by Tim Gilmore, 7/13/2018
The ocean giveth. The ocean taketh away. But for whatever happened here, all the wide world was water.
(Or, as the story shall reveal, the world was Maine or Connecticut, Germany or Jamaica, and Rio de Janeiro.)
She wasn’t quite sure what it was. From a distance, it might have been some great beast of the depths washed up dead and rotten. Cryptozoology with Jonah in its gut. Surely lone walkers of the world’s shores, from time to time, still find the beachings of deep-earth animals no one else has ever seen.
Then Kim saw the cuts of hardwood, the locust-wood treenails and iron spikes, the right angles of board laid against board in crosshatching. Old rusted spikes nailed the shipwreck to the beach.
The long ribs of the hull curved ever so gently against the wet earth, the beveled ends still buried in sand. Clearly the death ship had risen on its extremities from under the sands and tides, bent barely its fossilized back, and managed to surface once again its ghostly exoskeleton. Whether this sad hull were part of the fever ship burnt here in the water, the remaining wood shows no sign of char and ash.
Whatever tragic stranger performed one last act on these boards, Kim Porter bent slowly down and touched this yellow pine. On either end of this vessel in time, neither Kim nor the captain could guess this craft would (did) drown at sea, wash ashore, bury itself in the gradual accretion of a sand dune among dunes, then, sometime in the mid-1980s, lay increasingly vulnerable to the salt air and sunshine again as the dune eroded around it.
In 2017, Hurricane Matthew re-exposed these ruins to air and light. Kim stepped respectfully about the old pine and cypress. She’d been a police officer for 30 years. The ruins had lain beneath sand for perhaps as long as two centuries. She thought of all she’d seen and experienced in her career, but over and against those shootings, lootings, and suicides, wondered what patience lay in the earth at the sea.
The shipwreck spread lonely below the soft, wet, heavy clouds, and the ocean simultaneously lay silent and roared all its epochs into that single October afternoon.
By 1986, storms had crossed and pulled at Little Talbot Island in every just right (and wrong) way to bare the hull.
On May 25 and 26, 1987, Florida underwater archaeologist Roger Smith, Richard Haiduven of Texas AMU, paleontologists, marine archaeologists, archaeological divers, and Park Ranger Dana Phillips of Little Talbot Island converged on Talbot’s northern tip, just beneath Nassau Sound, dug, measured, recorded, sweat, laughed, wearied over a littlest lunch, compared records, dated materials, and reburied the wreck.
“It could date anywhere between 1820 and 1920,” Haiduven and Smith wrote for the December 1987 issue of The Florida Anthropologist. If that conclusion seems inconclusive, there’s much more the archaeologists did not know.
“Just how many decks were built into this structure is unknown.” Which end is the bow, and which the stern? What nation sailed this vessel? What was its name and what was its function?
Who, from the helm, watched the violence of the waters and welled up within his chest the sublime terror unharnessed by this angriest sky? Most everyone who’s ever lived has disappeared, unremembered, while your life and mine are not more real.
The archaeologists who climbed about the re- dis- membered vessel deduced its former structure from the vestige burning in the sun on the island beach those days in May. The ship was either banged together quickly, in great urgency, or redundantly repaired to remain afloat long after the corpse might have sunk.
Haiduven and Smith write, “The clustered fastening patterns of treenails in some areas, the penetration of at least one copper bolt through only ceiling and outer planking, and the apparently random distribution of both copper and iron through-hull fastenings, all suggest that this vessel was either constructed in some haste, or that numerous repairs were done with the intent of prolonging the life of the vessel.”
Kim leaned in to peer at the iron spikes, the ridiculous redundancies of hammerings, excited to put her fingertips to this object the earth had hidden. She found what the carcass had preserved of itself to be lovely. At home, she’s curated a collection of old glass she’s mudlarked from the sides of the St. Johns River. She’s always had an eye for stubborn pieces of the past protruding into her beat.
But whose last home, upon the great ungracious and ancient ocean, were these boards and wales, frames and fastenings and futtocks, knee riders and planks? The slender bent irons that stood up and curved in from the hull in the 1980s have disappeared. More has vanished than is left from which to discern truth. That’s always been true.
“Historical records of vessels known to have been lost in the vicinity of Nassau Inlet are incomplete,” say Haiduven and Smith in The Florida Anthropologist. “However, three likely candidates for the identity of this vessel correspond to the general time period and location.”
Those boats are the Gracie D. Buchanan, the Jessie A. Bishop, and the Soli Deo Gloria. Steven Singer’s out-of-print 1998 book Shipwrecks of Florida: A Comprehensive Listing notes more than 2100 Florida shipwrecks from as far back as the 1600s, a testament to Florida’s true status as global ghost-in-the-water, an international shipwreck of a state.
The Gracie D. Buchanan, a four-masted schooner weighing 1,141 tons, built in 1888 at Bath, Maine, stranded in 1910 at Nassau Inlet. The Boston ship portraitist Samuel Finley Morse Badger captured the schooner in his oil painting Schooner Gracie D. Buchanan Caught in a Squall, depicting the Buchanan struggling through a storm off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, in 1893.
The Jessie A. Bishop, a four-masted schooner weighing 754 tons, built in 1908 at Rockland, Maine, sailed from New Haven, Connecticut, and stranded at Nassau Inlet in 1912. In oil on board, the Danish American artist Antonio Jacobsen depicted the vessel generically with the title Portrait of the Four-Masted Schooner Jessie A. Bishop, Captain Caleb Haskell, Deer Isle, Maine, 1909-1919, though the ship didn’t make it that long.
On October 15, 1891, a German bark called Soli Deo Gloria touched shore just north of the Talbots at Amelia Island. News spread that its sailors were infected with Yellow Fever. Jacksonville’s Dr. C.W. Johnson, who’d been out fishing at Nassau Inlet, reported that same day to the State Board of Health that the Soli Deo Gloria had landed at Little Talbot where “some Negroes” were taking care of the ship’s captain and seven sailors. When Johnson and an unnamed state health officer encountered the crew and their gracious black caretakers, they learned the Soli Deo Gloria had sailed from Kingston, Jamaica with a crew of 11 men, three of whom died of “sunstroke,” which Dr. Johnson determined a euphemism for Yellow Fever, and were buried at sea.
The U.S. Consul’s office at Kingston reported to Dr. Johnson and the Florida Board of Health that the Soli Deo Gloria’s ballast had come from another German bark, the Elene, which had sailed from Rio de Janeiro, one crewman dead five days from Brazil, the captain sick with Yellow Fever upon arrival in Jamaica, where he died on September 11th.
Kim circles the death ship. She likes to touch the ghost that is the past. It’s communion with the dead. It’s religious. It’s touching her fingerprints to the Mystery, the Wonder, the great riddle that dwarfs all police work but also makes all work matter. She feels the tragedy radiate from the remainder.
The Board of Health declared quarantine for the Soli Deo Gloria and moved the crew to the South Atlantic Quarantine Station at Blackbeard Island, Georgia. The Nassau County Board of Health bought the bark and burned it in the waves, leaving the German boat’s blackened remains to time and sand and salt and sea. The “glory” the ship’s name dedicated “to God alone” flamed yellow and gold and feverish and billowed black in the salt of the coastal winds and waters.
Dictionaries define “glory” as praise / adulation / honor, though “to go to one’s glory” is to die. Glory is “splendor” and “magnificence” and “great beauty.” It’s also the “radiance” around a “sacred figure or image.” In the Old Testament, the Glory of God “appeared as a cloud, smoke, or fire.” It spoke to the prophet Moses in the form of a “Burning Bush.”
Dictionaries list “glory” as a synonym for “anticorona,” defined as “the luminous edging around the shadow of an observer or the point where her shadow would fall, as thrown by the sun upon a cloud or fog bank.” While Kim can’t feel, upon her skin, the heat of the glorious fire that consumed the Soli Deo Gloria, her body throws a “glory,” an anticorona, upon what little remains.