Cleaning up long-abandoned wrecks from the East Providence shore.

The Green Jacket Shoal, a large shallow patch of water between India Point Park and Bold Point, looks harmless enough at high tide.  The placid water and grassy shore make a lovely juxtaposition to the large oil terminal on one side and the metal scrap yard across the bay.  A little corner of unspoiled nature reclaimed from the area’s heavy industrial past.  At high tide, just a few abandoned pilings show their tops above the water—a handy place for cormorants to rest.

But as the water recedes, more and more timbers begin to show: dark, weedy, waterlogged  ribs of sunken ships, and hundreds of jagged-topped pilings left over from a drydock that once was.  At low tide on the lowest tides, the shoal is revealed for what it is: Rhode Island’s biggest boat graveyard.  It was here that dilapidated wooden barges with no more useful life were allowed to sink; where ships and ferries hopelessly damaged were dragged and abandoned.  Eventually the drydock was abandoned as well, and the boneyard, forgotten by all but the cormorants, continued to settle into the silt.

At the northern edge of the shoal, just by the channel that leads to the Seekonk River, the biggest barge—little more now than a haystack of timbers pierced through with jagged, rusty iron rods, shows high above even the highest of the tides.  While many of the wrecks are historically interesting and worthy of preservation, this one is just an eyesore.  When I began working for Clean the Bay, two other eyesores that had been tied to it and sunk were in the process of removal.  The crew before me, working until late fall, had cut them down to the low tide line, but there was still plenly of them left in mostly chest-deep water.

There was nothing more that could be done without getting in the water, so into the water I got.  Using a second-hand wetsuit that would no longer zip and a pair of heavy waders for protection from all the sharp metal underwater, I began by exploring clumsily around the south wreck, picking up any loose planks and beams I encountered and sending them aboard to be cut up.

After a couple of days of that, we rented a hydraulic chainsaw—one that works underwater—and spent the next few weeks, whenever the tide allowed, cutting up everything we could, winching it aboard with a small crane I installed, and then cutting it into chunks that could be carried.

Those chunks that could be carried were necessarily pretty small, since waterlogged yellow pine and white oak are some of the heaviest woods out there.  It was several weeks before the south barge was reduced as much as I could get it, and we moved our efforts to the north barge.

I had been dreading this one because I figured that all the rusty iron showing above the surface meant there was probably plenty more underneath.  For once I wasn’t wrong—the bottom here was a proper minefield of jagged steel points, and there were endless pitfalls among the tangled rubble.  The little crane was kept busy winching up huge steel cleats, thick iron rod, and unidentifiable globs of rusty sheet metal.  When at last we could begin chainsawing, we discovered that this barge had been fastened way better than the other—with bronze spikes instead of iron, which would have rusted out, and had a thin sheath of copper on the bottom, which tended to catch the saw blade and blunt it and slow it down.

Most difficult of all, there was in the very center a steel crane plinth made from four thick I-beams welded to a heavy upper plate.   We tried cutting it with an oxy-propane torch, to no avail, and finally had to resort to running the Round Rager, a gas-powered abrasive wheel cutter.  It was terrifying, holding it sideways an inch above the water, pushing the wheel into deep slots that glowed red-hot as clouds of sparks filled the air.  That plinth alone took several days to take away, and two steel tanks nearby caused nearly as much grief.

This second barge took a bit longer, mostly because after a few weeks we were reduced to cutting whatever piece we could, however small, and often a lot of persuading with cranes and levers was necessary.

But finally the day came when not a single scrap could be retrieved without putting our faces underwater.  It was then that we reached out to a commercial diver, who didn’t have to care about the state of the tide or whether it was raining—his one concern was that the saw chain be sharp.  Down he would go, and cut more in one hour than we could take in two loads.  We had to make piles of it in shallow water to retrieve later, and soon the two barges were cut as close to the mud line as the saw could reach.

Looking back at all the work that was, and how much bigger the BIG barge is that still remains, the mind boggles at the thought of its removal.  Still, given enough time and dumpsters, I know we can clean that one up as well.  I’d just love to have the chance.

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