Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste: Part Three

The Mary Celeste ghost ship was found without a crew
None of the theories which we've looked at so far can account for all of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Mary Celeste's crew, so let us look again at some facts which may provide us with some clues: Mary Celeste was abandoned by her captain and crew, they didn't just disappear.  They left on the ship's yawl.  The yawl would have been overloaded and could easily capsize.  They left in a hurry, leaving all clothing, food, and water behind.  However, there can't have been total panic as they took the time to collect the chronometer, sextant, and ship's papers.  The condition of the ship showed little damage.  So, whatever forced the crew to abandon ship had to be something they feared had happened or something they believed was going to happen in the near future but clearly never did.

A plausible theory was suggested by James H. Winchester, part-owner of the Mary Celeste.  He speculated that the ship's cargo of denatured alcohol gave off fumes which could have collected in the hold, forming an explosive mixture.  This could have ignited by a spark given off by friction between the metal bands on the barrels rubbing together or by a naked flame used during an inspection of the cargo.  Or perhaps the fumes were mistaken for smoke, causing the crew to believe that the ship was going to explode.  When questioned, experts expressed the opinion that the vapour would not have been visible but an explosive mixture could have formed.  However, any resulting explosion would not have been minor and would have blown the Mary Celeste out of the water.

A Ship Exploding
Another theory which has potential suggests that, due to stormy weather, Briggs gave the order to sail to the nearby Santa Maria Island so the crew could take refuge.  The cook then started a fire in the large galley stove to make hot food while the crew furled most of the sails, leaving just enough to hold her heading along the shore of the island.  When the food had been prepared, the men stopped to eat and then went back to work, pumping the bilge and setting the sails.  At that moment the sea floor beneath Mary Celeste was torn apart by a shallow-focused earthquake which, in the Azores, is a relatively common occurrence.
When the hard bottom suddenly shifts upwards, the seabed behaves like a giant piston which pushes and pulls the water, sending powerful waves of alternating pressure towards the surface.  The result would make those on board feel like there was no water beneath the ship, making it seem as though she was sitting on dry land during an earthquake.  In the event of a seaquake, the magnitude does not determine how much disturbance the ship would have felt.  The damage suffered by the ship is based on the sudden hastening of the rocky seafloor at the epicentre, which determines the intensity of the shockwaves in the water.  A magnitude 5.5 earthquake could quite easily have occurred beneath the Mary Celeste, terrifying the crew while being relatively unnoticed on Santa Maria Island.

The deck of the ship would have shaken violently, tossing the heavy cast-iron deck stove into the air.  When it landed, it resettled in a position outside of the chocks, which would usually keep it from sliding around during heavy seas.  Pots and pans would have gone flying, much like the iron covers on top of the stove.  The flew pipe came loose, shooting red-hot embers from the fire into the air above deck.  Severe vibrations also loosened the stays around nine barrels of denatured grain alcohol, dumping around 500 gallons of explosive liquid into the bilge, with the fumes rapidly spreading to the upper deck.

Choking on alcohol fumes, hearing the crashing sounds that surrounded them, seeing the embers flying around would have caused panic, causing them to abandon ship on the yawl to escape a pending explosion and almost certain death.
Ship and Waterspout

Another plausible and perhaps the most probable theory comes, in part, from Oliver Deveau and was suggested at the salvage hearing.  Deveau expressed the belief that the crew had become convinced that the ship was sinking, causing them to panic.  While this theory has previously been dismissed as being idiotic, with Deveau being the idiot, his comment needs to be taken in context.  What might cause the crew to believe the Mary Celeste was sinking?

Dr. James H. Kimble, once head of the United States Weather Bureau in New York, and the author Gershorn Bradford both suggested that Mary Celeste was hit by a waterspout, cousin of the land tornado.  Both believe the waterspout would have been relatively small and harmless, causing very little damage and leaving the ship no worse off than if she had encountered a storm.  However, the waterspout's inside barometric pressure is very low and, as the spout passed over, the pressure difference between the inside and the outside of the ship may have caused the hatch covers to be blown off much like the way a building's walls explode outward when hit by a tornado.  The crew may have dropped a rod down the pump well to measure how much water was in the hold.  The drop in barometric pressure could potentially cause the bilge water to rise up the pump well where a valve would prevent it returning the the hold.  While it would only be a temporary malfunction, the crew may not have realised, instead believing the Mary Celeste had leaked 2 metres of water in less than a minute.  Obviously, if you were to believe this, the Captain would think the ship was fast sinking and would give the order to abandon ship.  It would also allow them time to collect the sextant, chronometer, and ship's papers.

by Henry Austin
But why did the crew not climb back aboard when they realised the danger had passed?

The three previous theories would all result in the Captain, his family, and the crew to take to the lifeboat.  The yawl would usually he attached to the ship by a rope, giving the occupants the opportunity to board the ship if need be.  But what if the crew had forgotten to properly secure the line between the yawl and the ship?  The crew and captain would have been elated when they realised it was safe to reboard the ship, but the elation would have quickly vanished when they discovered they were no longer tied to the ship.  It has been suggested that the rope had not been tightened enough and the knots unravelled, or perhaps the crew were too panicked and forgot to tie it at all.  So, when it became evident that the ship was not going to explode or sink, it would have already been a fair distance away.  The captain would have to decide whether to attempt to catch Mary Celeste or to sail for the safety of Santa Maria Island, which would have been less than ten miles away.  While the island was close and easy to reach, to return without Mary Celeste, a perfectly seaworthy ship with a valuable cargo,  was to be disgraced.  If they attempted to catch the runaway ship, they might catch her which, while unlikely, is not impossible.  Or they might not.  If correct, this theory would imply they never caught the Mary Celeste and, with no provisions, an overloaded yawl, and the possibility of further storms, the survival of the occupants seems unlikely.

Lost at Sea by y Michael Ross
Five months later, five decomposed bodies were discovered tied to two rafts at Baudus in Austurias, near Madrid, Spain.  One corpse was wrapped in the American flag.  The story was reported on May 16th 1873 in the Daily Albion of Liverpool.  It is possible that this was the remainder of the crew of Mary Celeste.  However, having never been investigated, we will never know who they were or what ship they belonged to.

Useful Resources
Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks
Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea by Paul Begg
Into the Bermuda Triangle: Pursuing the Truth Behind the World's Greatest Mystery by Gian Quasar
Out of this world: Mysteries of mind, space and time
The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved by Lawrence David Kusche
The World's Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (Mysteries and Secret) by Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe
Deaf Whale - Mary Celeste Was Abandoned During a Seaquake

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