The Mystery of Mary Celeste
We are on board the ship Dei Gratia in the Atlantic Ocean off the Azores Island, bound for Genova, Italy. Dei Gratia is an American brigantine. The date is December 5, 1872. The position is 38°20′N 17°15′W, midway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. A distant ship is closing in on Dei Gratia. Its sailing is erratic, and it appears to be out of control. Its sail setting is odd and its deck empty. The name of the ship is Mary Celeste.
The story of Mary Celeste has become the story of a ghost ship. It has over time fascinated many. Much is known about the ship, its background and its last fatal voyage, yet so many questions remain unanswered. There is an abundance of web sites dedicated to the mystery, many claims to have solved the mystery. So far no one has. This post goes back in time as close to the event as possible. To get an understanding of how it was to cross the Atlantic in a ship in 1872 and review the fate of Mary Celeste in that light. Listening to the people that were close the events that took place.
But rest assured; the mystery will never be truly solved.
Mary Celeste was a Brigantine, a two-mast ship, 100-foot-long, weighed 282 tons.
The crew of seven was led by Captain Briggs, an experienced captain, and he had as his mate and second-in-command, Albert Richardson, another experienced sailor. They left New York harbour on 7th November with 1700 barrels of American alcohol destined for Genoa. It was a relatively short journey across the Atlantic, past the Azores, through the Straits of Gibraltar to Genoa.
Once the Mary Celeste came near to the Azores, the weather suddenly changed. Captain Briggs wrote in his logbook that there was a storm with a lot of wind. At first this did not worry him, because he was an expert navigator. As the hours passed, the wind became stronger and the weather got much worse. The night of 24 November was very stormy. At 5 a.m. on 25 November Captain Briggs wrote in his logbook that he could see the island of Santa Maria, but he did not stop there.
He sailed north of the island of Santa Maria. This was strange because the most direct route to the Strait of Gibraltar is south of the island. Why did he go north instead of south? Perhaps he wanted to leave the stormy route and look for better weather. In any case, in the early morning of 25 November the Mary Celeste sailed along the northern coast of the island.
Charles Fay’s account for Monday 25, November 1872
The following is an extract from the book “Mary Celeste: The odyssey of an abandoned ship” by Charles Fay.
Midnight is passed and a new and eventful day is beginning. The progress of the vessel continues steadily. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock, the entry against each hour reads the same – 8 knots. Soon the first streaks of dawn will be visible, and now there is land ahead, for the log slate entry reads: “At 5, made the island of S. Mary’s bearing ESE” and a similar entry appears against the 6th hour.- With this bearing , it seems that the point of land observed by the vessel’s watch must be Ponta Cabrastente which is the north-western extremity of Saint Marys. The vessel is now approximately in longitude 37o 0’ which is slightly further north than her position on the previous day, at noon, when she was at latitude 36o 56’. But why, we inquire, is Captain Briggs or whoever is directing the vessel’s course, taking her to the north of St. Mary’s, when it must be known by all hands that, in order to reach Genoa, they must pass through the Strait of Gibraltar which lies off to the southeast in the lower latitude of 35o 57’? Surely, he is not planning to land along the island’s north shore, as it is well known that to all navigators that neither here nor elsewhere on this island are there any harbours where vessels can find accommodation. Moreover, he must also know, that about twenty-one miles to the northeast end of the island. With a shifting wind – not an unusual occurrence in these waters – the vessels position northeast extremity, lies the dangerous Dollabarat Shoal on which the sea breaks with great violence in stormy weather, but those barely hidden rocks are not visible when the sea is calm. His present course, if continued, will take him between this shoal and the northeast end of the island. With a shifting – not unusual occurrence in these waters – the vessel’s position might become a very perilous one – but Captain Briggs is a capable mariner, and it is safe to assume that he will not do anything reckless or careless, especially at such a time when the safety of his wife and child, is at stake. Can it be that he is ill or otherwise incapacitated, that some accident, or even something more serious has befallen him, that other hands are directing the course of Mary Celeste? Why is the vessel going into a more northerly latitude, when she should be going to the southward? But now the ship’s bell sounds eight times, indicating that it is eight o’clock, on this memorable Monday morning. By this time the vessel according to the track noted on her chart, has skirted the island’s north shore, and now comes to the final record when the log slate reads: “At 8, Eastern point bore SSW, 6 miles distant”. After this, silence! A silence which, after the passing of seventy years, still remains unbroken!”.
The “eastern point” observed by the forenoon watch on the May Celeste was, in all likelihoods, Ponta Catsello. A point on the south-eastern shore of the island. This point on the south-eastern shore of the island. This point is surmounted by a detached peak of considerable height and is higher than any other place along the island’s eastern shore. In the morning light, it would stand out even more Prominently, lying about five miles to the northwest and probable somewhere nearer to the Mary Celeste.
Eight days after the Mary Celeste put to sea the Nova Scotia brig Dei Gratia sailed from the port of New York with a cargo of petroleum bound to Gibraltar. She was about the same size as the Mary Celeste being but thirteen gross tons larger, she was rigged in the same way, and carried the same number of men in her crew. Sailing steadily eastward she experienced stormy weather all the way to the Azores. Soon after noon on December 5, 1872 halfway between the Azores and the Portuguese coast (about 1000 miles west of Portugal), Dei Gratia spotted a Brigantine. They recognised it as the Mary Celeste and watched it for two hours as she drifted on the wind, seemingly out of control. The attempted communications got no response. There were no distress signals. Captain Morehouse ordered a small boat to be dispatched to see what was happening and the Mate Oliver Deveau from the Dei Gratia, led the expedition.Mary celeste seen from Dei Gratia
Oliver Deveau’s account for 4th December 1872
“I found no one on board the vessel. I found three and a half feet of water in the pumps on sounding them … I found the fore hatch and the lazarette hatch both off,–the binnacle stove in–I found everything wet in the cabin, in which there had been a great deal of water–the skylight of the cabin was open and raised,–the compass in the binnacle was destroyed. I found all the captain’s effects had been left, I mean his clothing, furniture, etc. . . . I found the logbook in the mate’s cabin on his desk; the Log Slate I found on the cabin table. I found an entry in the Logbook up to the 24th of November, and an entry on the Log Slate dated 25th November showing that they had made the island of St. Mary.”
“There seemed to be everything left behind in the cabin as if left in a hurry, but everything it its place. I noticed the impression in the captain’s bed as of a child having lain there. The hull of the vessel appeared in good condition and nearly new.”
“The masts were good, the spars all right, the rigging in very bad order–some of the running rigging carried away, gone, –the standing rigging was all right; the upper foretopsail and foresail gone,–apparently blown away from the yards. Lower foretopsail hanging by the four corners. Main staysail hauled down and lying on the forward house, loose, as if it had been let run down. Jib and foretop staysail set; all the rest of the sails being furled .”
“There were no boats and no davits at the side. I don’t think she used davits. It appeared as if she carried her boat on deck. There was a spar lashed across the stern davits, so that no boat had been there.”
Later Deveau reported that he found a section of the vessel’s rail on the port side removed and lying on deck, leaving a gangway for launching the small boat from the deck.
What made the crew and the passengers leave Mary Celeste. Staying on-board less frightening than the Atlantic. It is hard to imagine. There are many theories, some plausible, some unlikely and some downright bizarre.
Captain Briggs erroneously believed his ship was taking on too much water and was about to sink. This theory is supported by the fact that the sounding rod—used to determine the amount of water in the hold—was discovered on deck, suggesting that it had been used just before the ship was abandoned. In addition, one of the ship’s pumps showed signs of trouble; it was disassembled. A faulty reading of the sounding rod and an ineffective pump could have led Captain Briggs to believe the ship was foundering and order it abandoned. A mishap may then have occurred in the longboat, causing all to perish.
The following links discuss some of these theories:
By the first half of the 18th century the Brigantine had evolved to refer not to a kind of vessel, but rather to a particular type of rigging: two-masted, with her foremast fully square-rigged and her mainmast rigged with both a fore-and-aft mainsail (a gaff sail) and square topsails and possibly topgallant sails.
- Fore mast: the mast nearest the bow, or the mast forward of the mainmast
- Main mast: the tallest mast
- jib: triangular sail ahead of the foremast
- staysail: like a jib
- foresail: sail on the foremost mast
- mainsail: sail on the main mas
- logbook: record of the state of a ship with at least a daily entry
- log slate: preliminary log entry
- bearing: horizontal angle between the direction of a ship and another object
- ESE: East South East
- SSW: South South West
- latitude: specifies the north–south position of a point on
- longitude: specifies the east–west position of a point
- hatch: a horizontal door of a ship for cargo access
- fore hatch: hatch located in the forward part of a ship
- lazarette hatch: hatch located near the ship cabin
- davits: crane most often used to lower a lifeboat
- spar: a pole used in a sailing vessel to carry or support its sail
Mary Celeste meets Dei Gratia
Given that Mary Celeste after 25 Nov sailed without crew, the estimated course from A to B is surprisingly direct. At B somethings happened that changed ist course bringing it to C, most likely due to a loss of Upper and Lower Topsail.