In the early morning, daylight is still an unkept promise and Chocowinity Bay remains only a lighter shade of darkness. Lights from the docks dance on rippled water like the spirit of God on the face of the deep. Everything is in subtle motion, the water, the light, the skeletal branches of the winter trees, the air, and the planet itself, a motion so immense that the dance is measured in hours, days, and years.
It’s a small place, Chocowinity Bay, but vast, the world in a grain of sand. From my garret window, I can see the seasons pass and the years. I can watch the trees that stand at the water’s edge, themselves watching, like opposed mirrors endlessly reflecting the other’s image until you can’t tell them apart anymore. The observer and the observed become indistinguishable.
When the sun crests the horizon, the light first strikes the masts of sailboats in the marina at Cypress Landing. They catch fire like burning pennants, an army of shadows with pennants on fire. It’s visually compelling, a salutation to the sun. For some time the masts alone remain bright and burning before the earth turns and sunlight floods the bay.
Everything travels in waves, light and water, wind and time. Even our lives if we could feel the scend of it, the rise and fall, pitch and yaw. Our voices are the sound of waves and our breath the rhythm.
The water on Chocowinity Bay isn’t driven by the moon but the wind. Wind tides. In the hard blow of a Nor’easter or the spiraling winds of a hurricane, the water can be blown out of the bay, uncovering old bricks from a Civil War brickworks or the bones of a scow schooner settled in the mud.
The schooner was intentionally scuttled to serve as a breakwater, but even when fit, she was never suited to sail in open water. At best, she kept to the creeks and rivers and sounds of North Carolina, maybe sailing as far north as Virginia through the Dismal Swamp.
For lack of a more formal name, the wreck was simply called the Brickyard Boat.
A Working Boat
The Brickyard Boat measured 73′ long, 14′ beam, and slightly more than 2′ depth of hold. Her bow and stern were as blunt as a barge and her hard chine didn’t make her any less ungainly. She was rigged as a schooner with two masts. A centerboard kept her flat bottom from skipping to leeward like a stone when sailing to windward but she was never a weatherly boat.
A working boat, she probably had the beauty of an old prizefighter with flattened nose and cauliflower ears, hauling bricks from one shoal water port to another. She was a simple design that required a shipwright with minimal skill and even less budget to build. Folklore had it that any barnbuilder could construct a scow schooner over the winter and sail it through the summer. When she was unceremoniously wedged between pilings and scuttled to serve as a breakwater, she was likely burned to the waterline to salvage any metal in her hull.
When they excavated the Brickyard Boat, they found a boot and a shoe embedded in the silt. One of each.
The shoe was flattened at the counter, the material that stiffened the heel, probably from a sailor repeatedly slipping out of his shoes to climb the rigging barefoot. The copper rivets securing the leather uppers were characteristic of shoes made for the Union Army during the Civil War specifically for black soldiers whose broad feet tended to burst the seams of standard Army issue. The light wear of the shoe suggested it was sold as surplus after the war had ended. The single boot was Union Army issue made by Confederate prisoners.
They make the wreck seem less academic, more human, like empty shoes found on the roadside after a traffic accident. They’re a connection to the crew that sailed the Brickyard Boat, to the lives they led in that turbulent time soon after the Civil War, a time that now seems incomprehensibly distant.
When the marine archaeologists finished their excavation and measurements, they returned the bricks and silt and debris that had previously covered the wreck. It was like covering a grave. The bones of the schooner lie there still, a short walk from my home, the site marked at Cypress Landing with a plaque like a headstone.
Note: The wreck site lies just beyond the foreground docks in the masthead photo, among the reeds and the overhanging cypress trees at Cypress Landing, North Carolina.
Further reading: The Cypress Landing Shipwreck of Chocowinity Bay: A North Carolina Sail Flat by Ann Merriman