Saturday, April 25, 2015


The Mary Celeste

From the day man first figured out how to travel on the water, it's been an accepted fact that some ships would leave port and never return.  On occasion these lost ships are seen again and again, often minus their crew, seemingly traveling the seas randomly.  These wandering vessels are often referred to as ghost ships.

One of the most famous of the ghost ships, the Mary Celeste was a brigantine with a history of minor accidents, crew illnesses, and embarrassing mishaps.  Suspicious sailors considered it an unlucky ship.  Those sailors were proven right when the ship was found on December 4, 1872, drifting unmanned in the middle of the Atlantic approximately 600 miles from the nearest port.

A popular enhancement to the story, but not true, says the boarding party found still warm and untouched meals when they entered the galley.  In reality, they found nothing amiss except some slight damage to the sails and pumps and the loss or destruction of much of the ship's navigational equipment and documentation.  And the ship's only lifeboat was gone.  The captain's intact log book gave no hint of what happened.  When the vessel was finally steered into Gibraltar, its entire cargo was intact except for 9 mysteriously empty barrels that had contained alcohol.

Modern explanations have fixed on those 9 barrels.  It's theorized that the porous wood allowed the alcohol to evaporate, filling the hold with noxious and explosive vapors.  Fearing an explosion and fire, everyone evacuated the ship in panic.

There isn't any mystery concerning the initial loss of the Baychimo, but its continual reappearance is a mystery of its own.  In 1931, the Baychimo became irretrievably mired in pack ice off the coast of Alaska where the crew was able to walk to safety after determining the ship was a write off.  But that didn't stop it from being seen again and again over the next 38 years.  Every attempt by salvage crews to board her were thwarted by freak storms and encroaching ice floes.  The last confirmed sighting was from the air in 1969 showing the wandering ship again mired in heavy pack ice.  To this day the location of the Baychimo is unknown.

The Antarctic Circle is known as a dangerous place to sail, spawning many tales of death and tragedy.  One of the most disturbing is the story of the schooner Jenny.  On September 22, 1860, the crew of the whaler Hope sighted a battered ship sailing out from a gap between 2 icebergs with 7 men appearing to be standing at attention on the main deck.  As the Hope drew closer, its crew saw that the men were actually frozen solid.  When they boarded the schooner, the Hope's captain found the Jenny's captain apparently in the middle of writing a log entry.  He, too, was frozen solid.  The last entry in the log book was dated May 4, 1823—almost 40 years earlier.

Bouvet Island is one of the most isolated places on the face of the planet.  The closest land of any kind is the uninhabited coast of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica, 1100 miles away.  It's not on any shipping routes, has no interesting or precious resources, and its sole purpose today is the location of a weather station on one of the few stretches of ground where boats can land.  In 1964 the British and South African government went to Bouvet Island to establish a weather station.  They found a 20 foot boat of a lifeboat or whaler type, a single set of oars, a 40 gallon drum, and a "copper flotation or buoyancy tank" that had been cut open for some unknown reason.  No human remains or traces of habitation were found.  The life threatening weather and aggressive wildlife allowed them only 45 minutes to determine if the area was suitable for the weather station.  The worsening weather forced the crew to return to Cape Town.  Two years later, a follow up expedition found no trace of the rowboat or the damaged equipment.

On February 13, 1748, Simon Reed took his new bride, Annette, aboard his ship, Lady Lovibond.  They were going on a cruise to Portugal.  At the time, it was considered bad luck to bring a woman on a ship.  Unfortunately for all on board, the first mate was in love with the captain's wife.  In a fit of jealous rage, he took control of the wheel and steered the Lovibond towards the notorious Goodwin Sands resulting in the death of everyone on board.  Fifty years later to the day, in 1798, 2 separate ships saw a phantom ship sailing the Goodwin Sands. Then on February 13, 1848, another 50 years later, local fisherman saw a vessel wreck in the area and lifeboats were went to investigate but no sign could be found of a ship on the sands.  In 1948, another 50 year increment, the Lovibond was seen again and was described as having an eerie green glow.

And finally, probably the most famous ghost ship of all…

What most people probably don't know (and I'm in that group) is that The Flying Dutchman refers to the captain of the vessel and not to the ship itself.  Several ghost ships have been referred to as The Flying Dutchman, but there was one original candidate.

As the story goes:  Captain Hendrick Van Der Decken was sailing around the Cape of Good Hope headed for Amsterdam.  Even though a terrible storm raged around them, the captain refused to turn back despite the pleadings of the frightened crew.  As monstrous waves attacked the ship, the captain passed the time by singing obscene songs, drinking beer, and smoking his pipe.  Finally, out of desperation, some of the crew mutinied.  The captain, in a drunken stupor, shot the leader and threw his body overboard.  At that time, the clouds overhead parted and a booming voice came down from the heavens. "You're a very stubborn man."

The captain replied, "I never asked for a peaceful voyage.  I never asked for anything, so clear off before I shoot you, too."  Van Der Decken aimed his pistol toward the sky, but before he could fire the pistol exploded in his hand.

"You are condemned to sail the oceans for eternity, with a ghostly crew of dead men, bringing death to all who sight your spectral ship and to never make port or know a moment's peace.  Furthermore, gall shall be your drink, and red hot iron your meat."

Since that time there have been numerous sightings of The Flying Dutchman, quite often by reputable and experienced seamen including Prince George of Wales and his brother, Prince Albert Victor of Wales.

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