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Whydah, Coulda, Shoulda
By Zack Budryk
Not a lot is small or quiet in Provincetown, Massachusetts. If you walk down the Cape Cod town’s main thoroughfare, particularly during the summer months, almost everything and everyone you see is energetic, sunny and gay. To complete the picture, occasionally you’ll see cult director John Waters, who has made the town a second home after his native Baltimore, riding his bike. There is, however, one exception: At the end of the pier on the waterfront, the departure point for the whale watches that are one of town’s major draws, you’ll find a small, quiet museum dedicated to an auspicious milestone: the first sunken pirate ship ever recovered.
The Whydah, an English slave ship, was captured by Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy and his crew in the Caribbean in 1717, after which Bellamy made for the Carolinas and hit a nor’easter, hitting a sandbar and capsizing (local legend holds that Bellamy was heading for Provincetown Harbor to rendezvous with his lover Maria Hallett, the “Witch of Wellfleet”). Of the 146 men onboard the ship,144, including Bellamy, drowned in the wreck.
More than 200 years later, in 1984, archaeologist Barry Clifford recovered the wreck of the ship after several years of false starts, to the point that his belief that he’d found the wreck had become something of a running joke in the local press. Clifford established the museum to house the artifacts recovered from the wreck, ranging from cannons to the ship’s bell to improvised explosive devices. Probably the most notable thing about the museum is, again, its size. A find like this seems like something you’d find in a high-ceilinged room in the Smithsonian, where every footfall ends up loud enough for the old man who’s been sitting on the bench for half an hour to turn and give you a dirty look. But the museum, like a lot of other Provincetown buildings, is small and intimate, a one-story affair that you move through in a circle, coming out just across the room from where you came in.
When I was young, my family and I visited my grandparents’ house on the Cape every summer, and during these visits we’d always spend at least a day in Provincetown. The museum, in particular, blew my mind; pirates, I think, capture a child’s mind in much the same way dinosaurs do. They seem like such a fantastical concept in a world this mundane that it can be a vaguely numinous experience to have evidence they existed at your fingertips (in the metaphorical sense, kid—get the hell away from that display case). It’s especially profound in a place like Cape Cod, which, with its distance from the suburbs of Richmond, where I grew up, and always felt vaguely like another world anyway. And then there was the fact that, as my grandparents were fond of reminding me, Clifford was a good friend of my aunt Jennifer.
After high school, school and work kept me from making it up to the Cape for the summer trips anymore, and when my parents divorced in 2011, the trips just dried up altogether. I did finally get a chance to go back in September 2012, this time honeymooning with my wife Raychel (I might have mentioned her on here before). Provincetown in the dead of fall (does fall have a “dead?”) was a different experience. The tourists who make the place an LGBT mecca during the summer had largely gone home, and the streets were mostly empty (Provincetown is so tourism-dependent that that same year, the local high school closed because there weren’t enough students there year-round to support it). We spent a few days walking the streets, checking out local businesses (if you eat a chicken parmesan at the sub shack on the Provincetown waterfront and don’t think it’s the best you’ve ever had, I will fight you), taking in a whale watch and climbing to the top of the 252-foot granite tower marking the site where the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact.
We saved the Whydah museum for nearly last, and I’m glad we did. As I walked that familiar circle for the first time in years, it was almost exactly as I remembered it, but different in one key way: I had the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with next to me, and I was finally able to share one of my most enduring childhood memories with her. Beats the hell out of a week in the Bahamas.
#Real #Provincetown #Massachusetts #CapeCod #CaptainBlackSamBellamy #MariaHallett #Pirates #EnglishSlaveShip
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