When anglers board party boats for overnight fishing trips to an area 30 to 75 miles south of Nantucket, Mass., they’re looking forward to sport and then a good seafood dinner after spending the day fishing shipwrecks with lots of maritime history.Fishermen often call this the Lightship area because that’s where the Nantucket Lightship was anchored on station for many years, a beacon that ocean-crossing ships steered toward on passages to and from New York. On each side of the lightship were the inbound and outbound steamer lanes. With all that traffic coming and going, some ships never made port; they litter the bottom in this area — victims of collisions as well as submarine action and undetermined causes. Divers have identified some of these wreck sites, but others are so deep that they are known only as bumps on a fishfinder.
When a ship sinks, marine growth starts to adhere to the sides. This attracts small fish and other marine creatures, both sources of food for game fish such as cod and pollock. Those, in turn, attract anglers who enjoy catching them.
The Lightship area is a great distance from party-boat ports, so it’s necessary to leave the night before, usually about 10 p.m., for the boat to make the 100-plus-mile trip to this spot and its fish-holding shipwrecks. You usually arrive about sunrise, with people sleeping in bunks below deck or in the passenger cabin. The day often begins with coffee, breakfast and the first toot of the boat’s horn, signaling that it’s time to wet the lines.
Most fishing is done with one- or two-hook rigs baited with pieces of clam and dropped over the side with help of a sinker, usually 12 to 16 ounces. With this rig, anglers usually catch cod from 5 to 40 pounds that like to hunt for food right along the bottom. Some people prefer to use a diamond jig from 8 to 12 ounces with a red tube on the back end. This rig is cast, allowed to sink to the bottom and reeled back up about 20 to 50 feet above the wreck. Those lures are often grabbed by pollock, a fish that’s faster than the cod that hover above the bottom, looking for bait fish up in the water column.
The fishing continues until mid-to-late afternoon, with the boat often stopping at more than one site to satisfy a customer’s desire for fish to take home. Sometime after 2 p.m. it’s time to head in. The fish are cleaned by mates on the stern on the way back, and the filets are iced, bagged and ready for passengers to take home.
Among the wrecks the party boats fish is the 630-foot luxury liner Andrea Doria, a floating palace that sank after a collision with the 524-foot liner Stockholm on the night of July 25, 1956. Human error led to the sinking. The Andrea Doria, bound for New York, was in heavy fog, and the Stockholm, outbound from the city, had yet to reach the fog. Each captain was aware of the other ship as they approached, the vessels visible on radar, but they misinterpreted each other’s course.
In the minutes before the collision, the captain of the Andrea Doria gradually steered to port, attempting a starboard-to-starboard passing. The captain of the Stockholm turned to starboard to widen a port-to-port passing. However, they were steering toward each other. Because of the fog, the ships were very close by the time visual contact was made. Despite last-minute maneuvers, a collision could not be avoided.
The Stockholm turned hard to starboard, and the Doria turned hard to port, its captain hoping to outrun the collision. At approximately 11:10 p.m., the Stockholm struck the starboard side of the Andrea Doria, and she quickly began to list.
The next morning she was still afloat, although she wouldn’t stay that way for long. Film crews in planes recorded the sinking, and the country later watched in awe as the ship turned over and went down more than 40 miles south of Nantucket. Fortunately, 1,660 passengers and crew from the Doria were rescued; 46 people died. She rests on the bottom in 240 feet of water, the Titanic of New England shipwrecks.
Other wrecks have been located but remain unidentified. One is known as the Oil Boat — possibly a tanker — in 385 feet of water 25 miles south of the Doria, still leaking oil. She was located by a Navy ship during routine sonar operations in World War II. A report submitted to the National Ocean Service so a mark could be placed on navigational charts said this was an old wreck in listed condition and covered with marine growth, rising 40 feet off the bottom. These are the only things we know about this wreck.
She is one of many that may have sailed from New York or the United Kingdom and were never heard from again, listed in marine records as lost at sea, gone with all hands. I’ve often thought that this would be a great place to do a History Channel show, sending down an underwater camera or a remotely operated vehicle to view the wrecks.
Also on the bottom south of Nantucket are five merchant ships sunk by the German submarine U-53 in October 1916. The United States and Germany were not yet at war, but Germany and Britain were locked in combat. The U-boat’s mission was to stop any ship coming or going through the transit point to check for war goods destined for Britain and to destroy British vessels.
In a single day, U-53 sank five ships: the Stephano, Blommersdijk, Christian Knudsen, Strathdene and West Point. They lie in roughly a north-south line in 120 to 265 feet of water, 35 to 45 miles southeast of Nantucket’s Sankaty Head Light. All are fished on these overnight party boat trips.
These are but a few of the shipwrecks in this area. We have not touched on the numerous commercial fishing boats lost here, many with loss of life or heroic rescues by the Coast Guard. It also does not include the old schooners, their bones now but a low profile as years on the ocean floor reduce them to almost nothing.
We can hope that when the fishermen return to land they can say they enjoyed a day of fishing and time away from the job, traveling to a place with riveting maritime history. The ships are not sailing anymore; they wait for anglers like you to return, drop a line and see what pulls back.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.