In two days we’ll all celebrate the centennial anniversary of the world’s most famous wreck, and we’ll do so for good reason. Titanic is the first thing that comes to the minds of most of us when they we “shipwreck.” It has become the paradigm of the modern wreck—a distant disaster that occurs far from land and rescue. Shipwrecks, so it goes, revolve around the human drama on a sinking vessel as it descends into an unforgiving sea. It’s women and children first (or not), the band playing on, and the captain going down with the ship. Each wreck lies on the bottom of the ocean joining thousands of others in an underwater landscape vividly imagined by Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:
…the bottom of these seas look like a field of battle, where still lie all the conquered of the ocean; some old and already encrusted, others fresh and reflecting from their iron bands and copper plates the brilliancy of our lantern.
There each wreck remains, hidden on the bottom until modern-day treasure hunters or techno-savvy underwater archaeologists discover them.
Unfortunately, nearly everything the example of the Titanic suggests about shipwrecks is misleading. Most shipwrecks, historically and today, occur close to land. Whether discussing 1912, 1812, or 2012, most vessels wreck close to shore rather than the middle of the ocean. For Americans (I’m sure the same applies to many other parts of the world; my research focuses on the American east coast), shipwrecks have been common, almost daily occurrences along much of their coast until quite recently and most of those wrecks have involved merchant vessels manned by a small crew rather than passenger vessels filled with people. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, few shipwrecks have been total losses and even fewer have involved the loss of life because most vessels wrecked into a tightly spun web of local, state, and national agencies that effectively mitigated loss. Shipwrecks, in short, have been more about the drama of profit and property than they have been about life, death, or chivalry.
Here’s an example of one of those mundane wrecks that are far more typical of shipwrecks. It happened almost 100 years to the day before the Titanic went down. A coastal wreck, everyone survived and prospects for getting the vessel off looked good. The blurb appeared in the April 14, 1812 edition of New York City’s The Columbian.
The pilot boat Champlin was driven ashore on Saturday night, about 3 miles to the southward of Sandy Hook. Crew saved, and it was supposed the vessel will be got off.
Exactly two weeks later, on April 28th, the New York Gazete & General Advertiser printed this notice:
We are sorry to learn, that the pilot-boat Champlin, sometime since driven ashore, is going to pieces