The ferry from Calais to Dover was quiet; the English Channel was mostly smooth and the occasional whitecap seemed to pop up only to salute the few clouds in the powder blue sky. The sun, not quite to the yardarm yet, was bright but not overbearing, giving just the right amount of warmth to make standing on a ship’s deck in early November pleasant. At the time England and France seemed closer than they had since, well, 1066, with construction of the Chunnel going on and international relations mostly friendly
We weren’t too far out and I was watching the coast of France disappear when an older man in a black pea coat and a cap came up and stood next to me. We looked at each other and nodded, and then I made some comment about how quickly you can lose sight of land at sea. Just a few miles out and all trace of land can disappear.
“That’s why the sea keeps its secrets,” he said. “The sea knows that things that happen out of sight of land will never be fully understood.”
I shifted uneasily and looked around to make sure there were witnesses if he decided to jump or throw me overboard, but instead he just looked at me and smiled.
“Lots of mysteries of the sea, you know, like the Mary Celeste. You’re American, but you’ve heard of it, eh?”
Heard of it, and I knew it was some sort of ghost ship, that it had been found drifting, with all passengers mysteriously missing.
“Aye,” he said, “you’ve got the heart of it, but there’s more to it than that. It was an American ship, did you know that?”
I didn’t, nor did I know the rest of what he shared with me: that it had left New York City in November 1872, and in early December was found drifting between the Azores and Portugal. The ship’s cargo and passengers’ personal possessions were all there, but there was no sign of the passengers.
“No one knows what became of them,” he said, “but one thing we can be sure of: they were taken by the sea, and only the sea knows what became of them.” I felt a chill as a breeze blew across us from the west. Then he turned and said, “Ah, the duty free shop’s open.”
It was a rather anticlimactic end to an interesting encounter, but I took a seat on the deck and kept watching the sea.
When I got back to school I went to the library and looked up the Mary Celeste, wondering how much more there was to the story. And the truth is there isn’t much more to the story itself, as least as far as the facts are concerned. There was some water in the hold and that might have caused the captain to think they were sinking. The lifeboat was missing and all the passengers and crew may have intended to temporarily abandon the ship. That was uncommon but not unheard of at the time. Sea travel was dangerous. There was no GPS, not even radio. Ships on the sea were on their own. The captain and crew were experienced, but things happen. The Mary Celeste wasn’t the only case of a deserted ship–there’s even been at least one in modern times, but a perfect storm of events, from the captain who discovered it going to court for a higher salvage fee than what he was offered to a judge who was determined to pin blame on someone, gave it special publicity. It inspired a short story by a then young Arthur Conan Doyle, and it soon became encrusted with rumors, speculations, and wild theories. It’s even been associated with the Bermuda Triangle even though its course was never that far south.
On the ferry I was thinking about the Mary Celeste and other mysteries of the sea when a sudden crack of thunder made me nearly fall over. I stood up and ran to the railing and looked out. The dark clouds of a storm were moving in from the west, darkening the sky. I’m very much a skeptic, and I don’t believe there’s any supernatural explanation for the Mary Celeste or other mysteries of the sea. We may never know exactly what happened, but there’s a logical explanation out there somewhere. Still the sea does guard its secrets, jealously, and I’m just cautious enough that I’ll only talk about the Mary Celeste, or the sea’s other mysteries, when I’m well away from the water.