Mary Celeste Mystery Solved by Retired Sea Captain!


Mary Celeste

Mary Celeste Hit by Seaquake!

The Mary Celeste was not the last ghost ship found near the Azores. As you can read below, the crew of the bark Alhama of Arendal, sailing from Norway, abandoned their ship during a violent seaquake on December 20th, 1885, 13 years after the ghost ship Mary Celeste was found deserted. 

Crew Abandon Ship Seaquake

seaquake-ghost-shipThe Joyita, a 70-ton ghost ship, was found in October 1955 abandoned not far from Fiji, Island. The marine surveyors blamed it on a seaquake.

You can read a lot more seaquake-vessel encounters at 1700 to 1899 and 1900 to 2009. If the history of ships hit by seaquakes does not convince you, then read my USS SCORPION PAGE and you’ll know why the USS Navy started suppressing the awareness of seaquakes immediately after they examined the wreckage of this nuclear submarine laying on the seafloor, busted into a thousand pieces.

In 1966, two years before the Scorpion sank, the Maritime Safety Division at the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office published a special report on seaquakes. There was no cover-up in 1966. If you want to know what the US Navy said about violent undersea disturbances, read this article before you read mine. Notice on the last page: “Damaging seaquake… The ship may be thrown about in the water with such force that mast, booms, superstructure, and machinery as well as the hull, may be damaged. It is possible for seams to be opened to such an extent that flooding cannot be contained and the vessel sinks.”

In 1967, US Navy Ensign Frank P. Rossi, assigned to the Environmental Data Service, Environmental Science Services Administration, Washington, D.C. published an article authorized by the US Navy entitled Seaquakes: Shakers of Ships. These 4 pages will blow your mind. Read them (one, two, three, four).

As prove of a scheme to cover-up seaquakes, the US Navy has not published one word about the danger since the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion sank “mysteriously” in 1968. In fact, they purged as many of the earlier seaquake reports they could find.

Seaquakes can kill marine life and be far more frightening than you ever imagined. Every small boy knows what happens if he strikes together two stones under water while his head is below the surface. A solid blow hurts his eardrums and his nasal sinuses. For the same reason that the boy feels pain, a ship will feel unimaginably intense shocks and start shaking violently for a minute or more when the sudden fracture of millions of tons of rocks rips the seabed asunder.  This is so because, not being compressible, water transfers the full force of the shattering seafloor to the hull of the ship, or to a pod of diving whales, fish, sea turtles, polar bears, and etcetera.

The shocks are rarely felt as a single incident because the jerking going on in the rocky seabed is not a single blow. Rather, the movement is a series of wrenching snaps, as massive rocks twisted and strained out of shape by seismic energy accumulated slowly over centuries suddenly lurches back toward an alignment that relieves the stress. And, the quaking often stops and then starts again a few minutes later as aftershocks. A seaquake and its aftershocks might last 3-4 hours or even days.

If the rocks snap back in the vertical plane, as happens during both normal and reverse faulting, and the hypocenter (focal point) is less than 5 km below the rock-water interface, the seismic p waves move into the water column as if there were no rock-water barrier whatsoever (link). This means that the non-compressible water delivers the vertical shocks to the hull as if the vessel was sitting on the bottom of the quaking seabed. In other words, imagine how scared you would be if a magnitude 5.5 quake erupted a few kilometers under your basement floor. You’d be lucky to get outside before your roof collapsed. This is exactly what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. They got hit by the main shock followed a minute or so later by a series of aftershocks. They jumped into the small sailing dinghy in a stark panic, fearful that any second would be their last.

Those that dispute my seaquake solution say that in 1942 Charles Edey Fay received a letter (link) in response to an inquiry sent to the Azores Weather Service on the Island of Terceira 275 km from Santa Maria Island. The reply plainly states, “No record of any earthquake is kept in the registers, neither in the local newspapers which we have searched.”  This is true because no seismographs operated in the Azores until 1902 (link), 30 years after the Mary Celeste incident. The 1942 letter to the weather services clearly states that earthquake records “were not kept in any register.”  Only when an earthquake damaged buildings or injured people did the news reach the local newspaper on the Island of Terceira 275 km west of Santa Maria Island. In order for the seaquake that hit the Mary Celeste to also be felt on Terceira, it would have been a major event that did noteworthy damage 275 km from the epicenter.

The event that shook the Mary Celeste violently was likely about 5.5 mag. and focused less than ~5 km below the seafloor. It probably contained mostly vertical motion (not horizontal). Besides, to be felt on Terceira, the quake would need to near 7.5 magnitude. If it had been such a strong quake, there would have been no ghost ship left floating.

You must also consider that quakes shook Santa Maria Island 5-6 times every month. Residents paid little attention to them. And, there were no newspapers on Santa Maria Island in 1872.

I’ve studied seaquakes for 50 years; there is far more about these events than the public now knows. Just read the USS SCORPION COVER-UP and you’ll understand why. Said differently, there are a lot of seismologists and sea captains that know seaquakes can easily sink ships and nuclear submarines, they’re just not telling you about it.

The Seaquake Solution Summary

The British brigantine Dei Gratia came upon the Mary Celeste sailing erratically midway between the Azores and Portugal (38.20N ; 17.15W)  on 4 December 1872. She was fully provisioned and perfectly seaworthy yet mysteriously abandoned.

She had departed New York on 5 November loaded with 1,709 barrels of grain alcohol bound for Genoa, Italy.

The crew endured strong winds from the time they left New York until arriving at Santa Maria Island in the Azores — they’d sailed the last few hundred miles in a gale.

To take a break from the pounding sea, the captain gave the order to sail to the lee side of Santa Maria Island where the cook started a fire in the large galley stove to make hot food while other members of the crew furled most of the sails, leaving up just enough canvas to hold her heading. Other crew members set about pumping the bilge and doing other chores.

The men ate when the food was ready. After taking a smoke break, the Captain gave orders to get underway and the crew went back to work. Some went back to pumping the bilge; others started to unfurl the sails.

Just then, an extremely shallow mag. 5.5 quake erupted in the seafloor directly under Mary Celeste. Seaquakes are common in the waters around the Azores.

My experience leads me to believe that the seaquake that hit the Mary Celeste was vertical thrusting with a focal depth less than 5 km below the rock-water interface. This event caused the deck to dance violently in the vertical plane. The upward thrust tossed the heavy cast iron deck stove into the air. When it came down, it resettled outside the chocks that normally kept it from sliding about during a heavy sea. Pots and pans went flying about as did the iron covers on top of the stove. The flue pipe broke loose and sparkling red embers from the burning fire drifted above the deck in full view of the startled crew.

Wooden barrels can easily be damaged by an earthquake (link). The severe vertical shaking broke over nine barrels of grain alcohol, dumping about 500 gallons of explosive liquid into the bilge. The fumes spread rapidly to the upper deck.

Choking on the smell of alcohol from the leaking barrels, hearing the crashing sounds all around them, and seeing sparkling red embers flying above the stove was all it took to cause the crew to quickly launch the small yawl and try to get away from the pending explosion and certain death.

Watching from the small yawl floating behind the Mary Celeste, the crew felt elated when the embers died down without causing the alcohol fumes to explode. If was now safe for them to go back aboard and sort out the damage.

But their elation suddenly turned to horror when they released that the line securing them to the Mary Celeste had parted. In the panic of the moment, the crew had failed to properly secure the lifeboat to the mother ship. And, they likely had only one pair of oars.

They watched in dismay as the new ghost ship Mary Celeste sailed slowly away with her jib and two small sails set. The men had to decide quickly whether to try to catch her or go for the safety of Santa Maria Island, less than ~15 nautical miles behind them.

They likely argued about the merits of each choice; however, knowing they would be disgraced for having abandoned their seaworthy boat and her valuable cargo, they decided to try to catch the Mary Celeste in the small yawl, hoping (1) they could overcome her, or (2) the wind would shift and cause her to tack back towards them. Each day of their journey carried them further and further away from the safety of land.

We know from the reported condition of the Mary Celeste, that she had sailed slowly through a rain storm. The dingy was no doubt caught by the same storm and hopelessly blown out of sight of the mother ship. The wind might have blown into Formigas Bank located 43 kilometers (27 mi) northeast of Santa Maria near the submerged Dollabarat Reef. Parts of this reef pop up at low tide.

The crash into the rocky shore could have smashed the sailing dinghy. Whatever happened, the dingy never caught up with the Mary Celeste. Five months later, five highly decomposed bodies were found tied to two home-made rafts off the coast of Spain. It appeared that the small yawl had indeed come apart and the lumber lashed together to make two rafts. Those that survived the break-up of the dingy had wrapped one body, likely the captain, in an American flag and put the body on the second raft before they also died. Thus is the fate of the crew of the greatest sea mystery ever told.

The Trip

The delighted crew finally get underway on the morning of 7 November 1872 when Captain Benjamin S. Briggs gave the order to hoist anchor. They had departed New York Harbor two days earlier but heavy seas forced them to anchor off Staten Island.

On board with the 37-year-old Captain were his 30-year-old wife, Sarah Elizabeth, and their second child, two-year-old Sophia. Sarah had insisted on bringing along her melodeon to break the monotony of the long voyage with a song. She had also brought along her sewing machine and toys for Sophia. Their seven-year-old son stayed behind to finish his schooling.

The seven-man crew consisted of 28-year-old First Mate Albert G. Richardson, 25-year-old Second Mate Andrew Gillings, and 23-year-old Steward and Cook Edward Head. The four Germans serving as seamen were Volkert Lorenzen (29), his brother Boz Lorenzen (23), Arian Martens (35), and Gottlieb Goodschaad (23).

An hour after weighing anchor, the 103-foot, 282-ton half-brigantine was under full sail on its way to Genoa, Italy. The little ship was due to enter the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar no later than 6 December.

But something dreadful went wrong. The Mary Celeste entered the Strait on 12 December, but instead of setting a course to Genoa, she sailed into the Port of Gibraltar with not a single soul who had departed New York still on board.

The ship was now under the command of Oliver Deveau, the 1st Mate of the British brigantine Dei Gratia. Deveau’s ship had left New York eight days after the Mary Celeste, both vessels heading into the Mediterranean Sea. By a twist of fate, the Dei Gratia had caught up with an abandoned Mary Celeste 370 nautical miles east of Santa Maria Island in the Azores, midway between Santa Maria and the Strait of Gibraltar.

It was highly unlikely that the Dei Gratia felt the earthquake that struck the Mary Celeste because the danger zone from vertical traveling seaquake waves is generally no more than ~25 kilometers in circumference above the average submarine earthquake.

On 18 December, the Vice-Admiralty Court of Gibraltar held its first session to check the salvage claim made against the derelict and her cargo. The presiding Justice was Sir James Cochrane, a British Knight and the Commissary of the Vice-Admiralty Court. The Queen’s Proctor was Frederick Solly Flood.

Flood was suspicious from the moment he heard a crew member from the Dei Gratia say that the ghost ship was “fit to sail around the world with a good crew and good sails.” He immediately ordered, and personally attended, a survey made by John Austin, Surveyor of Shipping at Gibraltar, and Ricardo Portunato, diver. This official inspection, done two days before Christmas, failed to uncover any evidence of a crime.

Flood spent the holidays mulling over the case. He so convinced himself of foul play that he ordered a second detailed survey. The Queen’s lawyer now saw the mystery of the missing crew as his big chance to make a name for himself. He was right. The story of the ghost ship quickly spread around the world.

The US State Department became interested because the boat had only three years earlier became a US registered vessel. Horatio J. Sprague, the US Consul to Gibraltar, kept the State Department fully informed with a barrage of cablegrams. He even enlisted the services of US Navy Captain R. W. Shufeldt who arrived at Gibraltar on board the U.S.S. Plymouth. Consul Sprague cabled his report on the abandoned vessel back to the State Department the next day. Cable services between Gibraltar and New York saw more activity in one month than had occurred in the previous ten years.

Newspapers everywhere gobbled up any hint of news turning the court proceedings into the “O. J. Simpson trial” of the era. Most headlines read the same: “Seaworthy American Brig Abandoned at Sea For Unknown Reason!”

Four insurance companies, three US agencies, three British agencies, and many other “interested parties” became entangled for two years trying to sort out the truth of what happened to the crew.

Since then more than 30 books, two movies, and several documentaries have focused on the ghost ship. Yet, there is still no generally accepted explanation for why Captain Briggs, his wife and daughter, and seven crewmen abandoned their ship.

Pointing out that Captain Briggs was an old friend of Captain Morehouse, master of the Dei Gratia, many newspapers of the time reported no mystery, choosing to insinuate insurance fraud. Others reported mutiny by a drunken crew. Still, others insisted that pirates had grabbed the ship. Fiction writers pumped out wild tales that were later published in newspapers as true accounts. None other than Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series, wrote the most widely read yarn.

Everyone had a theory. Even William Richard, US Secretary of the Treasury, published his idea on what happened on the front page of the New York Times. He, like Queen’s Proctor Flood, felt the crew had got at the alcohol and murdered Captain Briggs and his family in a drunken fury. Flood later changed his mind on a drunken crew in favor of a conspiracy between Captains Briggs and Morehouse.

Dr. James Kimble, head of the US Weather Bureau, and author Gershom Bradford both suggested a waterspout had struck the vessel suddenly. Waterspouts are not common outside the tropics, especially in November, yet Bradford made a convincing argument for such a happening in his book, The Secret of the Mary Celeste (W. Foulsham & Co. 1966). I will debunk Bradford’s mistaken concepts later in this presentation.

US Consul Sprague wrote, “This case of the Mary Celeste is startling since it is one of those mysteries which no human ingenuity can penetrate sufficiently to account for the abandonment of the vessel and the disappearance of her master, family, and crew.”

One newspaperman called the incident, “a detective-story writer’s nightmare: the perfect perplexing situation without any logical solution — a plot which can never be convincingly unraveled.”

History of Seaquake Encounters

The Mary Celeste

If the incident had occurred 15 years later, in 1887, maybe the Vice-Admiralty Court could have determined what happen. That was the year Emil Rudolph, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Strasburg in Germany, published the first part of his detail work on seaquakes in the prestigious German geophysical journal, Beitrage zur Geophysik. (link-1887-part1) (link-1887-part-2) (link-1887-part3) (link-1887-part-4) (link-1895) (link-1898). These important science articles would have been widely read if Rudolph would have published them in English, not German.

By the time he finished eleven years later, he had published over six hundred pages, documenting more than 550 seaquake/vessel encounters, many resembling the narratives in today’s books on the Bermuda Triangle.

These violent disturbances were especially dangerous to older vessels weakened by decades of pounding in rough seas. Don’t take my word; do a little research on your own. Click on this (link) and read 4,979 eyewitness accounts from sailors that have experienced earthquakes at sea and lived to tell the story. Here’s another (link) to over 2,000 eyewitness reports of submarine upheaval. Remove all doubt by reading this material yourself! Earthquakes and volcanic explosions have sunk vessels since man first paddled a dugout canoe. By the way, these events also cause pods of whales to mass strand! (link)

In general, loud–sometimes painful–noises, lasting as long as five minutes, bellow up from the deep to reverberate against a ship’s bottom, generating an incredible rumble throughout. At the same time, the sea rises erratically and violently, causing ships to heave and roll in all directions.

Often a cannonball, water barrel, or some other heavy spherical object would be jostled from its chocks, set free to roll and lurch about the deck like a boulder crashing down a mountainside. Unable to stand, let alone run, on the quaking decks, the crews were at the mercy of providence, believing all the while each moment would be their last.

If that were not enough to frighten the very breath from the superstitious sailors, the needles of their compasses would often spin in queer directions. At other times, the compasses would not be affected at all, and the wind would become the source of puzzlement, sometimes shifting abruptly shortly before or after a seaquake.

One captain wrote in his log that he saw his sister ship being drawn under in a huge dome-shaped mound of frothing water. Another wrote, “The tremendous concussion below the keel made the stout hull vibrate through every beam, and the tall masts quiver like young twigs in a gale.”

Hundreds of eyewitnesses told of busted planks, cracked beams, and broken masts as they reminisced about the damage sustained by their vessels during the incredible pounding of a seaquake. But, oddly Rudolph thought, only one mentioned a seaquake sinking a vessel. He justified this lack of total loss by reasoning that many ships might have gone down in a seaquake leaving no survivors to tell the story. He also thought the sailing vessels of his day might be somewhat protected from seaquakes. He said: “I believe the stout timbers of a wooden vessel and the moisture these timbers soak up give these ships a natural flexibility, enabling them to endure the rigorous shuddering of a seaquake just as a willow might withstand a tempest.”

Seismic Activity in the Azores

According to a chart compiled by the Acoustics Division of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (1981), a major seaquake has occurred within sixty miles of Santa Maria Island in the Azores every year since the beginning of man’s ability to record such happenings. In fact, the ocean floor in the area is one of the most seismically threatened places on earth. The active East Azores Fracture Zone is only thirty miles southwest of Santa Maria.

Mary Celeste Map

About thirty miles northeast lies another hot-spot for undersea volcanic/tectonic earthquakes. Over two hundred such events associated with seafloor volcanism have occurred in this area since 2004 when the European Seismological Center started recording such events.

If the citizens of Santa Maria do not report earthquakes in the sea around the island, it is because such events are far too common.

I asked Dr. Lowell Whiteside, a Geophysicist with the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado if he could be certain a seaquake did or did not occur on 25 November 1872 in the sea near Santa Maria, he said: “The problem with identifying historical earthquakes from 1872 is that there were no semiological instruments at that time. The only earthquakes recorded were those that were felt strong enough to be noted in newspapers. This means that earthquakes outside of a populated area and under the ocean were seldom reported. The only evidence of large sub-oceanic event comes from tsunamis and seaquakes noted by people aboard ocean-going vessels. Unfortunately, because of the non-recording of oceanic events in 1872, it cannot be confirmed or denied that an earthquake occurred in that region on November 25, 1872.”

As Dr. Whiteside confirmed, no instruments or seismic stations existed at the time to record earthquakes. Since the Azores are located in a seismically active area, to be newsworthy, an event would have had to be special, causing objects to fall from shelves or in some way disrupting the lives of the local folk on Santa Maria. A shallow magnitude five earthquake occurring in the seafloor 10 miles offshore would not have been especially notable to those on land, but such an incident directly under the Mary Celeste could have easily frightened the weary crew because of the explosive nature of the cargo they carried.

The Facts of the Case

The crew of the Dei Gratia spotted the Mary Celeste sailing erratically midway between the Azores and Portugal on the 4th of December. They noticed that she was sailing toward them making about two knots under short canvas. They were unable to spot anyone on deck through their glass so, as the Dei Gratia’s helmsman steered a nearby approach, her crew hailed the deserted vessel over and over. When they received no response, a boarding party, lead by 1st Mate Oliver Deveau, was quickly dispatched.

The boarding crew noticed her jib and fore-topmast staysail set on a starboard tack. The foresail and the upper foretopsail had been mostly blown away. The standing rigging was in good order, but some of the running rigging was also blown away. Her masts, yards, and spars, and anchors and chains were all right. A stout rope about 100 meters long used to hoist the outer end of the gaff sail called the main peak halyard, was broken and most of it missing. The main staysail was lying loose on top of the forward house and all the rest of the sails were furled.

Ship Sails

The bilge pump, positioned just forward of the mainmast, was found in good working condition. However, Deveau noticed that the sounding rod used to measure water in the bilge was laying on the deck. Next to the rod was a valve that had been removed from one of the two large bilge tubes feeding down to the bilge. Deveau testified that the valve had to be taken out so that the sounding rod could be lowered down the bilge tube to measure the water. It seems the Mary Celeste was missing both her sounding pipes.

Deveau also testified that he dropped the rod down the open tube and found three and one-half feet of water in her; an amount that would not have been noticed above her cargo except by using the sounding rod.

There was a foot of water swashing around on the galley floor in the forward house. The water likely came in from the open scuttle on the roof and the open door because the port side of the forward house, which had no door or scuttle, was dry. There was also a great deal of water between decks likely because both the fore cargo hatch and the lazarette hatch were off, lying on the deck nearby. The main hatch was securely fastened.

The compass stand was broken and the compass destroyed. The wheel was not lashed alee as is the procedure normal observed when abandoning a sailing ship in an emergency.

The six windows around the slightly raised aft deck cabin were battened with canvas and board. The skylight on the cabin top was raised open. The Captain’s bed was unmade and wet; the water likely came from the opened skylight. The Captain’s chronometer, sextant, navigation book, ship‘s register and other papers were missing. The logbook and the log slate were found in the mate’s cabin. There were six months’ provisions in the storeroom and plenty of drinking water. We know the food and water were not contaminated because the salvage crew ate and drink from these supplies while they sailed the ship to port.

On inspecting the forward house, Oliver Deveau found the door open. In addition, the scuttle hatch covering the hatchway in the roof of the galley was off. However, the small windows were shut around the raised part of the forward house. No cooked food was found anywhere on the vessel; someone had cleaned the pots and pans the pots and stored them properly. However, some strange vertical forced had lifted the large cast iron galley stove and set it back down outside of the four heavy chocks that secured each leg to the galley floor. The heavy water cask, normally chocked down on the deck to prevent it from sliding when the ship heeled over in a strong wind, was also lifted vertically by some powerful force.

The crew had left their clothing behind. Their rain gear, boots, and even their smoking pipes were found near their berths in the forecastle.

There was no sign of fire or smoke damage anywhere on board. Nor was any evidence found that the ship had nearly capsized. Her hull appeared in good condition. The surveyor described her as “nearly new.” However, there was some strange damage noted to the bow timbers down both sides of the vessel. This damage was the most paradoxical aspect of her condition.

John Austin, Gibraltar’s Surveyor of Shipping, became highly suspicious. In his official report to the Court of Inquiry, he stated: “On approaching the vessel I found on the bow, between two and three feet above the waterline on the port side, a long narrow strip at the edge of a plank under the cat-head cut away to the depth of about three-eighths of an inch and about one and a quarter inches wide for a length of about six to seven feet. This injury had been sustained recently and could not have been affected by weather or collision and was apparently done by a sharp cutting instrument continuously applied through the whole length of the injury. I found on the starboard bow but a little further from the stern of the vessel a precisely similar injury at the edge of a plank but perhaps an eighth or tenth of an inch wider, which in my opinion had been effected simultaneously and by the same means and not otherwise. However; as the Official Surveyor for this Court of Inquiry, I must profess intense bewilderment as to the tool used to cut such marks and why they would have been cut in any vessel at these locations.”

The boarding party concluded that the Mary Celeste was in good sailing order. Only the small yawl, lashed on top of the main hatch, was gone. A section of railing running alongside was also removed to allow launching of the boat over the side. Deep cuts in the wooden railing and on top of the hatch, where the yawl had been stored, indicated that the crew had used an ax to cut the yawl loose and not to untie it properly. The evidence was clear, Captain Briggs and his family and crew had abandoned the Mary Celeste in great haste.

Later, when the dock workers unloaded the cargo in Genoa, nine barrels was found empty.

Reenacting the Voyage

We shall not rehash the events prior to departing Staten Island on 7 November. Nor will we deal with the first 15 days of the voyage, reporting only that the wind had been favorable.

By magic, we catch up with life aboard the little half-brig in the Azores on 23 November 1872, where we see her sailing due east with all her sails trimmed to a strong southwest breeze. We can piece together much about the trip and the state of the seas because the logbook safely stowed in the Mate’s cabin. It showed the track of the vessel up to 24 November. The first mate’s log slate was also found with an entry dated 25 November showing the ship’s position. In addition, we also have the sworn testimony of the crew of the Dei Gratia who were not more than ~300 miles from the location of the Mary Celeste during this period.

On Board, we notice 1st Mate Albert Richardson gauging speed by hurling wood chips over the bow and counting the seconds until they drift past the stern. He computes her speed at 8 knots, then turns his attention to calculating their position, reckoning they are at Latitude 36:56 North, Longitude 29:20 West, about 227 nautical miles directly east of Santa Maria Island, near the large red X on the map below.

The wind increases all morning. At noon, Mate Richardson orders her sails shortened, putting a reef in her mainsail, main-gaff-topsail, main topmast staysail and middle staysail. As the afternoon progresses and the wind continued to strengthen, one-at-a-time, he has the crew furl the main staysail, fore royal, foretopgallant, and flying jib. The wind reaches a moderate gale by seven that evening, increasing her speed to nine knots.

The night ahead promising to be a stormy one. Mate Richardson consults with the captain and together they secure all the hatches and batten down the six windows around the cabin with canvas and boards. At 8 PM when the first watch comes on duty, the storm is raging, making it necessary to put a reef in her foresail and double-reef her upper topsail and furl her lower topsail.

Midnight passes and they progress steadily. One o’clock, two o’clock, and three o’clock–the entry against each hour reads the same–8 knots. Soon the first streaks of dawn will be visible.

At 5 AM the logbook reads, “Made the Island of Saint Mary’s, bearing ESE.” (Santa Maria Island was known as Saint Mary’s in the 1800’s.) The point of land observed by the vessel’s watch, using this bearing, was probably near Ponta Cabrestante, on the northwestern extremity of the Island. The red X pinpoints the position of the Mary Celeste.

Mary Celeste IslandThe fact that a forceful gale blowing hard out of the southwest pushed the ship along is supported by the course taken by Captain Briggs around Santa Maria Island. The Strait of Gibraltar, entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, lies on a latitude sixty miles south of his present position; therefore, the most direct route would be to go south of Santa Maria Island, yet Captain Briggs steers the little brigantine north of the Island. The obvious reason would be to get on the lee shore, and take a break from the rough seas. Maybe the Captain’s daughter, Sophia, was sick and crying the entire night? Maybe he promised Sarah a break from the pounding sea? Maybe the crew was demanding hot food? The sea had been so rough the last few days that Cook Edward Head was not likely able to fire the galley stove, let alone cook a meal. If you have ever been on sailing vessel of this size during a strong wind, you would know better than to ask the cook for hot food. Cooks on sailing vessels are no different today as they were 130 years ago–no cooking whatsoever goes on during a gale!

It was 5AM when they spotted Santa Maria, and 8 AM when the eastern point of Island bore SSW 6 miles distance. At 5 AM, they would have been somewhere near the red X. By 8 AM they would have been near the black X. The trip along the ten-mile breath of Santa Maria had taken three hours, indicating that they had likely sailed to a point near the black X and then dropped anchor for several hours, or she slowly sailed about in the area with only the jib and foretopmast staysail to hold her in place. It was likely about 6 AM when the cook, knowing they would soon be on the lee side of the island, started a fire in the galley stove.

Evidence of a Seaquake

Some time after eight in the morning on the 25th something dreadful happened on board the Mary Celeste causing an experienced master mariner to place his wife and 2-year-old daughter and seven other adults besides himself into a yawl with limited freeboard, and hastily abandon a perfectly sea-worthy, 101-foot, 282-ton vessels. The Captain had to believe, as everyone else, that staying aboard the Mary Celeste was extremely dangerous.

As the Dei Gratia salvage crew noted that most of the sails were furled when the Mary Celeste was found, which leads one to believe that whatever had happened on board, happened moments before they departed the lee side of Santa Maria.

Likely, while hoved-to near shore or anchored, Sarah tended to Sophia as the cook prepared their first hot meal in days. After the crew ate, they took a well-deserved smoke break and the cook cleaned the pots and stowed things away. Then, sometime after 8 AM, the captain gave the orders to pump the bilges and run up the sails, putting order back into the Mary Celeste.

Knowing their new course to be a safe one, he took his wife and retired for a nap, leaving the first mate in charge with instructions to call him only if needed. We know this because the Captain’s bed was unmade, something that never happened on board a well-run ship in 1872 unless the Captain was in the bed or intended to go back to it later.

The seaquake erupted just as the Mary Celeste was about to leave.

The ship shook violently, knocking her wooden compass stand over and breaking the compass housing.

The vertical motion in the sea bottom transferred to the ship and bounced the large drinking-water cast loose from its chocks on the main deck, and danced the huge cast-iron galley stove out of its chocks, likely flinging open the stove door or bouncing one of the top lids off to the side, allowing smoke and embers to whirl out of the stove.

The severe vibrations also jarred the barrels of alcohol she carried, loosening the stays on nine barrels, spilling almost 500 gallons of raw alcohol into the bilge.

The men pumping the bilge were so scared that they stopped what they were doing, leaving the sounding rod and the bilge valve on the deck.

The sailors up in the rigging, in the process of setting the foresail and upper and lower topsail, were jolted so hard that they fell into the sea or landed hard on the deck, explaining why the fore lower topsail was only partly set. The foresail gear was left dangling, which tells us why the gear was later found broken with the clew lines and bunting gone. The fore-braces on the port side were placed out-of-order, no doubt due to the hysteria of the men. Some of the other running rigging was left hanging loose for the same reason, which explains why two sails apparently tore away from the yards and blew overboard during the time the Mary Celeste sailed as a ghost ship.

Bradford was right in his book when he said the cause of the disaster was an “outside destructive force,” not something within the ship. However, he made a mistake in developing his waterspout theory by assuming the blown away sails meant only one thing — excessive wind. He never reasoned that, in a normal breeze, a loose flapping sail could be torn away and/or ripped to shreds within a few days if not set properly.

The leading theory up until Bradford published his book was that alcohol fumes were somehow responsible. He belittled this idea by pointing out that, if any alcohol had leaked into the bilge, it would be pumped out every day with the bilge water. If there had been an alarming smell of alcohol, Bradford reasoned, the seamen would have notified the captain and they would have vented the bilge at all cost. The alcohol expert consulted by Bradford added that, in his opinion, had there been a dangerous alcohol leak, there would have been an explosion and a fire leaving no doubt about the cause of the abandonment. No one realized that a violent shaking of the cargo during a seaquake would cause nine barrels of alcohol to empty into the bilge in less than a minute.

There can be little doubt, the hull of the Mary Celeste, like an echo chamber, thunderously reverberated the hammering on her bottom planks, inciting the God-fearing crew to think judgment day had arrived.

To make matters worse, the vibrations likely caused mental confusion making it more difficult for the officers to decide on the proper action. In such a moment one would also wonder how well the German crew understood orders yelled at them in English.

Before the first shocks ended, the entire ship began to permeate with alcohol fumes. Fearful of an explosion, the crew dropped whatever they were doing and ran to open the fore hatch to inspect the cargo, throwing the hatch cover to the side. They also quickly opened the lazarette hatch, and the fore and aft skylights in an attempted to air out the lower decks. However, they did not open the main hatch because the yawl was still lashed to the cover.

Shortly after the main shock, the aftershocks began causing more smoke, embers, and sparkling bits of burning wood to billow up from the hot stove. Maybe William Head was brave enough to close the stove as best he could but it is doubtful he or anyone else lingered in the galley for any length of time. The fear of catching on fire in a pending explosion would have caused any member of the crew to stay as far away from the galley as possible. No wonder they did not take any personal items since they had to pass by the dancing stove to get to their chest in the forecastle.

No mention was made of the condition of the stove’s flue or what type of flue system vented the stove. Nevertheless, one would expect some means of exhausting the burning ashes and smoke since the galley was setting just below the canvas. Whatever matter of venting was likely lost when the vertical vibration shook the stove out of its chocks. Other safety standards, such as shielding and other means of fire prevention, was also likely breached when the stove jumped up and down on the galley floor. Under such a situation, the alcohol fumes could explode at any second and everyone knew it.

Captain Briggs did the only rational thing he could do. He yelled out the orders to abandon the Mary Celeste.

In a mad dash, someone grabbed an ax and quickly cut the yawl loose from the main hatch and everyone helped drag it over to the starboard rail. At this point, the man with the ax grabbed the main peak halyard from the belaying pin in the pin-rack, played-out a good section, placed the line on the rail and whacked it through, at the same time, making a deep cut into the rail. He let the loose end go, took the end of the line he had just cut off the halyard and tied it to the yawl.

They heaved the yawl over the starboard side and secured it with the line cut from the halyard. The Captain put his wife and daughter in the small boat, snatched his chronometer, sextant, and the ship’s papers and jump in. The crew joined them.

At this point, Sarah praying and Sophia screaming and everyone else near panic, one of the crew secured the other end of the halyard to the rail and the yawl drew away. This was the standard procedure in those days when a ship caught fire. The idea was to tie your lifeboat a safe distance off the stern and hope the fire went out before the vessel burnt to the waterline. The crew could pull themselves back on board when the danger was over and claim salvage to whatever remained.

However, as luck was going for the crew of the Mary Celeste, another aftershock might have occurred, sinking the yawl, turning its mass into a sea anchor and ripping the halyard loose from the rail.

But what are the odds that an aftershock sunk the little boat immediately?

The problem in recreating what might have happened on the yawl is that we have no real description of this vessel. The info given by others is that the boat is 15 to 20 feet in length without mention of whether it is a rowboat or a sailing yawl. If we assume Captain Briggs was not a complete idiot, then we must also assume the yawl was capable of carrying everyone. It was likely closer to 20 feet in length and carried a sail along with at least one set of strong oars, maybe two. There might have also been emergency provisions stored on board. The boat was likely lashed to the main hatch because it was too big to fit on the stern davits.

If the yawl was a large 20-foot lifeboat, we can take a different view of what might have happened to the crew after they departed the Mary Celeste, especially considering what was written in the Liverpool Daily Albion on 16 May 1873:

A sad story of the sea – a telegram from Madrid says ‘Some fishermen at Baudus, in Asturias, Spain, have found two rafts, the first with a corpse lashed to it and an Agrican [American?] flag flying and the second raft with five decomposed bodies. (see chart below)

It was not known to what vessel they belonged; however, the American flag normally carried on board the Mary Celeste was missing.  No mention was made as to how long the bodies might have been “decomposing.” The bodies were supposedly buried near a church in Baudas.

Mary Celeste SpainWas this the crew?

Suppose, at about the same time you realized the mother ship was not going to explode, the halyard securing the yawl to the stern of the Mary C somehow parted or came unknotted. You realize you forgot to lash the wheel properly, something a good Captain would have done. What do you do now if you’re Briggs? Would you try to catch up with your vessel and your valuable cargo, hoping the wind would change and turn her back into your little boat? Or, would you turn the yawl about and head back to the safety of Santa Maria? Capt Briggs had his sextant and charts. They would try to catch the Mary Celeste. Might they have lived for weeks on rainwater and fish? Could the yawl have broken apart in heavy seas? Could the survivors have lashed together two crude rafts and drifted for a long time before being found off the Coast of Spain?

Mary Celeste sailed ~370 nautical miles in a westerly direction as a ghost before being found nine days later. Those who think it impossible for her to travel so far in such a short period with only two small sails set should realize that she was carried more by the Azores Current than by the wind.

The main Gulf Stream passes close to the Grand Banks, south of Newfoundland, where it branches into two currents: the North Atlantic and the Azores Currents. The North Atlantic turns north just east of Newfoundland and flows east toward the British Isles. The Azores Current flows east at about two nautical miles per hour past the Azores Islands towards the shores of Portugal before turning south.

Carried by the Azores current, the Mary Celeste could have traveled up to 50 nautical miles per day making it reasonable that a Dei Gratia came upon her where she did.

Explaining the Cuts in the Bow Planks

John Austin, Gibraltar’s Surveyor of Shipping, testified that he found on the bow, about two and one-half feet above the waterline on both sides, a long narrow strip, at the edge of a plank under the cat-head, cut away to the depth of about 3/8 inch and about 1 1/4 inches wide for a length of about six to seven feet. He professed intense bewilderment as to the tool used to cut such marks and why they would have been cut in any vessel at these locations.

Captain Winchester, one of the owners of the Mary Celeste, had a different opinion. He agreed with Captain Shufeldt, who had determined that the injury was actually splinters or splints that had popped off the wood, which had been steamed and bent to curve the bow when the boat was recently rebuilt.

The Mary Celeste had been “on the rocks” several times in her long history. She also had been involved in two collisions, one of them recent. According to testimony, just before this trip, she had been purchased at a salvage auction in New York for $2,600 and rebuilt for $14,000. Her rebuilt condition was confirmed by the crew of the Dei Gratia when they said, “Her hull appeared to be nearly new.”

We can assume that many of her bow planks were newly replaced. They were probably cut from black spruce, a long-fibered wood used most often in the construction of ships along the Northeastern Coast and in Newfoundland. Slight ring failure along the grain might have occurred in the planks while they were still curing in the repair yard. Even if they were perfect boards, the steaming and bending of the planks to fit the contour of the hull would weaken the grain.

The caulking done during her recent rebuilt could also have been responsible for the edges of the planks to splinter out. Caulking was an extremely important process, not only because it rendered the vessel watertight, but also because driving the oakum between the planks put great pressure on and squeezed them together tightly, holding them in tension adding to the rigidity and strength of the vessel. During caulking, it was very important to allow for expansion of the planks when wet, especially if the grain ran in a direction that made splintering likely. If too much oakum was pounded in between the planks, then a condition of excessive stress would have been established at the edges of the replaced planks. As these planks soaked up water, the stress would increase.

Mary Celeste Plank

Accordingly, it is not surprising that during the severe vibrations of the seaquake, long splints would pop from the edges of a few bow planks along the grain, appearing as if it were cut with an unknown instrument.

Capt. David Williams, a sea captain with over 50 years of ocean-going experience.
send email