While pirates made the headlines, another form of sea-robbery was practiced for centuries, with not nearly so much attention being paid to it. This was the art of Wrecking - illegally salvaging goods from a ship that had run aground.
Certain coasts – the Florida Keys, for one, the West Coasts of Ireland and England for another, were particularly profitable for Wreckers. These were areas where prevailing winds, frequent storms, and dark coastlines caused many vessels to run aground. In poor areas, Wreckers and their spoils made the difference between a successful settlement and a ghost town.
Legally, a person who takes things from a wrecked ship must offer them to the original owner, though the owner is required to pay for them. This was established by laws going back to the Roman Empire. These laws differ by country, but are based on the concept that person who brings in the wrecked goods deserves to be compensated for his time and effort, and also for the danger he or she goes to when retrieving the lost objects.
In fact, many, many people have simply cut out the middle-man and kept the salvaged goods for themselves. While illegal, this was quite practical to do in the days before telephones or other convenient means of communication. Ships went down without being able to signal for help. A broken-up ship might never reveal its original owner.
Or, even if the owner was perfectly obvious, the Wreckers might simply keep their mouths shut, and hide the evidence by towing the remains of the ship out to sea after wrecking efforts were finished.
There were even darker tales, in which small communities, who needed the proceeds from wrecked ships, sent their more hardy members down to the shore with clubs after a storm to make sure there were no survivors of ships driven aground.
It was also rumored that “false lights” were used to actually lure ships toward a dangerous shore. With no GPS, ships relied on the stars, mathematical calculations, and often landmarks near a coast to determine position. On a dark night, these ships could be led astray.
According to legend, the Wreckers would tie a lantern around the neck of a horse or mule, then lead the animal along the hillsides above a rocky shore. Ship’s captains would see the swaying, bobbing light and mistake it for the stern lights of another ship. This gave the impression that there was plenty of open water. The captain would make no effort to keep his ship off the rocks, because he believed that he was much farther out at sea than he actually was.
And in the morning, club-wielding Wreckers would come down and finish off any sailors left alive.
Wrecking was common, and often not taken seriously, since the goods were probably covered by insurance, and would have been lost anyway. The darker legends remain unproved in a court of law. Small communities were notoriously insular and closed-mouthed. But rumors persist, and have continued to do so until modern navigation equipment made such false lights (and largely wrecking itself) obsolete. Yet stories of wreckers linger in place names, like Nag’s Head NC, which supposedly got its name from the broken down old horses (nags) that were led up and down the shore in a storm.
And what did Wreckers expect to get? Like pirates, their profits could come in any form. A ship’s strong box, containing payroll and operating funds, was a rare but welcome find. More likely to survive a wreck were goods stored in barrels – which might be anything from beer to fine china. Things that floated – furniture, glass bottles, books, clothing, food, might also make it to shore in an only slightly damaged state.
Lucky wreckers might find a large part of the ship still intact. When this happened anything might be found. Goods like flour, molasses, textiles, preserved meat would great those brave enough – or desperate enough – to go aboard an unstable, broken ship, which might be above water only because of a perilous perch on top of jagged rocks.
Wrecking communities were also famous for salvaging the wrecks themselves. Wood from ships that ran aground might repair a house, roof a tavern, or build a school for the children. Since the broken bodies of wooden ships were not worth much, there was little need to hide the origin of the wood, and the sometimes picturesque appearance of seaside villages may come from re-purposed timber.
And the good? Well, wrecking communities were often linked to smugglers, sailors who imported goods without paying the required taxes or tariffs. These kinds of associates were likely to take anything, and pay cash, no questions asked.
Today the art of wrecking lives on in specialized communities like the Florida Keys. The nearby ocean is a playground for tourists. Often these inexperienced sailors get into danger during stormy weather, and legal wreckers lie in wait along coastlines known for trouble. Maritime law says that the salvager or rescuer of ships in peril is entitled to a reward, so modern day Wreckers make a living by towing beached tourists off the rocks.
I’ll leave you with my favorite story about Wreckers, by the late, great Stan Rogers. Listen and enjoy.