The prolific Cotuit author discusses his new book about the Whydah shipwreck, which begins and ends on Cape Cod.By Kelly Chase
“Can I tell you a story?” asks Martin Sandler in his Cotuit home office. He pulls his knee up to cross his legs, revealing his striped colored socks. His chair sways slightly, knocking his thick pine desk, which is covered with papers, binders, pens, pencils and knicknacks. Faded Life magazines fall to a slant behind him and he is completely surrounded by books—his cave of facts. Historian Martin Sandler is a man from whom you never turn down a story.
Sandler, who lives in Cotuit with his wife, Carol, has a quick wit, an infectious curiosity and a timeless sense of humor. He has written more than 80 books for children and adults, including “Iron Rails, Iron Men and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad” and “The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure.” His most recent book, “The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found,” begins and ends on Cape Cod.
There are conflicting accounts, but Sandler’s version starts with Sam Bellamy, a recently released British sailor searching for adventure who made his way to Eastham. There he meets Maria Hallett and falls in love, but as the story goes, her parents won’t have it—a young man with little money who lives in a pub wants to marry their daughter? Now Bellamy has something to prove and he puts a plan in place. “Bellamy says, ‘I am going to go and find a Spanish treasure ship and get rich and sail back to Cape Cod with the riches,’” explains Sandler. “He’s planning to show Maria Hallett’s parents what he’s made of and then take her off to her own Caribbean island.”
When Bellamy arrives in Florida and the Spanish treasure ship is nowhere to be found, he pivots into piracy and becomes the most successful one-year pirate in the history of piracy, according to Sandler. The story about Maria Hallett could never be confirmed. “Some argue it’s not true, others have said it could be, but it doesn’t matter to me,” says Sandler. “For some reason, after he was so darn successful in the Mid-Atlantic and the Caribbean, he suddenly says, ‘Guys, I am changing the course—we are heading for Cape Cod.’”
The Whydah sunk off the coast of Wellfleet in 1717 with all the treasure on board, killing 144 men, including Bellamy. In 1984, Barry Clifford and his crew aboard the Vast Explorer located the shipwreck and pulled up artifacts from the ocean floor. They found millions of dollars worth of silver and gold coins, bars and jewelry. “The Whydah was the first sunken pirate ship ever to be found,” writes Sandler in the book. “When a ship sinks, it becomes a time capsule. If it is salvaged, like the Whydah, it provides evidence of what ships were like and what life was like at the time of its sinking.”
For months, Sandler immersed himself in books, accounts and letters about Sam Bellamy and the Whydah. For his books, he does all of the research himself, spending eight to 10 hours a day on one particular subject, which ultimately results in a shoebox of index cards with scribbled facts. Sandler, who writes every book by hand, says he tries as much as possible to let quotes and journal entries do the talking. “The whole secret to my success is that I have been able to have the ability and the desire to let the people in the story tell the story. As many times as I can have them speak, as long as it’s authentic and I’m not making it up, that’s what gives it its magic.”
Sandler was not always the most comfortable under a sea of historical documents. “What I wanted to do more than anything else was be a baseball player,” he says. “I started in AAA and I was going to make the major leagues and I tore my shoulder apart, so they sent me home. I was never going to play again because back in those days, they didn’t know how to fix it permanently.” The New Bedford native read in the paper that there was an opening at Quincy Junior High School for a history teacher. “I got a job right before school started.”
Sandler taught for 13 years at the junior high school, high school and college level. He was also named National Teacher of the Year. “That’s the best thing you can do in life is inspire young people,” he says.
While he still teaches at Cape Cod Community College, his focus is writing and researching and he writes two to three books a year. “I still find time to play tennis, go to the movies and hang out,” says Sandler. “But I love what I do and you can’t beat my commute. I bounce up these stairs and I write eight, nine, 10 hours a day because there’s nothing I’d rather do.”