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Victor Mastone, left, of the state Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources, takes measurements while Graham McKay takes notes at the site of a ship that sunk along the Merrimack River in Haverhill. McKay is researching the ship as part of his thesis for a marine archaeology Master's degree from the University of Bristol in England.

HAVERHILL | The ship has rested on the bank of the Merrimack River for so long that four large trees, a large tuft of grass and some shrubbery sprout from its side.

The landscape is all that can be seen at high tide, when the Merrimack River swells to cover the large planks, copper bolts and the rest of the shell that remains of what is believed to be a U.S. Coast Guard lightship.

Until now, the vessel has gone without official documentation, simply a little-known local landmark that's been on the banks of the Merrimack River, just downriver from the bridge that connects Haverhill to Groveland, for more than seven decades.

"People don't really think about it," said Victor Mastone, director of the state's Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources. "They drive by and they say, 'Oh, there's the wreck.' They think there is a record of it."

But there isn't, and that's where Graham McKay comes in.

The 1997 Amesbury High School graduate, a 28-year-old studying marine archaeology at the University of Bristol, England, is using the vessel as his thesis to earn a master's degree. He's trying to determine many things about the ship, chief among them: What boat is it? When did it come to Haverhill? How and when did it sink?

The working theory is that the ship is a circa-1855 wooden lightship that for many years floated off Nantucket. McKay's challenge is figuring out how | and why | it ended up in the Merrimack upriver in Haverhill.

Since June, McKay has tried to document as much as he can about the boat, taking measurements of the remains, numbers he punches into a special computer program that, once he collects enough data, will provide a 3-D image of the wreckage site.

Yesterday, McKay stood on the what's left of the ship's stern, scribbling down measurements of the vessel that were shouted out by Mastone. But with his deadline looming just a month away, the need for measurements is diminishing and information on the ship's history is badly needed.

McKay said he's hoping to get assistance from some of Haverhill's old-timers about what they remember about the ship.

"People come down and look at it, but no one's ever really studied it for posterity," McKay said. "It is actually a pretty significant vessel in American maritime history, which is odd that it ends up in Haverhill."

That is, pretty significant if it is the vessel everyone thinks it is: the LV-1 Lightship, which was built in 1855 in Portsmouth, N.H., and stationed for many years on the South Shoals of Nantucket.

"That's what all the sources say she is, but part of my thesis is to prove that," McKay said.

One way to prove it is to look at the original ship's specifications.

Those documents say the LV-1 is a 103-foot long ship. But the ship that rests on the banks of the river measures about 80 feet from stern to bow | a 23 foot difference that McKay must explain.

"It is really the quandary now," he said. "Either this boat isn't the boat everyone thinks it is or they made an error sometime back when."

The boat points downriver, toward Newburyport and the Atlantic Ocean, and is tilted at a 45 degree angle toward the river. When the river retreats at low tide, the boat is accessible by foot, and is completely exposed save for the keel, which is buried deep into the river's bottom.

Local scuttlebutt is that the boat was purchased or donated to the Groveland Sea Scouts, a maritime-oriented version of the Boy Scouts, in the 1930s. Another version of the story suggests the Haverhill Sea Scouts purchased the ship and donated it to their Groveland neighbors, McKay said.

McKay's research says one of two things happened to the boat: The force of the flood of 1936 broke the ship free of its mooring and it sank to where it now rests; or that it broke free the winter before during a heavy ice flow.

"Even that detail, since the '70s, has been confused," McKay said, illustrating the difficulty of his project.

There is evidence that the ship is the LV-1.

The ship is made completely of wood and was powered by sail its entire life, signifying its age, McKay said. When it was first built, it used oil for its lamps and utilized copper spikes to nail the ship together, which is another a sign it was a lightship.

"It would have been much too costly for anything but a government job," McKay said of the copper fasteners.

The ship is constructed as a schooner rig, which the LV-1's specifications confirm.

And the ship is heavily built, which was needed for the job the lightships were called to do.

Such ships were dispatched to areas basically to act as a "floating lighthouse," Mastone said. For instance, they would be placed near land when a lighthouse was out of service to warn ships of potential danger.

"They used to be all over the coast," he said. "It wasn't the most pleasant duty. You're sitting there, and you are feeling every wave, every roll. And they're in the worst of conditions. It was pretty rough duty."

At the wreckage site, McKay says those in marine archaeology consider shipwrecks "a moment caught in time," since they usually sit in the relatively peaceful bottom of a large body of water.

But the tides and power of the Merrimack River have ruined that for this particular ship.

"This one really isn't 'a moment caught in time,'" he said. "It's more a hulk than it is a wreck."

But McKay continues on, in hopes that he can create that snapshot for future researchers | even if it is a snapshot from 2007.

"It takes a lot of measuring and poking around to get it so that when it disappears, which it eventually will, and then someone else tries to do this 100 years from now, they'll know what was here," he said. "It's tricky."

To contact McKay with any knowledge of the ship, e-mail him at grahamamckay@yahoo.com or call Mastone at 617-626-1141.

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