The Other Mary Celestes: Spooky Maritime Mysteries


EDDIE BRAZIL looks at some strange disappearances of the crews of British and foreign ships which have the hallmarks of the most mysterious maritime tale, the Mary Celeste …

If we were asked to name just one mystery of the sea it would surely be the Mary Celeste.

Perhaps the most enigmatic and thought-provoking of all maritime puzzles, her fate continues to fascinate and provoke heated debate over what became of the crew of the American brig found drifting and deserted in the Atlantic in 1872.

Undoubtedly Mary Celeste is the most famous of sea mysteries, yet she is only one of many uncanny occurrences reported from across the world’s oceans. Some of which are more than a little strange.

The Other Mary Celestes: Spooky Maritime Mysteries 1

The Abbey S. Hart, The Zabrina and Hermania

In September 1884 the British ship, Abbey S. Hart was spotted drifting in the Indian ocean. A boarding party found three seamen dead in their bunks and a forth Man out of his mind. He died soon after without having uttered one understandable word. The ship had sailed from Java a week previously, but where it had been in that time, and why the crew had perished is a complete mystery.

In October 1917 the schooner, Zabrina left Falmouth for the fairly short voyage across the English Channel to France. Two days later she was found drifting and deserted with no sign of violence or anything else to indicate why the crew had abandoned her.

Another schooner, Hermania, suffered a similar fate in 1848.A fishing vessel off the coast of Cornwall found the ship drifting. She had been damaged by a gale. However, when a boarding party investigated they found the lifeboat still in its chocks, and the property of the crew still intact, yet every living soul aboard the vessel had vanished.

The Ellen Austin

The uncanny tale the British ship, Ellen Austin, makes the fate of the Mary Celeste seem like an open and such case. In the Summer of 1881 the Ellen Austin was sailing towards St Johns, Newfoundland, when she sighted a schooner that seemed to be keeping a parallel course.

As they neared they could see that the ship was drifting. A boarding party examined the vessel, and everything seemed to be in order yet mysteriously the ship was totally deserted. Aware of the salvage prize to be gained, the Captain of the Ellen Austin put a skeleton crew aboard the mystery schooner and both ships proceeded towards St Johns.

However, a storm blew up separating the two vessels. When the bad weather abated the Ellen Austin caught up with the Schooner. Yet as before the ship seemed to be drifting. The Captain saw through his telescope that no one was on deck. Once again a boarding party investigated the ship and found her completely deserted. Understandably the crew went into panic and warned the Captain to leave the schooner be, “She was a bad ship“.

Yet with great persuasion and offers of reward, the Commander managed to persuade another skeleton crew to man the schooner and sail her to port.

The Mystery vessel was faster than the Ellen Austin and soon outpaced her. The ship sailed away over the horizon and she, and the crew were never seen again.

Ourang Medan

A more unearthly story is the case of the Dutch Freighter, Ourang Medan.In February 1948 while steaming through the Malacca straits en route to Indonesia SOS signals from the ship were picked up by other vessels in the area, and they hastened to her assistance.

The distress calls continued until there came an alarming message.” All officers dead lying in chartroom and on bridge,…. whole crew dead. This was followed by a series of dots and dashes that made no sense and then the words, “I die” After this, silence. When the ship was located a boarding found the Captain dead on the bridge.

Throughout the rest of the ship lay the lifeless bodies of the crew, their mouths gaping open and the eyes staring as if in fear. The body of the radio operator was found slumped in a chair, his fingers still on the transmitter, with an expression of sheer terror. The ship’s dog was also dead, his lips drawn back into a snarl. There were no indications of how the men had died, and the vessel seemed undamaged.

As the boarding parties considered their next move the Ourang Medan suddenly burst into flames forcing all on board to abandoned the ship. Shortly after she exploded and quickly sank, taking her horrifying secrets to the bottom of the sea.

The Marlborough

In 1913 the British ship, ”Johnson”, sailing south towards Cape Horn, sighted a vessel drifting with the current. As they drew closer it could be seen that the masts, rigging and sails were covered with green mould, and there appeared to be no one on deck. On the prow was the faded name, “ Marlborough”.

A boarding party was dispatched but found the timbers of the deck so rotted and decayed that they had to pick their way precariously across them. What awaited the party was the stuff of nightmares. A skeleton was found beneath the helm, six more were discovered on the bridge, and 13 other skeletal corpses lay elsewhere in the ship. It was obvious that the crew had been dead for some considerable time, yet there were no indications of how they had perished. Once again it seemed that the sea had conjured up another puzzling maritime mystery.

However, the case of the Marlborough is all the more astonishing when we learn that she had set sail from Littleton in New Zealand, 23 years before in January 1890.

Nothing had been heard of the ship since She was last sighted sailing through the straits of Magellan. Where had she been in all this time, and what fate befell her crew? Is it possible for a ship of the dead to sail the seas for nearly a quarter of a century and remain undiscovered?

Mary Celeste

And finally, what became of the Mary Celeste?

The Other Mary Celestes: Spooky Maritime Mysteries 2
The Mary Celeste

Following the disappearance of Briggs and his crew, The American brig gained a reputation as an unlucky ship, and seamen were reluctant to sign on. She changed hands rapidly, bringing little profit to its short term owners. In 1884 she was purchased by a disreputable Captain named Gilman Parker, who deliberately ran it on to a reef in the Caribbean for the sake of the insurance. Yet the insurance companies became suspicious and refused to payout. Within the year Parker was dead, one of his associates went mad, and another committed suicide. Their association with the brig had brought them nothing but grief.

But is it possible that a ship can be born bad? There is a maritime tradition that to rename a vessel is to invite misfortune. The Mary Celeste began life as the Amazon. Launched in 1861 in Nova Scotia it was unlucky from the start. Her first Captain died just two days after she was registered. On her maiden voyage, she ran into a fishing weir off the coast of Maine and damaged the hull. While being repaired she mysteriously caught fire. In the straits of Dover, it collided with another brig, which sank. Under her fourth Captain, the ship was wrecked when it ran aground on Cape Breton Island.

It was salvaged, however, and passed quickly through three other owners, one of whom renamed her Mary Celeste. But it would seem that a complete refit and re-christening could not save her from infamy, and she sailed from New York on that fateful day in November 1872 straight into the unknown.


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