The sea has always been a cause for superstition among sailors.  The Vikings – widely regarded as brutal and efficient men – were terrified of the fog.  Other sailors were fearful of bodies of water like South America’s Drake Passage – and rightly so.  Shifting weather conditions and heavy seas could quickly overtake the earliest ships.

In the days before internet and GPS positioning, and even before wireless telegraph technology, ships were essentially on their own for the duration of their voyage.  The only way anyone knew something out of the ordinary had happened was when the ship failed to show up at it’s scheduled port.  Even then, it was not uncommon for ships to be delayed by weather days or even weeks. 

The most famous maritime mystery – aside from the RMS Titanic – is a ship that didn’t sink at all. 

Built in 1861, the Mary Celeste was originally launched as the Amazon in Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia. A 282-gross-ton “brigante” (a ship with two masts, only one of which is square-rigged), she sailed a rather unremarkable career until running aground off Glace Bay, Nova Scotia in 1867.  She was salvaged and sold to her new owner, Mr. Richard Haines of New York, who repaired the ship at great expense and planned to utilise his new vessel on lucrative runs from New York to the Adriatic.  She was renamed Mary Celeste.

After several successful – and routine – years on this run, Mary Celeste docked in New York for the last time on November 5, 1872.  She was loaded with 1,701 barrels of alcohol worth about $35,000 alone.  The alcohol and remainder of the cargo were insured for $46,000 (roughly $756,000 US in 2010).  Once provisioning was complete, Mary Celeste set sail for Genoa.

Exactly one month later, on December 5, 1872, a helmsman aboard the ship Dei Gratia named John Johnson sighted a strange object through his spyglass: another vessel, sails slightly torn, listing but apparently still under sail.  Johnson was worried sufficiently to alert Second Officer John Wright, who then fetched Dei Gratia‘s Captain.

The decision was made to approach the ship and render whatever assistance might be needed.

As the Dei Gratia got closer, the three men on the bridge were shocked to discover the stricken ship was the Mary Celeste.  She had left New York two weeks earlier than the Dei Gratia, and should have been safely in Genoa by now.  More confusing was the fact that both ships were off the coast of Portugal, and Mary Celeste was still under full sail, on a track for the Strait of Gibraltar.

The men’s concern didn’t abate as they maneuvered their ship alongside.  Chief Mate Oliver Deveau boarded the Mary Celeste and found only a wet, sloppy mess of her decks.  There was a three-and-a-half feet of water in the hold, and only one pump was in working order.  But the ship was not sinking, and was still seaworthy.

She was also entirely abandoned. 

All of the ships papers, save the logbook, were missing.  The forehatch was open.  Several navigation instruments were missing, along with the ship’s only lifeboat.  A long rope was found trailing the stern section of the ship, where the lifeboat would have been launched from.  One end was tied to the ship, while the other end was considerably frayed and floating in the water below the ship.

All traces of food were gone from the main cabin. 

The crew’s personal effects were still there, as were the 1,701 barrels of alcohol, making an instance of piracy seem unlikely.  However, when Mary Celeste was towed to Genoa and unloaded, several of the barrels were found to be empty.

No one from the Mary Celeste – alive or otherwise – was ever found.

Since 1872, several theories have been proposed to explain the disappearance of the crew and how she came to be found still under sail off the coast of Portugal.  While some are fanciful, the most plausible explanations center around the barrels of alcohol in her hold.

Nine barrels were found to be empty.  Those nine barrels were made of red oak and not white oak like the rest of the cargo.  Red oak is more porous, and more likely to emit vapours.  Alcohol vapors emitted into a small, contained space – like a cargo hold – pose a considerable threat.  If the barrels were not securely tied down, they could rub up against each other, causing a spark.  This would cause the vapours in the hold to ignite.

The thing about alcohol vapor is that it burns at a relatively low temperature.  While it would produce a considerable bang – strong enough, perhaps, to blow the forepeak hatch open – it would not have had the power to burn anything, and would have fizzled out on its own. 

The initial explosion, however, may have been enough to convince the crew to abandon ship – even temporarily. 

The rope trailing near the lifeboat has been the source of another eerily plausible theory:  fearful the rest of her cargo would explode, yet unsure if it would (or how serious it would be), the crew boarded the lifeboat.  Since the Mary Celeste was still under full sail (and without time to correct that), the crew lashed a heavy rope from the ship to their lifeboat, allowing them to get away from the ship, but not be separated by it if the situation improved.

A storm in the area, however, would have been deadly for the occupants of the lifeboat.  While the much larger ship to which they were tied would have survived, it is possible the lifeboat was torn from the rope, either drifting to sea or spilling its occupants into the icy Atlantic Ocean.  It explains the rope and the frayed edge the crew of the Dei Gratia found.

While this remains the most widely accepted theory, no concrete evidence has – or likely will eve be – found concerning the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste.

 

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