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Chesapeake Bay: Shipwrecks

Shipwrecks in the Chesapeak Bay. 1800 ships swallowed by the Bay.

It’s easy to get lulled into thinking that the Chesapeake Bay is a big lake. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, you can see hundreds of boats and ships of all types plying its waters. While it is 200 miles long, north to south, on much of the bay you can see land on both sides (east to west.) Only in the middle Bay, around the mouth of the Potomac River where the width of the Bay is 35 miles are you completely out of sight of land.

But a lake she is not. The Chesapeake can be an angry wench. She’s big enough to have her own weather system… and weather she has. Big, heavy weather at times, enough to send crusty old watermen to church.

More than 1800 vessels have met their end in the Chesapeake and now rest on her watery bottom.

Storms are just one of the possible hazards facing boats and ships on the Bay. Collisions, explosions, strandings and bad seamanship also cause ships to go down. In the past, thick ice, strong enough to lift lighthouses off their foundations, was a dangerous hazard. Worse was the ever-present threat of fire on the old wooden ships that used oil lamps for light. Fire could destroy an old ship in minutes.

There are certain parts of the Bay that are known for their treacherous shoals. Now, well marked by navigation aids, they still present major problems under the wrong conditions. The gap between Capes Henry and Charles at the mouth of the Bay in Virginia is particularly infamous. Groundings due to shifting sandbars are common and in a storm situation can be extremely perilous. Many ships have been pounded apart by waves in this area known as the infamous Middle Ground.

Because of its major seaports in Baltimore and Hampton Roads, the Chesapeake has always played a role in the nation’s wars, dating back to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Cannon fire, explosives, torpedos, fires and collisions have all brought down many ships.

The first known shipwreck swallowed by the Chesapeake lies off the tip of Tangier Island. Almost nothing is known about her, but it is believed that she went down in the late 1500s. The last major sinking was the Coast Guard cutter, Cuyahoga, that sank in 1978 after colliding with a freighter.

The panic and terror felt by the passengers and crews of foundering ships must have been inconceivable. Yet, as the fastest and most efficient form of transportation of its time, generations of our forebears took the risk and challenged the seas. Shipwrecks today are for us a means of looking back at a way of life we can only imagine.

For more articles on the Chesapeake by this author, see:  The ChesapeakeChesapeake GeologyChesapeake & PollutionThe LoonBottlenose DolphinBuffleheadSea NettleBarnacleBlue CrabOyster

© 2010 Consumer Guide by David Sullivan

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Thanks for sharing...

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