The Wreck on Horseshoe Shoal

Ten years ago, on a perfectly windless day when the water of Nantucket Sound was flat and mirror smooth, I ventured a few miles offshore from Cotuit to Horseshoe Shoals — a long curving sandbar that can be a great place to catch bluefish throughout the summer months. I had my son and daughter with me and after we caught a nice 12 lb. blue for dinner, I shut off the engine and enjoyed the strange experience of floating calmly over the shoal without the usual three to four feet of surf and chaos that usually cover the two-mile long crescent of glacial sand and pebbles during a brisk southwesterly breeze and a flood tide.  The Horseshoe is a fascinating place. Remnants of an ancient forest have been discovered out there. The controversial Wind Farm is proposed for the general vicinity (which I support). And, navigationally, it’s interesting because it is the location of both the shallowest water in Nantucket Sound and the deepest — the two extremes only less than half-a-mile apart — an indication of the massive hydrodynamics of the east-west current flows and infamous shoals that have long made the Sound a bad place for shipping.

I stood on the bow of the skiff, fly fishing, casting in hopes of tempting a spanish mackerel or bonito, but nothing was biting. The current would sweep us across the shallow, the bottom rising pale green, then yellow up from the depths until the boat passed over the shoal itself, the bottom just a few feet below us.

I gave up the fly rod and just watched the bottom, at one point, as we crossed over a new section, I swore I saw a pipe or something man made sticking up from the sand. I turned on the engine, circled back and took another look. Gradually, as I opened up my field of vision, the perfect outline of a boat revealed itself… just the outline, no hull, as if someone had drawn the concept of a boat on the bottom.

It was a wreck. The first I had ever seen in the Sound.

But which wreck? What had happened out there and when? Had people died? Was it fifty years old, 100? It was both creepy and thrilling in a macabre way. It was definitely something to avoid as there were some portions of the superstructure that seemed to be close to the surface.

Once ashore I started researching the wreck lists for the area and found nothing. There had been a light ship at Cross Rip (a nearby shoal) in 1918, but that vanished during a winter blizzard, carried off station by ice and never found with all hands lost. Since that ship, the LV-6, was last seen adrift at the eastern end of Nantucket Sound, 15 miles away, I ruled it out.   I recalled old navigational charts of the Sound showing an icon for a half-submerged wreck south of the Horseshoe, yet I never saw any such boat out there as a kid.

Here’s a 1968 Coast Guard chart of the area.

And specifically, here’s a zoomed-in look at the spot where I saw the hulk that day ten years ago.

 

Once ashore, I started telling people about the wreck, asking if anyone knew what it was or if they had ever seen it.  “Ask Leonard Peck,” someone said. He’d been around for a long time and was one of the saltier people in Cotuit, but Leonard passed away before I could ask. Other old timers shrugged and said they didn’t have a clue. So I gave up but talked about it with my fishing and sailing friends, looking for some information about the hulk I had glimpsed lurking out there.

Then, this morning, in the Barnstable Patriot, the local weekly newspaper, the “Early Files” section that excerpts news from past editions of the paper had this entry under 1971:

“Three hundred pounds of explosives demolished the submerged Navy patrol boat off Horseshoe Shoals last Thursday after several weeks of delay caused by weather and tides. The Ad Lib II struck the wreck last month, resulting in the deaths of Dr. James L. Chute of Osterville and Harland L. Matthews of Cotuit. The explosion removed all the wreck’s superstructure and part of the submerged hull. Coast Guard expects the wreck buoy will remain at its present location.”

Mystery solved. Sort of.  A little knowledge makes one thirsty for more.

First I went looking for any information about the tragedy that occurred in the fall of 1971 when the Ad Lib II struck the wreck. I found this lawsuit filed by descendants of  the two dead local men against the Federal Government. Made sense since Horseshoe Shoe is outside of the state’s three mile territorial limit and officially in federal waters. Second, it was a US Navy ship. But why was it there? How had it come to be wrecked? What kind of ship was it?

The lawsuit, Chute v. The United State of America, dated February 17, 1979 has the details:

“…plaintiffs have brought this action to recover for the deaths of their respective fathers as a result of the sinking of the boat AD LIB II on September 30, 1971 in Nantucket Sound. Both decedents had been guests on the AD LIB II, which was owned and operated by Dr. Robert L. Baxter, a friend. Plaintiffs allege the AD LIB II sunk when it struck a submerged wreck on Horseshoe Shoals in Nantucket Sound, approximately seven to eight miles south-southwest of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The plaintiffs contend that the wreck was improperly marked by the defendant, the United States. The wreck consists of a Navy ship, PC1203, which had been deliberately grounded on Horseshoe Shoals in 1949 for use as a bombing target.”

The law suit tells the story of how the Ad Lib II sank:

Between 7:00 a. m. and 8:00 a. m. on September 30, 1971, Dr. Robert L. Baxter (aged 69); his wife; John Ohrn (aged 34); and the decedents, Dr. James L. Chute (aged 75) and Harlan L. Matthews (aged 77), departed from Lewis Bay on the AD LIB II and proceeded to Nantucket Sound to fish. The AD LIB II had a length of 24 feet, a width of approximately 10 feet, a mean draft of 3 feet, and a fiberglass hull. Dr. Baxter was an experienced mariner in the Nantucket Sound area, having fished in the area for some 40 years. He had also taught local courses in navigation and therefore knew that a wreck buoy is not placed on top of a wreck.

At approximately noon, the boating party decided to head toward home. The weather was “hazy; not foggy.” Tr. Vol. 1 at 4 (Dec. 17, 1976). The vessel was in the vicinity of Horseshoe Shoals somewhat south of the location of the wreck. Dr. Baxter was at the helm and headed the vessel in a north-northeast course on a heading of 30° magnetic at a speed of 14 knots. At this speed the boat was semi-planing. Dr. Baxter observed the tower on the hill at Hyannis Port and decided that his course would take him back to Hyannis. Shortly after choosing his course, Dr. Baxter expressed surprise at the shallow depth of the water. Moments later, a sound was heard indicating the vessel had struck something. One of the party went below to check the hull and discovered a break in the fiberglass skin on the starboard side which was then stuffed with rags.
No one on the AD LIB II saw precisely what the boat struck. The plaintiffs claim the boat hit the wreck of the PC1203 which could not be seen since it was under the water. The defendant contends that the AD LIB II did not hit the wreck, but hit Horseshoe Shoals themselves. After careful consideration of all the evidence presented at trial, the court finds that the AD LIB II sunk as a result of hitting the wreck, and not the shoals.” 

According to the lawsuit, a few days immediately following the Ad Lib II tragedy, Chester Crosby, chairman of the Town of Barnstable Waterways Commission (and owner of the Crosby Boat Yard in Osterville) asked the Coast Guard to mark the wreck.

“The plaintiffs had sought to introduce two letters of correspondence between Chester Crosby and Lieutenant Commander Ransom K. Boyce, then the Assistant Chief, Aids to Navigation Branch of the U. S. First Coast Guard District. Crosby was Chairman of the Waterways Committee, an advisory committee to the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Barnstable, Massachusetts, with regard to problems around the harbors and waterways. Writing to the Coast Guard in his capacity as Chairman, under date of October 4, 1971, Crosby expressed concern as to the adequacy of the marking of the wreck of the PC1203. As will be discussed in this court’s Findings of Fact, the buoy set up to mark the PC1203 was not placed directly on the wreck, but at some distance from it. The letter from Crosby, Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 15, refers to a previous request to have the Coast Guard attach a day beacon to the wreck and the fact that that request had been refused. It further acknowledges the problem of placing buoys close to submerged wrecks, but suggests that “since the United States Navy placed the wreck on the shoal, couldn’t an eventual solution be to have them dynamite the remains [of the wreck] during the late fall after the fishing season and remove the debris.” Boyce’s response, dated October 13, 1971, Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 16, states that the Coast Guard had decided “to blow up the remains of the wreck and wire drag the area to the depth of five feet below the reference plane,” and concludes that “[i]t is felt that this is a satisfactory solution to the problem.””

There are no online archives of the Cape Cod Standard Times or the Barnstable Patriot available for 1971 — so I need to get in the car and drive to the Sturgis Libraryif I want to read the contemporary accounts of the wreck of the Ad Lib II.

As for the PC1203 — she was a 175-foot patrol boat with a crew of 59 men, of the PC463 class, built in 1943 by the Consolidated Shipbuilding Corporation of Morris Heights, New York. I have no information where she was assigned or if she ever saw action. Apparently the 1203 was decommissioned, towed out to the middle of the Sound, and scuttled on a sandbar to serve as a target for pilots flying out of Otis Air Force base. The Cape and Island were very active with military training activities during and after World War II, with landing craft operations practiced out of Cape Candoit in Cotuit’s North Bay and Mashpee’s Popponnesset and Waquoit Bays.  Another famous target practice ship, the Longstreet, was a Cape Cod Bay landmark for years off of Wellfleet off of the shore of the Cape’s northside, and Noman’s Land, the island south of Martha’s Vineyard, was pummeled for years by strafing fighters and practicing bombers.

According to the lawsuit:

“…little, if any, of the remains of the PC1203 wreck was above the water’s surface except at low tide when small portions of the vessel broke the water’s surface. The depth of the water in the vicinity of the wreck varies according to the tides from approximately 2 feet to 4.8 feet. From 1949 to 1961, the area where the PC1203 was grounded was designated as a danger area. In 1961, the danger designation of the area was removed. During this period, the PC1203’s location was unmarked except for a pipe affixed to it by persons unknown. This pipe, however, was destroyed during a hurricane in the mid-1950’s.

In July, 1963, as a result of requests from local maritime interests, a can buoy with a visual range of one and a quarter miles was established 275 yards, 270° True (west) from the wreck. This buoy was black and red with a reflector, but had no light or gong. It was designed for a semiexposed area, having a water depth of 15 to 540 feet. The draft of the buoy was 6 feet 8 inches. The height of the buoy above water was 6 feet 10 inches. It had a 5000-pound sinker to moor it.”

Obviously for Mr. Chute and Mr. Matthews, that wasn’t enough to prevent their deaths by drowning after the Ad Lib II succumbed to the gash in her hull and sank.

I can only imagine the chaos out there that foggy afternoon as the water gushed through the rip in the Fiberglas hull. Despite an experienced skipper, life jackets, and relatively warm water. Two men died.

From the law suit:

After the AD LIB II struck the wreck, the decision was made to “try to make it” back to shore. However, the boat was taking on a lot of water and subsequently Dr. Baxter turned the AD LIB II toward the shoal, hoping to be in shallow waters. While in the turn, however, the boat sank and the parties were forced into the water.

To stay afloat, all persons put on life jackets. Additionally, Dr. Baxter had constructed an ice chest which was capable of floating. A rope was tied to the ice chest and then to each of the passengers except Mr. Ohrn who decided to try to swim to the wreck buoy, some two to three hundred yards away from where the AD LIB II sank. Dr. Baxter was closest to the ice chest; Mrs. Baxter was next; Mr. Matthews next to her; and then Dr. Chute. Some time later, Mr. Matthews swallowed some water and regurgitated, and shortly thereafter the others heard him “snoring.” Dr. Chute checked Mr. Matthews’ pulse and found he had none. The cause of death subsequently stated on the death certificate was drowning.
At approximately 4:30 p. m., after drifting for some four hours, the group, including Mr. Matthews, was picked up by the C/C JOHNNY B IV. The owner of that boat called the Coast Guard which dispatched its own boat, the POINT TURNER, and a helicopter. The group was then taken aboard the Coast Guard vessel. Dr. Chute was considered injured and the helicopter was to airlift him to a hospital. However, Dr. Chute was reluctant to go and the captain of the POINT TURNER did not force him to go. Dr. Chute was taken ashore by the POINT TURNER where he was met by an ambulance which drove him to Falmouth Hospital. He died the next morning at the hospital—cause of death, according to the death certificate, being “coronary insufficiency following immersion and exhaustion after boat accident at sea.””

In the end, the court ruled for the plaintiff, and found the government liable for not adequately marking the wreck with a buoy, light, rip-rap or structure directly on the wreck itself.

I can’t find much about Harlan Matthews, the Cotuit man who drowned. His daughter Helen Dottridge,  one of the plaintiffs in the 1978 lawsuit, passed away in 2007 at 86,and was a well known figure in the village historical society and Federated Church: the Dottridges being one of Cotuit’s oldest families. The owner and skipper of the Ad Lib II, Dr. Robert L. Baxter, was a former commodore of the Hyannis Yacht Club and navigation instructor.

If you pick the right day and tide and have a good pair of polarized sunglasses, the remnants of the wreck of the PC1203 are still out there, perfectly outlined in the rocky sands of Horseshoe Shoal.  The modern edition of the chart may not show the half-exposed icon any longer, but some versions do show the simple word “pipe.”

 

 

 

 

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

4 thoughts on “The Wreck on Horseshoe Shoal”

  1. Billy Conway stumbled upon it last summer and was asking me about it. It is startlinng when you drift over unexpectedly. Other than confirming that he wasn’t seeing things, I couldn’t be very helpful. Just forwarded him the link to your blog.

    Like

  2. Didn’t one of the passengers ( unnamed in the article) swim ashore to get help??

    That is my memory from a long time ago

    Like

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