In last month’s post I wrote about a story that may or may not be true, the fate of the Ourang Medan, a Dutch freighter supposedly found adrift in the 1940’s. So for my second post of the month, I decided to write about some more maritime mysteries that have captured people’s imaginations. So let’s begin.
“Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage.” – Benjamin Briggs, captain of the Mary Celeste, in a letter to his mother.
The mystery of the Mary Celeste is one most people have undoubtedly heard about. This may be due in no small part to the fact that its story got muddled with fantastical retelling and insane conspiracy theories as to what happened aboard that ship. But here is the story as we know it:
Mary Celeste originally began life as the Amazon, originally carrying cargo such as timber across the Atlantic. It had its fair share of misadventures, colliding with fishing equipment and the like, as well as accidentally sinking a naval warship in the English Channel. Not even ten years after her construction, a storm in 1867 ran her aground and left the ship so damaged that it was deemed a derelict wreck.
Over the next couple of years the ship changed hands a few times, eventually gaining its new name Mary Celeste. A series of structural changes enlarged the ship greatly, and it eventually came under the command of Benjamin Briggs, who would captain it on the fateful journey.
In the fall of 1872, the ship was loaded up with barrels of denatured alcohol bound for Genoa. After a brief hiatus to wait for weather conditions to improve, the ship set out on November 5th. Another ship, the Del Gratia, left port eight days after the Celeste, with a cargo of petroleum, following in the Celeste‘s path.
They would be the ones to discover the ship adrift a month later, in December.
When the crew of the Del Gratia climbed aboard the Celeste, they found that the ship’s rigging and sails were in poor condition, and the single lifeboat was missing. On top of that, there was some equipment damage, including the ship’s compass housing which had its glass cover broken. There was a few feet of water in the cargo hold, but not enough to be a danger. Most of the rooms were wet, but in decent condition, although most of the ship’s papers were gone. The gallery was neat and orderly, with all equipment stowed away. There was no obvious sign of fire of violence, which gave the appearance of an orderly evacuation for some unknown reason.
The ship was towed to Gibraltar for a salvage hearing, which is where rumor and misinformation began. Frederick Solly-Flood, who conducted the hearing, got it into his head that some sort of crime had been committed aboard the Celeste. Worse still, he accused the ship’s owner of possibly engaging the crew in a mutiny to kill Captain Briggs and then faking a incident with inclement weather. But Flood’s theories collapsed after scientific analysis of the ship revealed that the stains of red found in several places on the ship were not blood, and that the damage to the timber was nothing more than the natural wrath of the sea.
Numerous theories as to what happened on board the ship range from mutiny all the way to paranormal incidences and even abduction by aliens. However, one of the more compelling theories is that a pressure-wave type of explosion rocked the cargo hold. There would have been an impressive flame, but no damage to the ship and no soot left behind. This could have freaked out the crew, and they abandoned ship, fearing that it would soon explode again and send them all to a watery grave.
Unfortunately, there is no way of ever knowing what really happened. All we have are our theories.
“We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought, on three men dead.” – Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, The Ballad of Flannan Isle
The lighthouse in the Flannan Isles off the western coast of Scotland was first lit in December of 1899. Among other things, it featured a railway track powered by a series of cables and a steam engine to help facilitate the delivery of provisions for the lighthouse keepers and fuel for the light beacon. These days, the beacon is automated, with a reinforced helipad constructed so that maintenance visits could be done even in extreme weather conditions.
But what the Flannan Isles lighthouse would become infamous for was the disappearance of its three lighthouse keepers in 1900, barely a year after it was lit. The incident, much like the Mary Celeste, has been subject to speculation and fantasy. But it has also inspired pop culture, including an episode of “Doctor Who” titled “Horror at Fang Rock” in 1977.
On the 15th of December, 1900, a passing vessel noted that the light in the lighthouse was not lit despite the poor condition of the weather. It wouldn’t be until nearly two weeks later that another vessel, with the lighthouse relief keeper in tow, visited the isle. In those days there were four men for the lighthouse: three staying on site, and a fourth back ashore ready to relieve one of the keepers. No sign of the keepers could be spotted, even after the ship captain blew his horn, Investigation of the island discovered that the main gate and door were closed, and the beds were unmade. A set of oilskins (water proof clothing) was also found, suggesting that one of the keepers left without it in a hurry, strange considering the conditions of the storm.
There was still no sign of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and Donald McArthur. It was presumed shortly after that the three lighthouse keepers were dead.
It was discovered that the western landing of the isle had been severely damaged by the recent storms. The theory then arose that the three lighthouse keepers had been blown over the edge of the cliff or drowned while trying to secure a crane.
Investigation of the log would reveal odd details, such as Donald McArthur crying. McArthur, who had a reputation for getting into fights, did not seem to type to cry. There were descriptions of intense storms, which was odd considering that no such storms had been reported in the area leading up to the event. This suggested that the logs were manufactured somehow or the storms were heavily localized. The investigation concluded that Marshall and Ducat had gone to secure a box that contained mooring ropes and the like. McArthur, knowing the danger that the sea could pose on that particular spot (the western edge had a small cave in it, which allowed the water to rush in and then explode outward with surprising force), jumped up from his chair and rushed outside to warn them, leaving his oilskins behind. The three of them were then swept over the edge by waves, never to be seen again.
Of course, fantasy and reality collided in the years following the incident, much like with the Mary Celeste. Popular theories included being abducted by foreign spies, they arranged for a boat to take them away to a new life, an attack by a giant sea serpent or giant seabird, and even an encounter with a ghost ship filled with malevolent spirits. However, the theory of them being swept away by waves or wind remains the most plausible explanation.
Carroll A. Deering
“I’ll get the captain before we get to Norfolk, I will.” – Charles McLellan, First Mate of the Deering.
The Carrol A. Deering was constructed in 1919 in Maine, and was one of the last large commercial sailing vessels of its time. It had been in service for about a year when it began what would be its final voyage.
In July of 1920, the Deering picked up a shipment of coal bound for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The ship’s original captain, William Merritt, fell ill during the journey and was dropped off with his son in Delaware. Willis B. Wormell, a 66-year old retired sea captain, took command of the ship. His first mate was chosen to be Charles B. McLellan.
The vessel reached Rio without incident, delivering its cargo as promised. Captain Wormell gave his crew shore leave and left to meet up with an old captain friend of his. It was there that he was reported complaining about his crew, saying that he couldn’t trust anyone but his engineer.
In December of 1920, the ship left for Rio and stopped in Barbados for supplies. It was there that First Mate McLellan got drunk and complained to another captain in port about the apparent lack of discipline on board. He also said that he’d “get the captain” before the Deering reached Norfolk. McLellan was promptly arrested, but in a strange twist Captain Wormell forgave him and paid his bail, allowing him back on board the Deering.
The next sighting of the Deering was by a lightship of the coast of North Carolina. There, a man told the lightship captain through a megaphone that the ship had lost its anchors in a storm off Cape Fear and that the company should be notified. The lightship captain noted this, but with his radio out was unable to report it. The following day, another ship noticed the Deering setting a course that would run it aground on the Diamond Shoals, a dangerous spot for ships off of Cape Hatteras. But the vessel did not see anyone on the deck nor did they try hailing anyone, assuming that the ship would eventually see the either the lighthouse or lightship and steer away.
At the end of January 1921, the ship was spotted at dawn by the Coast Guard station and Cape Hatteras. It would be another few days before the vessel could be boarded due to the rough waters.
When the ship was boarded, it was found that much of the equipment had been damaged. Crew personal effects were missing, and the galley appeared to have been in the process of setting up the next day’s meal when the incident occurred.
No signs of life were found on board.
A subsequent investigation came to the conclusion that the ship had undergone a mutiny by the crew, as evidenced by the First Mate’s comments as well as the captains. However, no official ruling was ever filed.
Other explanations persisted of course. Piracy was thought to be a possible cause, with even Communist piracy considered. Hurricanes were considered, although the evidence left behind pointed at an orderly evacuation rather than a panicked one. Then there was the paranormal explanations, with some claiming aliens abducted the crew (it’s always aliens isn’t it) or that the crew fell victim to the Bermuda Triangle, despite the fact that the ship’s final resting place was several hundred miles away.
Recovery of the ship proved impossible, and it was destroyed using dynamite.
Thanks for reading! I’ll have another post next week, and have a spooky scary October!