Abandoned on the Shore: the Stranding of the Freighter Eldia, Part 2
Over the first weekend after the Eldia grounded, some 30,000 people congregated on Nauset Beach and made the mile-long trek to the stranded vessel. Vehicle traffic bottlenecked Beach Road halfway back to Orleans Center, but gladdened the hearts of local businessmen with an unexpected off-season rush of tourists.
This week Robert Finch continues his 3-part recollection of the 1984 stranding of the Eldia, the largest vessel ever to come ashore on Cape Cod’s Outer Beach. You can read Part 1 here. And go here for Part 3.
Within a week Eldia T-shirts and postcards were being sold at Dave Bessom’s Country Store in East Orleans. The following weekend Philbrick’s summer Clam Shack re-opened in the parking lot - the earliest ever. There were rumors that the Selectmen were considering a proposal to let the ship remain on the beach indefinitely and turn it into a casino.
In fact, the Eldia was becoming something of a municipal headache. In addition to the traffic problems, the dune line on the beach was showing considerable wear from the trampling of thousands of undirected feet, an effect that would shape up to be the greatest environmental damage resulting from the wreck.
The ship’s captain and crew had been lifted off by helicopter the night of the stranding. (Reportedly a standby rescue team had been dispatched with an antique breeches buoy, on loan from the Orleans Historical Society, in case the helicopter failed to reach the crew.) At this point the ship was officially abandoned, though it had not yet been claimed by the Coast Guard. The only banner visibly flying from the ship was an American flag, its front half ripped to shreds in the wind.
A week later, on the morning of April 6, I returned to the site of the stranding. Less than two hours before high tide, the great rusty bow was visibly shifting and moving above the dunes, like an immense dormant creature stirring to life.
When the ship first grounded, the twin bow anchors were set high up on the beach, their chains stretched tautly shoreward to keep the vessel from being swept off on the outgoing tide. But the ship had drifted some 70 yards down the beach and both heavy chains were now wrapped beneath the forward hull. With each inward swing the chains grated heavily against the hull, producing a deep groaning sound, like some massive animal in labor.
It was a different creature now, no longer a passive stranded vessel, but alive and responsive to its imprisonment. It moved against the beach as though it might come up into the dunes, across the marsh, along our streets and into town. To keep it from drifting further two 3-inch thick red nylon cables had been attached from its stern to two bulldozers in back of the dunes. The ship now seemed to have settled in even further. It sat there, like Gulliver, while Lilliputian men deliberated, scrambled and worried over its fate.
Once, when a large swell hit its stern square on, the whole enormous bow tilted slowly, stately, steeply landward, until I could see its decks towering six stories above me. Those of us who were on the beach emitted a collective gasp and stepped several paces backwards. But the ship righted itself, and seemed to settle in for good where she was. It was clear she was going nowhere by herself.