Saturday, November 10, 2007

What Happened to the Mary Celeste?

On Saturday mornings, I frequently take my daughter to dance class. While there, I thumb through Smithsonian or National Geographic (thanks Beth). Frequently, I hit upon something worth blogging on. You reap the reward -- except on days where my wife takes her -- then you lose out.

Anyway, the latest (?) Smithsonian has a story on what happened to the Mary Celeste. This might be one of those tales you remember from a grade school library book, or from In Search Of, or from the Arthur Conan Doyle story. It seems investigators have looked at the available evidence, interviews descendants, and arrived at what they regard as a likely conclusion:

The ship's log is believed to have been lost in 1885, so those transcriptions provided the only means for MacGregor and Richardson to plot the course and positions logged for the ship. The two then reconsidered those positions in light of ICOADS data and other information on sea conditions at the time. Their conclusion: Briggs was actually 120 miles west of where he thought he was, probably because of an inaccurate chronometer. By the captain's calculations, he should have sighted land three days earlier than he did.

Solly-Flood's notes yielded one other piece of information that MacGregor and Richardson consider significant: the day before he reached the Azores, Briggs changed course and headed north of Santa Maria Island, perhaps seeking haven.

The night before the last entry in the ship's log, the Mary Celeste again faced rough seas and winds of more than 35 knots. Still, MacGregor reasons, rough seas and a faulty chronometer wouldn't, by themselves, prompt an experienced captain to abandon ship. Was there something else?

MacGregor learned that on its previous voyage, the Mary Celeste had carried coal and that the ship had recently been extensively refitted. Coal dust and construction debris could have fouled the ship's pumps, which would explain the disassembled pump found on the Mary Celeste. With the pump inoperative, Briggs would not have known how much seawater was in his ship's hull, which was too fully packed for him to measure visually.

At that point, says MacGregor, Briggs—having come through rough weather, having finally and belatedly sighted land and having no way of determining whether his ship would sink—might well have issued an order to abandon ship.

You can view a 'sneak peek' of the Smithsonian special on the Mary Celste here.

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