Dr Cathryn Pearce is a Visiting Lecturer and Honorary Research Associate at Greenwich Maritime Institute, University of Greenwich. Formerly, she was an associate professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Kenai Peninsula campus for 15 years. She completed her PhD at Greenwich in 2007. Her thesis was published as Cornish Wrecking: Reality and Popular Myth, 1700-1860 (2010).
I had no way of knowing when I was fresh out of high school that I would earn my PhD in maritime history in England. Nor did I dream that I would ever leave Alaska—which I loved with all my heart. I wouldn’t have accepted the suggestion that I’d write a well-received academic book, even though my father encouraged me that I ‘could write a bestseller’. And the thought that I would eventually be on Council of the prestigious Society for Nautical Research, secretary for its Publications Committee, hobnobbing with retired admirals and finding myself at functions attended by royalty? No!
Plus I most definitely would have called someone crazy had they suggested that I would appear on radio and television for various BBC documentaries. No way could that happen! I was a quiet, shy kid, not at all confident, growing up in a far-off state that was considered ‘rustic’, ‘exotic’, and distant from ‘civilization’. My career developed by taking advantage of opportunities; it was not planned.
My first real job was as a naturalist-interpreter with the US Forest Service, where I spent weekends in Prince William Sound presenting natural history programmes aboard the Alaska State ferry M.V. Bartlett. But my love of history, inherited from my father, kept tugging at me. I found myself giving talks on maritime history—especially on European exploration. After a brief flirtation with biology at university, I eventually made up my mind and switched to history for good.
And so I became an historian, and eventually, through sheer luck, found a full-time teaching post at the University of Alaska Anchorage. However, it was not until many years later that I began specialising in shipwrecks and wrecking, of all things! Looking back, I realise now that I had always been interested in these subjects.
When I was 19, I wrote my research paper for medieval history class on the history of shipwrecks in medieval Cornwall, using books that I had bought from my first trip to the UK. The Hudson’s Bay Company lost several ships on the Northwest Coast, and I had covered them—and early wreck law—in my MA thesis at the University of Victoria.
At the time, though, I didn’t see the shipwreck pattern. For my PhD, I thought I was going to research naval history. But one day, I pulled from my bookshelf a small volume on Cornish wrecking, bought on that first trip to Cornwall twenty years earlier. I read it, had lots of questions, and wrote an outline. The next week, Kodima ran aground off the Cornish coast and the BBC announced that the Cornish wreckers were at it again, revelling in plunder. That was it. With relevance established by events, I was hooked, and with further investigation, so was my PhD supervisor.
My life was a whirl. I took my sabbatical at Greenwich Maritime Institute for eighteen months before returning to Alaska. Thereafter, all my breaks were spent on research trips to London and Cornwall. But that wasn’t enough time. I took another eighteen months unpaid leave in Greenwich, and then finished writing my thesis on Cornish wrecking at home while concurrently teaching full-time. I flew to London on spring break for my viva, followed the next day by filming for the BBC’s Timewatch, and then I signed a book contract. That summer, I returned to England with an internal funding grant from my university to study wrecking folklore, and I met my husband.
And so, the life that my 18-year old self would never have believed, gathered momentum. My book was published; its positive reviews left me speechless. My friends and colleagues in the maritime history world embraced me, and I was recommended for the Society for Nautical Research’s Council. Now I’m back at Greenwich Maritime Institute accomplishing yet another dream—to teach and do research under their auspices. But rather than focus on the history of the crime of wrecking, I am now looking at another view of shipwreck, the role of coastal communities in lifesaving. It’ll be interesting to see where opportunities may lead me in the future!