site, Lisa White, a chemistry teacher who helps to lead the interdisciplinary class, had students measure the temperature of the water and take samples which will be used to determine salinity levels.
“The main mission is the shipwreck,” she said. “I think we do a nice job getting the students out in the field for this class [and develop] a connection in the community. We have such a good backyard here to do some monitoring.”
Eventually, she would like the students to move beyond the shipwreck to monitor sites elsewhere in the harbor and collect data over a longer period of time.
But for the moment, the wreck keeps them busy. At the site, Lagerbom asked Cowan to look at the timbers and make a determination.
“Are the timbers hand-hewn, or are they [sawed]? That’s just one of the clues we look for,” the teacher said.
Lagerbom told the teens that scientists “try not to jump the gun” while gathering information so they don’t draw the wrong conclusions. For his part, he wonders if the ship might have once been used to haul granite. The timbers seem sturdy and are built close-together, which to him suggests that the ship was used to carry something heavy.
Lily Christian, 17, of Waldo, who was jotting down the called-out measurements and making a rough drawing of the shipwreck, said that the history along the Maine coast suggests the boat used to be a fishing vessel, a lobster boat or carried ice.
But Cowan, who believes the timbers were hand-hewn, has a different working hypothesis, one that seems straight out of a movie. What if the ship had been used in the 1920s for a very specific purpose — and scuttled intentionally when the revenuers got too close? A large quantity of glass bottles near the shipwreck site tells him he might be on the right track.
“I think it may have been a rum runner,” Cowan said.