A Lost Monument in Orleans

Apr 3, 2018

Credit Robert Finch

Several years ago I did a radio program about a bronze plaque that was bolted to a large glacial boulder on the tidal flats of Nauset Harbor in Orleans. The plaque commemorated the departure point of the first successful row across the Atlantic Ocean, completed by two Englishmen, John Ridgeway and Chay Blyth, in the summer of 1966.

It was affixed near the top of the granite boulder, which was about seven feet high and sat in shallow water some 30-40 feet below the low tide line. An engraving of the two men in their boat was carved into the stone, and the plaque read as follows:  

A Fighting Chance 
John Ridgeway and Chay Blyth 
Rowed Atlantic in English Rose III
From Orleans to Kilronin Aran 
Ireland. 4 June 1966- 3 September 1966 


At the bottom of the plaque was the Celtic phrase, “NAR LAGA DIA IAD,” which roughly translated means “God strengthen them!” It seemed a fitting place and a durable monument to commemorate a remarkable act of daring and skill on the high seas. 


I had not been back to the site of the plaque for several years, but one day in late March I walked out the jeep trail that led out through the dunes out to Nauset Spit in search of it. I didn’t remember the exact site of the boulder, but I knew its general location and figured that an object that large would be easy to spot. It wasn’t. In fact, it had vanished. But of course it couldn’t have. Something that large and solid couldn’t just have disappeared in a few years, could it? And in fact it hadn’t – I was just looking in the wrong place.  


I stopped scanning the flats and lowered my binoculars. When I did I noticed a wooden stake with a piece of blue tape wrapped around it just a few feet from where I stood. It marked a shallow depression in the sands, which had apparently been excavated by hand to expose the tip of a pink granite boulder. At the bottom of the shallow excavation was a small portion of the plaque I had been looking for out on the tidal flats. I could make out the legend, ”A Fighting Chance,” and parts of the two men’s names.  


It took me a minute or two to fully realize what had happened. The boulder, once taller than me and situated in water at least a dozen yards below the low tide line, was now nearly completely buried beneath a newly-formed sand dune and lay some 700 feet from the nearest water. Only the work of some unknown hands had kept the site from vanishing completely.  


As so often happens on this beach, my sense of time-scale suddenly shifted. The buried boulder with its commemorative plaque, which I first encountered less than forty years ago, now took on the aspect of an archeologicalal excavation. It seemed one of those ancient, buried Egyptian temples and tombs in places like Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, similarly inscribed with commemorative hieroglyphics and legends honoring forgotten pharaohs and demigods. But here not only our history but our very monuments to that history are disappearing, not over millennia but in the space of a few years, swallowed up “in the shrouds and shifting currents of sand and sea.”