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Community efforts underway to preserve Cape Ray shipwreck

Jamie Brake
Jamie Brake is an archaeologist with the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and one of the team who examined the Cape Ray shipwreck. - © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

By Jaymie White

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

— with files from René J. Roy

CAPE RAY — Provincial archaeologist Jamie Brake held a small press conference to discuss the Cape Ray shipwreck after visiting the site on Saturday, Feb. 3. Neil Burgess, President of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of NL was part of the small team that surveyed the wreck and took samples for further testing

“We were able to do a good bit while we were there. We were able to have a look around at the beaches and we had quite a lot of help from local people there with being shown where different components of the ship are,” said Brake. “We were able to get quite a bit of what we're hoping to get done, done, which was good. We've got another colleague who's hoping to visit on Friday (Feb. 9) because of tide and light and so on. He's got an excellent drone that he's hoping to capture some imagery with.”

There is nothing to indicate that it is historically significant or unique.

“One of the things to keep in mind is that there would be thousands of shipwrecks, archaeological shipwrecks, around various parts of the province right now. We've got 800 of those registered, and about 700 of those are likely to date to the time frame that this generally dates to,” said Brake. “If we're right about the general sort of ballpark age, this is a time for which we've got lots of archaeological records. There's a lot known. We're probably not going to learn a whole lot more about the time frame involved by studying this particular wreck in detail.” 

The location is not helping.

“The remains of the wreck are right in the middle of the surf zone there, so it is being picked with waves and so on. There's difficult weather conditions and considering the time of the year, etcetera, and the size of this, it's really impossible to kind of pull that out with everything intact,” said Brake. “So there's that issue, but we've got quite a lot in terms of a collection and samples that we should be able to learn a good bit more with. So we've done what we had hoped to do from our perspective there. So in terms of material that we collected, we were able to get examples of most of the fasteners. It should be most fasteners, that were used in the construction there, including copper rods and brass fasteners, wooden tree nails, things like that. We did get wood samples. We got a little bit of metal sheathing that was attached to the outer part of the keel. We had bark samples and pitch samples. There was what looks like some sort of a mortar that was used in some of the seams there. That was really good. We also have some sample planks as well, pieces of wood. We've got lots of photo and video as well. So that's all very helpful in terms of creating a record, and some of these things can be analyzed as we move forward to try to learn more previously discussed about age and the origin of this so far.”

Salvage will likely not be possible.

“I know that there's great interest there in doing what they can to pull this ashore and to pull it up above the water, and that's not something (we can do) under the circumstances, because this is already in harm's way. There's really not anything that can be done to pull this out intact,” said Brake. “The provincial archeology office is not going to stand in anybody's way there in terms of attempting to get this above high watermark. So I think there's risk to this either way. If it's left where it is, it's probably going to be broken up in short order, and if they pull it above the high watermark, that will probably hurt it as well, but they might end up saving a little bit more wood for the things that they'd like to use it for. I think there's great local interest in displaying some of this and interpreting it there, and we're happy to work with local folks there on seeing that sort of thing.”

There are a couple of options.

“There's two options: one is to let nature take its course and to see it dashed there by waves, or for local people to kind of pull it up and do what they would like to with it,” said Brake. “And they're certainly, I think, approaching it with great respect, and they're in touch with us, and their intention is to be stewards of this and to interpret it as well as they can. As new information comes to light about it that can be added to the interpretation. We've had a chance to visit the site, we've learned what's happening in terms of it being in the surf zone, the danger that it's in, the fact that there's really nowhere nearby that it could be easily moved to or anything like that. There's no shelter there for it."

Testing the samples will take some time.

"I think one of the messages here is that some of these things will need to be analyzed further. It'll be probably months before we have the results back from things like dendrochronology samples or radiocarbon samples, if we make use of the latter.”

Brake confirmed the process has already begun.

“I can tell you that we've already dropped everything off at a conservation lab and we've been in touch with people who are hoping will do some of the work for us. So that stuff is already moving, so it'll be done as fast as possible, but I'd say we're looking at month probably, but it'll be really interesting to see.”

What they’ve gathered from their findings so far is that the wreckage is quite consistent with a 19th century vessel.

“We were sort of guessing at the beginning, but we'll wait until we have something else say anything with any certainty, so cautiously suggesting that,” said Brake. 

It’s important for them to be careful when choosing the samples.

“We have to think about it in advance and consider it carefully. We've got limited resources. We have a very large number of known archaeological sites here. There are a very large number of things like shipwrecks and so on. Not everything can be saved. We can't preserve every shipwreck. We can't preserve every aircraft or every vehicle and so on,” said Brake. “So in many cases, what's possible is documenting what's there before it's gone. So we've got a pretty good record of this as it was. We've got samples that we can continue to learn from, and at this stage, we don't know which vessel this was or anything like that, so it's difficult to kind of go further.”

Talks are ongoing about getting the necessary work done.

“We've got people who can help us out with sort of identifying the makeup of the metal objects that we have, which should be informative, and there's a faculty member here with department of geography, is going to be looking at the wood samples,” said Brake. “If we get to the point where we can't take it any further here, then we can go to other places to take the next steps. So we may end up going elsewhere as well, but so far it looks like we'll be able to do a good bit here, and again, we're hoping to identify wood species and age of the wood, and we're hoping to identify the makeup of the metal, and those things will give us clues to age and origin here.”

Brake admitted some surprise at the amount of international attention the wreckage has received.

“In some ways, I'm surprised just because there's so many shipwrecks and so on around here that it's interesting when one sort of gets this level of attention, so many shipwrecks and so many other sort of amazing, spectacular archaeological sites and so on,” said Brake. “There's, for example, the Cape Ray light site right there, which is a spectacular Dorset site that's a couple of thousand years old, one of the most important in the province or anywhere, really. That's a site that's certainly deserving of enormous attention as well. And there's a lot of others there in the Southwest coast area. There's another something like 19 or 20 registered shipwrecks in that area. There's many others known from our caudal records and so on as well, so there's no shortage of interesting things in that area. We've definitely got an archaeological record here that is worthy of international attention, and it's interesting to see it when it captures that sort of attention.”

Hopefully more information will be available soon.

“I think anytime that we go out into the field and do anything under permit, once we get the results back, we'll be writing a report on this, and that will include some interpretation in there. We'll go as far as we can based on the information that we have for sure, and we'll certainly be sharing that with the local folks," said Brake. "At the end of the day, even if this was a significant vessel, it's in the surf zone being wrecked as it is. There's not a whole lot of anybody can do. We can record it as well as we can.”

There’s no way of knowing what brought the shipwreck to shore, but recent weather events could definitely be a significant factor.

“I think it's likely that (Hurricane) Fiona had something to do with it, considering the impact that it had on the Southwest coast of Newfoundland. So it was probably exposed there, or exposed and pushed in from a little further out, probably been largely exposed by Fiona, and then subsequent storms put it out there that much more,” said Brake. “I think it's important to note that this would be one of many, many sites that would have been impacted by Fiona and by other storms and by coastal erosion in this area, and I think that it's a place that we would certainly like to get back to, to spend a good bit of time surveying to learn more about what else is exposed, what else is threatened, what the impact has been on some of the known sites there. So there's a lot of important archeology in that area and we are certainly interested in seeing what's going on with it now in light of all this.”

The efforts of the locals to keep the wreckage safe is commendable. Anne Osmond, Chairperson of the Cape Bray Local Service District (LSD), says the community plans to preserve the wreck.

“We're hoping now to get them (the pieces) taken to our lighthouse museum site to be on display, and with the archaeologists,- once the testing and the measurements and all it's done, they're going to write up a piece that we can add, almost like a story, a contribution to the museum,” said Osmond. “And he (Brake) also said yesterday that with the pieces that they took, they would probably see about getting that back to our museum.”

The LSD is already hard at work.

“(We’re going) to get in contact with government officials to see if there is any funding available to have this wreck preserved and put in our community, because right now I feel that this is the economic boost the West coast needs. After Fiona destroying and devastating everything, now is the time to bring it to life. I believe there's always a reason behind that. We're hoping that the government is going to say yes. Now, Gudie Hutchings had a piece on about tourism the other day, a few days ago, so I'm going to be calling her office as well. With the provincial and federal government, we may, and I stress we 'may', get enough to get something done and bring this tourist attraction to life, to the west coast to give it an economic boost that we need.”

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