By JERRY ALLEGOOD
FISHERMEN LIKE TO TEASE JACQUELINE MARCOTTE ABOUT HER research into junked and sunken boats in remote creeks along the Pungo River in Beaufort County.
“It happens all the time,” says Marcotte, a graduate student at East Carolina University in Greenville. “They laugh at me and say, ‘I don’t understand why you’re interested in this junk.'”
“I am,” she adds emphatically. “I’m interested in this junk.”
Worn-out workboats may be junk to coastal residents, but researchers in ECU’s Program in Maritime Studies say small boat graveyards along the coast contain a wealth of information about the state’s maritime heritage. Watery graves with bony boards and rusty rigging hold information about boat building, as well as the economic, social and political changes in small communities.
Marcotte’s project, funded by North Carolina Sea Grant and ECU, concentrates on several rural boat graveyards in the Wright’s Creek area near Belhaven, about 200 miles east of Raleigh.
Commercial fishing was traditionally a main industry in the area. Belhaven, incorporated in 1899, had two oyster packinghouses and the Wright’s Creek area still has small family-owned seafood businesses.
The relatively shallow waters don’t have the mystique or lore of the Graveyard of the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast where hundreds of vessels were sunk by storms, accidents or war. No famous shipwrecks rest here; mostly workboats that close to home.
Most of these boats aren’t even considered shipwrecks. Because the boats were deliberately abandoned in a purposeful, controlled manner, archaeologists say they reveal information about the people who worked with them.
“They are a microcosm of the communities,” says Nathan Richards, a faculty member in ECU’s maritime studies program.
Richards, who has studied ship graveyards, says similar sites are found at ports and waterside communities around the world. In some places, they have been used for decades.
“These things are everywhere,” he says, noting that disposal sites show how quickly technology changes and how quickly boats can become obsolete.
In the past, it was common to simply drag an abandoned vessel to a remote shoreline or let it fall apart in the water. That has changed with stricter environmental laws aimed at preventing pollution. In addition, the demand for waterfront property has once isolated shorelines into valuable residential property. To passersby, the mottled hulk of an abandoned boat is a quaint feature of the coastal landscape. To others, it’s just an eyesore akin to a junked car beside the road. According to Marcotte, rural boat graveyards have largely been overlooked because they are usually isolated in remote areas. Many studies concentrate on disposal sites near ports or on larger ocean-going vessels.
“It’s something that doesn’t happen as often anymore,” Marcotte says.
She points out that she is not interested in the legal ramifications of boat abandonment, only the archaeological aspects.
“I’m making no judgments,” she says. “I’m not concerned about the legality.”
Previous studies in North Carolina documented numerous rural boat graveyards along the Pamlico and Pungo rivers. A 1994 survey on the north shore of the Pamlico River from Bath Creek to Wades Point discovered 22 partially or fully submerged sites where most of the boats had been abandoned. Some remains dated to the antebellum period.
Another study of the Pungo River in 1995 from Wades Point to Woodstock Point located 12 abandoned boats in Wright’s Creek and others at Bradley Creek and Schoolhouse Landing.
Wades Point is where the Pamlico and Pungo rivers join at the Pamlico Sound.
Marcotte is looking closer at the specific sites. She wants information that will help explain the process that led to boat disposal. She is examining how the remains represent a vessel’s life cycle and the implications on a broader technological level. She also wants to look at the economic trends visible in the material remains, as well as the reuse of vessels.
Work began last year in Wright’s Creek, a tributary of the Pungo River, and the West Prong of North Creek, a tributary of the Pamlico. Eighteen vessels were visible in the Wright’s Creek area with several more restingjust below the waterline.
Despite the teasing and occasional skepticism, local residents often help Marcotte with background on boats and where to find them. Carl Foster at Foster’s Seafood filled her in on boats his father built.
In the past, some people discarded boats in out-of-the-way places rather than haul them on shore. More recently, a few went down unintentionally. “Floyd sunk ’em,” he says, referring to Hurricane Floyd’s pass over the coast in 1999.
Foster suggests some boats need to come out of the water but removing others that attract fish would do more harm than good. “You’re better off with ’em overboard,” he says.
Marcotte and two other ECU graduate students, Tyler Morra and Elizabeth Wyllie, cruised through the placid waters one afternoon recently, pointing out boats in various stages of decline.
Most of the boats in these graveyards are sad, not spooky.
Once these were working craft run by fishermen in “oil suits” and rubber boots. They cast off from nameless docks hauling nets, traps, bait and hope. They returned with decks reeking of blue crabs, shrimp and all manner of fish.
Now, a broken bow sticking out of the water is an empty shell. A pockmarked pilothouse is a forlorn reminder of better times.
One of Marcotte’s tasks is to determine if the boats were discarded or sunk by storms and left in place.
“It’s hard to tell whether they were abandoned and how long they have been there,” Marcotte says, noting that interviews with area residents indicate some have been in the water for 10 to 15 years.
Remains of six wooden workboats rest in one creek where they were towed, stripped and discarded.
“It has layers ofvessels, one on top of the other,” Marcotte says. “It’s definitely used in a different way.”
Some boats are gutted like fish. Engines are removed for salvage or to keep fuel and oil from spilling into the water. Cables, winches and other equipment are stripped off.
Others have simply been abandoned because owners died or can’t keep them running. To some observers, the boats are seen as visible emblems of the decline in the state’s commercial fishing industry.
“That seems to be the recurring theme,” Marcotte says. “People are passing away and there is no one to take over.”
The researchers pass a faded white boat with Carolina blue rigging. Partially submerged, it apparently sits on the bottom, listing to port. A metal mast sticking out of the water nearby marks another boat that has succumbed.
Another sits low in the water, apparently giving in slowly. “She was high and dry not too long ago,” Marcotte says.
In a secluded cove, it is still and silent as a cemetery. Small rickety docks line the shoreline, poking out of overgrown grass and debris. The shoreline is littered with twisted crab pots, floats and pieces of net. Marcotte and Wyllie, clad in wetsuits, prepare to dive on a submerged boat while Morra maneuvers their skiff into place. There is no sign of anyone on shore, where four fiberglass outboards sit on boat trailers. They stop a short distance from empty, but not abandoned boats.
The two women adjust their diving masks, check their gear and ease over the side into chilly water.
Working in murky water with about two feet of visibility, they measure the waterlogged boat and jot the dimensions on a waterproof slate. After about 30 minutes, they know a little more about the 26′-by-8′ boat.
“We want to know the extent of the cabin,” Marcotte says. “We know the rigging is here. It’s a tiny little work boat.”
On a cloudy, overcast day the largest abandoned boats look ghostly white, with droopy ropes and cables and dark pilothouses.
But all is not graveyard grim. Large docks are stacked with clumps of green net, coils of rope, cable and assorted machinery waiting to be put to work. At Wright’s Creek Marina and Seafood, commercial fishermen unload a catch from a large trawler.
The fishermen wave and joke as Marcotte and the researchers pass on their way back to the dock.
“You’re just in time,” a white-booted fishermen calls to Marcotte. “I’ve got a leak in my boat.”
In some places, that may sound like whistling past the graveyard.
This article was published in the Winter 2009 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.