Why do we find shipwrecks a fascinating subject? Maybe some are drawn to them for the same reason others of us resonate with stories about romances washed up, relationships on the rocks. They can serve as cautionary tales laden with life lessons. “Watch out for this,” we may feel advised. “Could mean trouble ahead.”
As far as trouble on Penobscot Bay, author Harry Gratwick is our guide in his newest book, Historic Shipwrecks of Penobscot Bay, where he provides the story of 11-plus ships, each with its own tragic destiny.
As befits someone who taught history, loves research and has spent a lot of time hands-on (as in “on deck”) exploring the maritime environs of Maine, Gratwick revels in detailing the stories he tells. As he describes a selection of Pen Bay mishaps—downed warships, steamers and schooners over the years 1782-1992—we learn about the era’s political climate, boat technology, economics and cultural context. Photographs illustrate many of the points he makes.
Gratwick also seeks to provide insight into the personalities of those involved. It’s a man’s world, that’s for sure. The only women in the book, besides those whose names are given to ships (and of whom we know nothing more), are those appearing somewhat incidentally in some photographs. I know this is a book about what once was, at least in our recorded historical version, a pretty exclusive male domain. Given Gratwick’s focus, we have what we have here—men at the helm.
That’s not to say the men aren’t fascinating to read about. Gratwick enlivens his accounts by providing some colorful aspects of character, experience, attitude and leadership style. If we were going to come to some conclusions about shipwrecks at sea, we might—after reading this book—suspect some personalities carry more risks than others.
And some places do, too.
There’s a hand-drawn map of Penobscot Bay at the front of the book, but none showing the locations of all the wrecks.
Reading the book will make one grateful for the boon of today’s technology. However, sailors will always face challenges at sea, so that’s not to say anyone can downplay the risks that remain ever-present. Gratwick’s nautical tales of man v. nature (and sometimes man vs. man) teach us that survival is fickle; we can never count on it as a sure thing. And come to think of it, isn’t a lesson just like that embedded in those stories of romance too?
Tina Cohen is a longtime seasonal resident on Vinalhaven. She prefers kayaks.