It’s October and what better way to gear up for the holidays than with a spooky tale.
Have you ever been on a boat suspended between the horizon and the ocean? That wondrous place where the blue sea meets the equally blue skies? Or when the sun tucks in for the evening and liquid black blends into the star-studded night? If so, you know how incredibly small you are. Nothing but water for miles and miles can be daunting. When the sea is smooth as glass, it is a peaceful place. But when angry, lashing out with slaps of waves, the sea can be unforgiving. Calm or rough, the ocean is dangerous...and scary.
The mysteries of what lies beneath in the deep drink has stimulated the imagination for centuries. Since the first boat cast out to sea, tall tales of monsters, mythical beings, strange happenings, and phantom ships have been told. Some yarns and legends are merely fantastical explanations of odd sea creatures or weather occurrences from superstitious sailors. But some stories are real and unexplainable. One such story is the ghost ship Mary Celeste.
The Mary Celeste was launched in 1861 under her original name Amazon in Nova Scotia. As she prepared for her maiden voyage loaded with a timber cargo bound for London, her first captain Robert McLellan fell ill and died. That should have been an omen. The journey to London under a new captain would go on, but the voyage was hardly a smooth one. She collided with fishing weir causing a gash in her hull and needing repair before she ever sailed out into the Atlantic. Once she finally made it to London, she struck another ship, sinking it. Not really the best start for a brand new ship and it wasn’t the end of mishaps surrounding the vessel. Six years and many captains later, she was run aground by a storm off a Nova Scotia island and abandoned. Declared a derelict, Amazon was sold, repaired, refitted, and renamed Mary Celeste.
On November 7, 1872, the brigantine Mary Celeste sailed out of the New York Harbor and into the Atlantic bound for Genoa, Italy. Risky business considering the Atlantic often churns with volatile weather during the winter months. The cargo, 1701 barrels of denatured alcohol meant to fortify wine. She was captained by master mariner—and, ironically, teetotaler—Benjamin Spooner Briggs of Massachusetts. Along for the voyage was his wife, Sarah, 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, his trusted first mate, Albert Richardson, and six hand-picked crewmen.
Having left the port just eight days after the Mary Celeste, the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia sailed within sight of the ship nearly one month later on December 5th midway between the Azores and Portugal. Repeated attempts to hail the ship garnered no reply and soon it was realized the aimlessly drifting Mary Celeste was deserted. Not a soul on board. Aside from weathered sails, the main halyard line hanging over the side of the ship, a faulty pump, and the soaking wet interior rooms from open hatches, Mary Celeste was in relatively good condition. She was well-stocked with provisions, her cargo untouched, and her occupants’ personal items still on board. Only the yawl (lifeboat) and a couple pieces of navigational equipment, the chronometer and sextant, were missing.
The last entry in the ship’s logbook on November 25th recorded her location within sight of the Azores island of Santa Maria. That was nine days earlier and 400 miles from where she was found adrift by Dei Gratia’s crew. Imagine boarding a seaworthy ship in the middle of the ocean to find no one on board and not a trace of what happened to them. That would be eerie!
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The abandoned ship was sailed to Gibraltar by three of Dei Gratia crew members. Under maritime law, a share of the salvage of ships and/or cargo can be awarded to those who bring them in. But the British vice admiralty court suspected something amiss with the salvage. Perhaps the Dei Gratia crew ambushed and killed Captain Briggs and his family and crew, hoping to cash in a sizable salvage. Eventually, the court found no real evidence of foul play but awarded a much smaller reward.
Theories abound over what happened to the missing Mary Celeste crew, including marauding pirates, sudden waterspouts, an attack by a giant squid, a violent seaquake, and mutiny. All claims have been refuted. So what happened to her crew?
The most plausible explanation is something caused Briggs to order everyone off the ship and into the yawl. Perhaps strong vapors from the alcohol in the hold panicked the captain into calling for an immediate abandon ship. The lifeboat was probably tied to the thick rope that had been found hanging over the side of the ship. Whatever caused the captain to make that decision was likely a false alarm, but somehow the halyard snapped—whether by rough seas, a nefarious act, or something entirely mundane—and the little party was left behind, watching the Mary Celeste sail away without them. Ten people, suspended in the wondrous place between the horizon and the ocean, mysteriously vanished never to be seen or heard from again. More than 140 years later, the mystery still remains.
The Mary Celeste sailed for another twelve years until she was intentionally shipwrecked in an attempted insurance fraud. Seemed her fate all along was a doomed one.
Ghost ships like Mary Celeste have sparked my imagination, as well. One named Gloria is featured in my second full-length novel A Kiss In The Wind in the Romancing the Pirate series.
For a brief video on the Mary Celeste, click the link below.