The Dei Gratia, a Canadian brigantine named after the Latin phrase for “By the grace of God”, was sailing from New York to Gibraltar, when she overhauled the strange double-masted square rigger. The mysterious ship was found adrift and abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Azores Islands, on December 5, 1872. Her course was unsteady, as though she were being crewed by drunks.
The Dei Gratia was under the command of David Reed Morehouse, who sensed that something was wrong as implicated by the erratic movements of the ship and the odd set of sails. But he could see no one at the helm. When ran up a signal, he received no response.
As the vessels drew closer, a boat was lowered for the captain Deveau, his second mate John Wright and two more men to investigate. As they rowed closer to the oddly silent ship, they saw her name painted clearly across the stern-Mary Celeste.
The captain and the mate clambered aboard to find the ship entirely deserted. The 107-foot long ship had been sailing herself for days across the vast Atlantic!
It was 3 o’clock on the afternoon of December 5, 1872. What they found sparked off a mystery that has bobbed tantalizingly beyond explanation for more than a century.
THE CONDITION OF THE SHIP
From stem to stern, the vessel was abandoned. For nobody even reached forward to meet them when they climbed aboard.
The partly set sails were in poor conditions, some were missing altogether. Much of the rigging was damaged, with loose hanging ropes over the sides. The main hatch cover was secure, but the fore and lazarette (rear) hatches were open.
The binnacle of the ship which was meant to house the ship’s compass had shifted from its place. Its glass cover was broken. A makeshift sounding rod (a device for measuring the amount of water in the hold) was found abandoned on the deck.
The cargo-barrels of alcohol-was still lashed in place in the hold. There was plenty of food and water.
The fo’c’sle (the forward part of a ship below the deck, traditionally used as the crew’s living quarters) contained the crew’s sea-chests and clothing, which lay dry and undisturbed. Some razors were lying about and still had not rusted. There were pots containing remnants of a meal hung over a dead fire in the galley.
The cabin was a bit untidy from water that had entered through doorways and skylights, but were otherwise in reasonable order.
The table in the captain’s cabin had been prepared for breakfast, although everything seemed to imply that the meal had been abandoned half-way through. There was porridge in one of the plates, and the top of a boiled egg had been sliced off. Next to one plate was an open bottle of cough medicine with the cork still lying beside it.
On the other side of the cabin was a smaller table with a sewing machine, and on it a child’s nightgown. Bottles of oil, cotton and a thimble were nearby. Against the wall as a collection of books and a beautiful harmonium in a rosewood case. Under the captain’s bed was a sheathed sword.
Everything was undamaged and in its proper place, as though the entire crew had just made an immediate unanimous decision of leaving the vessel by hurling themselves overboard together. Whatever had occurred to the crew members of the ship could not have been very long before, as the food would have rotted and the metals would’ve been tarnished in the sea air. There were no signs of violence or fire.
The mate’s cabin was the same-perfectly in order. On the desk lay a piece of paper with an unfinished calculation written on it, which again implied that he was interrupted. Gold lockets, jewellery and money were still locked in the ship’s safe.
The chronometer (an instrument for measuring time accurately in spite of motion or variations in temperature, humidity, and air pressure) was missing, as were most of the ship’s papers and the captain’s navigational instruments.
The ship’s sole lifeboat, was nowhere to be found.
WHAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED?
The captain and his mate of the Dei Gratia found a cutlass, smeared with what seemed to be blood-although this was later derided at the official inquiry later. Similar stains were found on the starboard deck rail, near a cut that looked like it was made by an axe. On each side of the bows, a strip of wood 6 ft long by 1 ft wide had been recently cut from the outer planks. There was no obvious answer or reason as to why this should have been done.
The ship being struck by harsh weather was ruled out, by citing a phial of sewing machine oil found upright and intact in its place.
When the captain examined the ship’s log, he found that the last entry was made nine days prior, when the Mary Celeste had been passing north of St Mary’s Island in the Azores, which is about 400 nautical miles (740 km) west of the point where the Dei Gratia had just encountered her.
SAILING ON HER OWN?
If Mary Celeste had been abandoned soon after that last entry, she must’ve drifted unmanned and unsteered for a week and a half. yet this could not have been, as she was found with her sails set to catch the wind coming over her starboard quarter: in other words, she was sailing on the starboard tack*.
What is astonishing is that the Dei Gratia had been following a similar course just behind her. But throughout the 400 mile journey from the Azores, the Dei Gratia had been obliged to sail on the port tack.
In case you didn’t know, port and starboard are nautical terms for left and right, respectively. Port is the left-hand side of/direction from a vessel, facing forward. Starboard is the right-hand side, facing forward. Tack is to change course by turning a boat’s head into and through the wind.
So, it seemed almost impossible for the Mary Celeste to reach the spot with her sails set to starboard. Someone must have been working on her for several days at least after the final entry. But who? Or what?