Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: Ghost Ship - The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew (2004)

The Mary Celeste was a 100 foot brigantine that in December 1872 was found adrift in the North Atlantic with no crew aboard.  The ship was in relatively good shape with most of its equipment and cargo intact.  There was no signs of struggle, that it had been attacked or that it had suffered through a storm.  The lifeboat was gone but it was later disputed if the Mary Celeste even had a lifeboat.  And if the crew left in a lifeboat, why did they leave behind all of their personal belongings, including their smoke pipes and foul-weather gear?

The ship that found the Mary Celeste, the Dei Gratia sent over a crew of three to the "ghost ship" and over the course of a few weeks managed to sail it to Gibraltar where it became wrapped up in a legal tangle for months. Furthermore, there were dozens of theories put forth as to what happened.  There were suspicions that the crew of the Dei Gratia murdered all of those on the Mary Celeste and were claiming an undeserved salvage award.  Others thought it was an elaborate insurance scam.  It could have been a victim of the Bermuda Triangle, marauding pirates, or even the Kraken - a huge man-eating squid.

The two most interesting solutions put forth over the years are as follows:  Captain Briggs had his wife and young daughter aboard.  He had a small enclosed deck built especially for his child - a sort of play-pen that hung out over the side, keeping the girl out of harms way.  While Captain Briggs was by most accounts a level-headed and capable seaman, this version has him berating one of his crew for not saving a sailor who fell overboard on a previous voyage.  The sailor replied the seas were too rough and he too would have perished.  Briggs felt this was nonsense and declared he would show the young sailor how he himself could swim around the Mary Celeste.  He stripped down and jumped into the Atlantic.  Mrs. Briggs insisted two more of the crew follow the Captain in to ensure his safety.  That left only five crewmen on board. 

The story goes on to say how one of the sailors in the ocean with Briggs was attacked by a shark.  Those remaining on board heard him scream and rushed out on to young Miss Briggs little deck to see what the commotion was all about.  The small deck was unable to support their weight and all aboard tumbled into the ocean to become shark bait.  While this explanation is a little far-fetched, it would explain some of the markings on the deck and why everything aboard seemed intact when the Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste.

The second theory is one that the author Brian Hicks supports and would seem to be more plausible.  The Mary Celeste was carrying in its hold hundreds of barrels of what was loosely classified as "alcohol", which in reality was not beer or whiskey but some form of industrial chemical taken on in New York and bound for Genoa.  When the crew of the Dei Gratia boarded the Mary Celeste, the cargo was intact, although a few barrels were found to cracked open - not unusual if there had been even moderately rough seas.  Hick feels that the alcohol was emitting vapors that made Briggs and the crew lightheaded.  In order to escape the dizzying effects, the Captain ordered everyone into the lifeboat for a few hours until the gas dissipated.  They lowered themselves down and trailed a few hundred feet behind the Mary Celeste, affixed by a long anchor line.  Then calamity struck.  The already frayed line broke and while the sailors in the lifeboat rowed frantically to catch the Mary Celeste, the wind kicked up and filled her sails, leaving the small lifeboat behind.  The crew with neither food or water would have quickly perished.

Ghost Ship is a good read - a lively mystery of the ocean which in all likelihood will never be solved.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

They Grow Up So Fast...

Rabbits are renowned for their ability to reproduce but you will never hear anyone say "He was as smart as a rabbit", unless of course they are referring to Bugs Bunny.  Case in point, Mrs. Wascally Wabbit who in the throes of motherhood decided that our front lawn would make an ideal home for her brood. We noticed one evening a small clearing in the grass and upon closer inspection what appeared to be a scraped hole smaller than a dinner plate and marginally covered with dead grass and fur. Intrigued, I gently pulled back the covering, ready for Mr Snake or Armadillo.

Instead, there were these black naked sausages, which for all we knew were moles or maybe nasty rats.  We covered them back up and Mrs B mentioned she had seen a rabbit around front the previous evening.

A few days later and after another inspection and a Google image search, we felt reasonably sure they were rabbits.

We pulled one little fellow out to pose with Fiona for her prom.

This evening, we decided to take another look and when I pulled back the covering, five little bunnies came scampering out and hopped off in every direction, while at least two more stayed in the "burrow". We managed to track the escapees down (they could not get too far in long grass) and literally shoved them back in their tiny hovel and covered them up again.  At this stage we are resolved to let nature take its course...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: A Voyage Long and Strange

Written by Tony Horwitz in 2008, A Voyage Long and Strange examines the history of the lesser revered explorers who made their way to North America before the Pilgrims washed up on a Massachusetts beach and even before Columbus made his way to Cuba and Haiti (but not the continental US).  It is a fascinating read, not only because most of the early explorers discovered so much more than Columbus, but Horwitz actually goes to the trouble of retracing their routes while commenting on their impact and what the sites look like today.

Native Americans are descendants of Asians who crossed the land bridge between Alaska and Russia some 12,000 years ago.  The first Europeans showed up roughly 11,000 years later and were Vikings who had made their way first to Iceland, then Greenland and finally Newfoundland - there are stone settlements there attributed to Leif Eriksson, son of Eric the Red.  The Vikings did not stay for long - maybe only a few years - and unlike their Spanish successors, made no lasting impression.

1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue - but never landed on the mainland.

On the other hand, another Spaniard Ponce de Leon spent the years 1513-14 sailing around Florida and gave the state its name.  He was looking for the Fountain Of Youth but in 1521 met with something more tangible: an Arrow of Doom.  A poison tipped arrow of a Calusa Indian caused PdL's demise.  The very rocky relationship between explorer and Indian was on.

The next major explorer is my favorite.  Who could not love Head of a Cow, Cabeza de Vaca?  In 1527 he was part of an expedition to colonize La Florida.  They landed near present day Tampa with about 600 men and from then on, things deteriorated quickly.  Lack of food, tropical disease and skirmishes with Indians reduced their ranks quickly.  They wandered inland looking for gold but the swamps consumed them.  CdV and 40 men made it back to the coast of northern Florida after six months of futility and made rough rafts with a plan of sailing south towards Mexico.  Instead, they got blown west and wrecked near Galveston, Texas. 

For the next seven years, CdV and four others traipsed through Texas and New Mexico and finally in 1536 made his way south to Mexico City.  En route he traded with Indians and gained a reputation as a healer.  It was the most incredible journey, covering thousands of miles on foot with almost no resources only a will to get back to his own people.  He was empathetic to the natives and was not the typical gold hungry conquistador.

On the other hand, the Spanish explorers that came later, Coronado and particularly de Soto were exactly that: out to conquest.  De Soto was brutal,  He landed in Florida in 1539 and fought with Indians all thorough out the southeast.  He stole from them, enslaved them and his men spread European disease to those they came in contact with.  When you get to the part where de Soto dies in 1542, you will cheer.  He was a nasty piece of work.

The later and mostly English explorers are kind of lame by comparison.  Roanoke, John Smith, Plymouth Rock... yawn.  It is mouthwatering to think that Cabeza de Vaca wrote The Account, a chronicle of his travels and it has been translated into English...  That is on my Half Priced Books wish list.

All in, A Voyage Long and Strange is an excellent book.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


We have some serious growth and an array of vivid colors on display in the back yard.  A mild spring coupled with occasional but timely rain has all the flowers and fruits coming out en masse.  We will enjoy the flowers while they last - not long now until the blast furnace of summer descends upon us.