By Jim Rees
On 5 December 1872, the captain of the Dei Gratia, David Morehouse, sighted another sailing ship on the high seas. There was something odd about the way her sails flapped in the wind. It was as if there was no one at the helm.
Morehouse was sure that he recognised the wayward vessel and he ordered a change of course to see if help were needed. When the despatched party boarded, the reason for the mystery vessel’s erratic progress became clear – there was no one at the helm. In fact, there was no one on board at all.
This would have been a strange occurrence anywhere, but the encounter took place 400 miles east of the Azores, roughly half-way across the Atlantic ocean. Morehouse’s recognition of the mystery ship was correct – she was the Mary Celeste.
Sea charts were strewn around the cabin, the only lifeboat was missing, and one of the pumps had been dismantled. No matter how seaworthy a ship is, there is always some leakage and pumping is essential. It was obvious that it had been a while since this crucial task had been carried out and the water in the bilges was three feet deep.
The cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol was largely intact, although damage to some of the barrels was immediately apparent. Despite this, the vessel was in good shape and certainly seaworthy. So why had the crew broken the first rule of survival by abandoning her?
The Mary Celeste had departed the port of New York on 7 November, just eight days before the Dei Gratia. On board were Captain Benjamin Briggs, his wife Sarah, and their two-year-old daughter. There was also a crew of seven.