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.

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