Friday, 26 September 2008

Ghost Ships: The Derelicts Part One

The oceans of the world are still strange places to us, and can cause our mind to imagine allsorts of magical things, be it mermaids or sea serpents or even ghost ships. But when it comes to the oceans there is no need for us to make things up, they already present us plenty of mysteries to keep us going. Sometimes we discover a new creature such as the giant squid or the megamouth shark. Sometimes we discover things we'd thought were lost. That is where the real ghost ships of the world come into play. They are not supernatural entities but ships thought lost or abandoned which suddenly reappear.

The Mary Celeste

The most famous case is, of course, the Mary Celeste. The appearance of this ship with it's crew missing has caused allsorts of myths to be created over the years from a simple man overboard situation turned to tragic farce all the way through to alien abduction. Nevertheless the Mary Celeste was a real ship and I'm fairly sure the explanation for it's fate lies in the real world.

The Mary Celeste was built in Nova Scotia in 1861 and set sail under the name "Amazon". It wasn't an easy beginning with her first captain dying at the start of her maiden voyage and she was involved in a collision in the English Channel. But this was not a "cursed ship" as some claim for she did have some very successful trips following these early set backs.

Pictured as the Amazon

In 1867 she ran aground and had to be salvaged, and in 1869 she was under new American owners and renamed the Mary Celeste.

Her fateful journey began on the 5th of November 1872 when she set sail for Italy with a cargo of commercial alcohol. She was under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs, with 7 other members of crew and two passengers; the Captain's wife and daughter.

The Dei Gratia, commanded by Captain David Reed Morehous, left New York harbour seven days after the Mary Celeste and so the crew were surprised to catch sight of her on the 4th of December 1872. She was under full sail towards the Strait of Gibraltar but after observing her over two hours it became obvious to the crew of the Dei Gratia that she was drifting.

They boarded her and found her empty and in "a thoroughly wet mess". There was a lot of water between decks and about 1.1m of water in the hold. Of the ships paperwork only the ship's log remained. The lifeboat appeared to have been lowered intentionally and was missing along with most of the navigational equipment. The last log entry was dated November 24 and placed her 100 miles (160 km) west of the Portuguese islands of the Azores. Of the cargo 9 barrels would later be found to be empty. The crew of the Dei Gratia sailed her to Gibraltar and claimed her as salvage. Suggestions of foul play meant there compensation was much less than is should of been.

Myths about the Mary Celeste include:

1) She was found with food on the table untouched (or showing signs of being half eaten), washing hung out to dry or with a cat asleep on top of a locker.
2) Her name is the Marie Celeste
3) That a cutlass was found embedded in a wooden post suggesting a pirate attack.

These things are complete fiction and mainly became well accepted because of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who always liked to mix fact and fiction in his books).

So what really happened? As I said before there are plenty of theories, check out this site for a rundown of some of them but the most likely one is probably the most fascinating and I'm going to quote from Wikipedia as I think it says it best:

Of the theories consistent with the account given by the crew of the Dei Gratia, the most plausible are based on the barrels of alcohol. Briggs had never hauled such a dangerous cargo before and did not trust it. Nine leaking barrels would have caused a buildup of vapor in the hold. Historian Conrad Byers believed that Captain Briggs ordered the hold to be opened, resulting in a violent rush of fumes and then steam. Believing the ship was about to explode, Briggs ordered everyone into the lifeboat, failing, in his haste, to properly secure it to the ship with a strong towline. The wind picked up and blew the ship away from them. The occupants of the lifeboat either drowned or drifted out to sea to die of hunger, thirst and exposure.
First put forth by the ship's owner, James Winchester, this theory is perhaps the most widely accepted explanation for the disappearance. Even paranormally-inclined writers like Richard Winer and Colin Wilson consider this the most likely solution to the Celeste mystery. A refinement of this theory was proposed in 2005 by German historian Eigel Wiese. At his suggestion, scientists at University College London created a crude reconstruction of the ship's hold to test the theory of the alcohol vapor's ignition. Using butane as the fuel and paper cubes as the barrels, the hold was sealed and the vapor ignited. The force of the explosion blew the hold doors open and shook the scale model, which was about the size of a coffin. Ethanol burns at a relatively low temperature with a flash point of 13°C or 55.4°F. A minimal spark is needed, for example from two metal objects rubbing together. None of the paper cubes was damaged, nor even left with scorch marks. This theory may explain the remaining cargo being found intact and the fracture on the ship's rail, possibly by one of the hold doors. This burning in the hold would have been violent and perhaps enough to scare the crew into lowering the boat, but the flames would not have been hot enough to have left burn marks. A frayed rope trailing in the water behind the ship is suggested to be evidence that the crew remained attached to the ship hoping that the emergency would pass. The ship was abandoned while under full sail and a storm was recorded shortly after. It is possible that the rope to the lifeboat parted because of the force from the ship under full sail. A small boat in a storm would not have fared as well as the Mary Celeste.

Cold flames scaring the crew off the ship followed by a storm which separated their lifeboat from the ship? Sometimes facts are stranger than fiction. Let us spare a moment however to think of the crew of the Mary Celeste. Whatever happened to her, their fate seems certain, all we can hope is that it was quick. The Mary Celeste went on to sail again until she was finally destroyed as part of an insurance scam in the 1880s.

The Baychimo

The Baychimo is another famous case, and I particularly like this one. She was built in Sweden in 1914 and was a steel 1,322 ton cargo steamer. She operated in the Arctic under the Hudson Bay Company. On the 1st of October 1931 she became trapped in pack ice. The crew abandoned her to seek shelter in a nearby town for 2 days before she broke free and the crew returned. On the 8th of October she was caught in pack ice again and most of the crew was airlifted away. But 15 of them decided to wait out the winter with her and built a wooden shelter nearby. On the 24th of November 1931 a powerful storm and blizzard blew up and when it was over there was no sign of the Baychimo leaving the skipper to decide she must have finally sunk in the storm.

A few days later an Inuit hunter informed the crew that he'd seen the Baychimo floating 45 miles away. The men found her stuck in pack ice yet again, boarded her and decided she wouldn't last much longer. They removed the cargo of furs and finally abandoned her for good. Little did they know that her fate was far from settled yet.

Several months past and then she was spotted again, this time 300 miles to the east of her last position. This was one ship who wasn't going to let having no crew get in the way of sailing.

The following year in March she was seen floating close to shore by a man traveling to Nome with his dog sled team. She was seen again not too long after that.

In March 1933 a group of Eskimos boarded her, but before they could think about salvaging her they were trapped on board by a storm and had to remain there for 10 days. At the end of it they abandoned her, glad to have survived with their lives.

In July 1934 a schooner crew boarded her, but not having the necessary equipment to salvage a ship so big they were forced to abandon her.

Still afloat in November 1939, she was boarded by Captain Hugh Polson, wishing to salvage her, but the creeping ice floes intervened and the captain had to abandon her.

Many times after this she was seen from the shore and at sea floating around the seas of Alaska, never successfully salvaged.

In March 1962, she was seen sailing along the Beaufort Sea coast by a group of Eskimos.

In 1969, 38 years after she was first abandoned, she was found stuck in pack ice once more. She was never seen again.

For at least 38 years this ship haunted the coasts of Alaska, always eluding capture thanks to chance. Perhaps she's still out there, sailing ever onwards. I'd like to think she is.

Further Reading

Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew - Brian Hicks

Baychimo: Arctic Ghost Ship - Anthony Dalton


Fransiska Ike said...

Those are creepy... story. You got me there... I started to imagine about ghost ship. :(

Anonymous said...

Wow, very cool story about the Baychimo