A fishing boat late at night, a crew in a deep fog. Sailors are a superstitious lot, pledging their lives and livelihoods to a cruel mistress in the sea. Many have claimed to see mermaids, sea monsters, and other terrors too horrible to give names. The man in the crow’s nest calls out, a ship approaching under full sail. Hailing with lanterns yields no contact, and as she swims by, the crew feel a cold shudder running down their spine. The ship is sailing, but there’s no crew aboard.
Possibly the most famous of the ghost ships is the infamous Flying Dutchman, but there is another whose tale set the stage for movies, books, and countless stories told by men with saltwater in their veins. While sailors are notorious for their yarns of seafaring terror, there are a few stories that need no Krakens, no mermaids, no sirens to sing a sailor off the deck to the water’s frigid embrace. There are some stories so strange that no one would dare make them up for fear of being called a liar. One such tale is the original story of the ghost ship, the Mary Celeste.
The ship that would be known as the Mary Celeste was built in 1861 in Nova Scotia, the first of her kind the country had seen. At 103 feet in length and more than 282 tons, the brigantine was to be used for moving large amounts of cargo across the ocean. She was, however, the type of ship that seemed born bad. During her maiden voyage, her captain died. She had run-ins, literally, with other ships, lending more to her dark reputation. When she was run ashore a mere six years after her construction, her owners wanted nothing more than to be done with her.
The new owners didn’t care about her reputation, but to be on the safe side, changed her name anyway to the Mary Celeste. A scant three years after her purchase and rebirth, the ship was taken out by Captain Benjamin Briggs, a seaman of the highest regard, and his first mate Albert Richardson. The hold was loaded with 1,701 barrels of alcohol, and all seemed business as usual. However, there was one thing the superstitious sailors hadn’t counted on. According to the lore of the sea, the ocean is a bitter and jealous mistress, as are ships. Bringing a woman on board is to tempt the ire of the sailor’s first love, the sea or his ship. On board, the captain brought not one woman, but two in the form of his wife Sarah and his daughter Sophia.
On Novermber 25th, 1872, she made port in the isle of St. Mary in the Azores. Ten days later, one of the greatest mysteries of the sea was born.
On December 5th, 1872, the Mary Celeste was spotted by the crew of the De Gratia, who signaled to the captain. The ship moved under full sail, but seemed to have a drunk at the rudder. Two hours of trying to hail someone onboard yielded nothing, so the captain of the De Gratia boarded a dinghy and made to board the Mary Celeste. What he found haunted him for the rest of his days. On board the ship was…
All seven of the crew were missing, as was her captain and his family. There were no signs that anything was wrong onboard, and even half-eaten meals still sitting on the table. Personal items and valuables were left, and, according to some tales, there was even a cat left dozing atop a locker. The chronometer and the sextant were missing, and the compass was found smashed. She had a full larder, and aside from a bit of water in the hold, the ship was in excellent shape. In fact, even its cargo was intact. So where did they go?
Piloted into port by crewmen of the De Gratia, the accursed ship was sold. Over the course of twelve years several tried to sink her to get insurance money, but like a stubborn lover spurned, she refused to sink. Her final voyage came in the early 1880’s, when she simply disappeared. It wasn’t until 2001 that author Clive Cussler discovered her remains off the coast of Haiti.
Much like the Flying Dutchman, there are many who claim to have seen the Mary Celeste, her sails still billowing, traveling the straights of Gibraltar, her deck empty. To see her is, according to some, a bad omen. What happened to her crew, they say, will happen to yours. Most often she’s seen in a mist, ethereal and lost, sailing close enough for the crew to see that no one mans her wheel. Then the mist closes behind her and she is gone.
The last reported sighting of the Mary Celeste was in 2000, just prior to the discovery of her remains. It begs the question, is the original ghost ship finally at peace? Has she finally been laid to rest? Many sailors would like to think so, yet whenever there is a mist on the water, they hold their breaths, their faces tighten, and they peer through the cloud, expecting to see the haunted ship with no crew.
See you next time…