Wrecking (shipwreck)

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Wrecking is the practice of taking valuables from a shipwreck which has foundered near or close to shore. Often an unregulated activity of opportunity in coastal communities, wrecking has been subjected to increasing regulation and evolved into what is now known as marine salvage. Wrecking is no longer economically significant; however, as recently as the 19th century in some parts of the world, it was the mainstay of otherwise economically marginal coastal communities.


"False lights"

There are legends that some ships were deliberately lured into danger by a display of false lights. John Viele, retired U. S. Navy officer and author of a history of wrecking in the Florida Keys, states that such tricks simply would not work. He points out that mariners interpret a light as indicating land, and so avoid them if they cannot identify them. Moreover, oil lanterns cannot be seen very far over water at night, unless they are large, fitted with mirrors or lenses, and mounted at a great height (i.e., in a lighthouse). In hundreds of admiralty court cases heard in Key West, Florida, no captain of a wrecked ship ever charged that he had been led astray by a false light.[1] A Bahamian wrecker, when asked if he and his crewmates made beacons on shore or showed their lights to warn ships away from the land at night, is reported to have said, "No, no [laughing]; we always put them out for a better chance by night".[2]

Legend maintains that the town of Nags Head, North Carolina takes its name from wreckers deploying false lights. The Nags Head legend states that in the 18th century, wreckers would hang lanterns from the necks of mules (colloquially called "nags" at the time) and walk the animals very slowly up and down the beach. The alleged intent was to fool mariners into believing that the slow-moving lights were ships drifting at rest or at anchor, prompting the ships to change course and subsequently run aground. However, despite the prevalence of the legend and the local assertion of its truth, no concrete evidence exists to substantiate the claim.

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