‘Citizen scientists’ continue Gaspee search

Posted 7/21/23

Visit the north end of Gaspee Point this week and you’ll likely find some stakes,  standing six inches above the sand, with tape strung between them into a 40 foot wide grid.

You …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

‘Citizen scientists’ continue Gaspee search


Visit the north end of Gaspee Point this week and you’ll likely find some stakes,  standing six inches above the sand, with tape strung between them into a 40 foot wide grid.

You might also encounter Dr. Kathy Abbass, shaded under a floppy hat, marking off a laminated map, State Representative Joe McNamara setting the sensitivity on his metal detector or RISD professor and archaeologist Peter Nulton sealing on his dive mask and pulling on neoprene gloves to protect his hands from sharp objects.

That is to say, it doesn’t look all that different from a normal summer day with beachgoers testing out a hobby or two, but it’s what Dr. Abbass, director of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), calls “a cadre of citizen scientists.” Many have some special expertise that they bring to the team, while some just have local knowledge, and most importantly a willingness to spend time working out in the sun, searching for history.

At this time of year for the past several years Abbass has been working with the team documenting and researching the exposed remains of two vessels, one on, what was once, Greene Island and the second in Occupesstuxet Cove. Last year with foundation, corporate and individual financial support, RIMAP retained a research vessel to follow up with dives on targets off Gaspee Point previously identified with remote sensing. Nothing of significance was found. This week the team is concentrating on the northwest side of the point facing Passeonkquis Cove with hopes of finding remnants of the vessel or land or in the shallows.   

As the team started their search Monday, McNamara and his fellow metal detector wielders scanned within the grid and placed flags at each hit. Abbass has told them not to dig at each marking. Rather, she is waiting to see if the markings reveal a pattern. Meanwhile Nulton and his fellow divers look for visual clues underwater, for instance a pile of rocks – anywhere from fist to melon sized – that may have once been ballast, left behind from rotted-away timbers.

The team has just a week to work, while the alignment of the moon pulls a large tidal range, and so Abbass is direct and to the point while leading the search. The main theme is precision: precision such that when the team puts the puzzle pieces together, they’ll know that they really do fit. And, hopefully, the metal detector flags in the ground and ballast piles will form an outline – however faint – of the Gaspee or a part of the British ship raiders burned to the waterline on June 10, 1772.

Abbass knows that the team could end up with nothing at all. After all, the Gaspee was burned two-and-a-half centuries ago, and the tide has washed in and out and the wind has rearranged the sand every single day since. Abbass says that knowing there’s nothing there is just as important for the historical catalog of the state as finding evidence of the ship

Once the extremes of the moon tides subside by the end of the week, Abbass and her RIMAP volunteers will pack up. With some 220 sunken Revolutionary War ships in Rhode Island waters from small boats to gun ships there’s lots of research to be done. As Abbass says, all history in this state either comes from or leads into the water, and the way you find it comes down to two words: ongoing and consistent.

Gaspee, shipwreck, search