In our history of sea travel there have certainly been a plentitude of vanished ships. After all, the sea is a treacherous, often harrowing place full of mysteries. However, even more curious is those ships that have mysterious turned up wandering aimlessly about without a crew, usually with no clear indication of anything really amiss or clues as to why anyone should be absent. Typically there is no sign of any problem, the ships are spookily pristine, nothing amiss, and the crews seem to have just evaporated off of the face of the earth to leave behind bafflement and a search for answers. This is the bizarre world of real ghost ships, whose crews have seemingly ceased to exist.
One of the earliest accounts of a mysteriously abandoned ghost ship concerns a 300 ton merchant brig called the Sea Bird. In 1750, the vessel was on its way back to its home port of Newport, Rhode Island, after a trip to Honduras under the command of a Captain John Durham. It appears that the ship almost made it to its destination, but the very morning of its scheduled arrival was spotted drifting listlessly off the Rhode Island coast before running aground on Easton Beach. It seemed very odd that the ship should do this, as it was well within sight of land, the weather was calm, the ship seemed to be in perfect working condition, and was almost home.
When the Sea Bird was boarded, the ship’s dog happily greeted the crew and there was also found a cat aboard, with both of the animals seemingly perfectly healthy, unperturbed, well-fed, and uninjured. However, these would prove to be the only two remaining living things on the ship, and no crew was aboard. This was odd enough, but other weird clues would soon become apparent. Everywhere were signs that the crew had just recently been there. A freshly prepared breakfast was set out on the table, coffee was boiling in a pot, and there was even the smell of recent tobacco smoke pervading the air. In the captain’s quarters was found a large stash of coins just lying untouched right out in the open. The ship itself was completely undamaged and its cargo was totally intact and properly secured.
Wherever the crew had gone, they had gone there in a hurry, but what had happened to them? There were very few clues to answer this question, and it was all very odd to say the least. The weather was calm and clear, it had been broad daylight, the ship was in perfect working order, and another boat captain would claim that he had passed the Sea Bird just two hours before the ship was found abandoned and seen Captain Durham on deck, and that they had waved cordially at each other with no sign of anything even slightly amiss. The only possible clues seemed to be the fact that the ship’s longboat was found to be missing, although the skiff was still there, and there was also the cryptic note written in the captain’s log which read simply “Branton Reef sighted,” which is located not far from Newport. The mystery has never been solved and no trace of the crew of the Sea Bird, nor that missing longboat, has ever been found.
Another early case which is in many ways eerily similar to the vanishing of the Sea Bird crew is that of the Welsh brig The Resolven, which had been engaged in travelling between Canada and Wales shipping fish and timber under the command of Master Mariner John James. In August of 1884, the Royal Navy vessel HMS Mallard was patrolling off of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, when they spotted The Resolven aimlessly adrift. All attempts to hail the ship went unanswered, and it was decided to go in and investigate the wandering vessel.
When The Resolven was boarded it was found that no one was aboard, although there were clear signs of recent activity all around. In the galley there was food and drinks carefully laid out on tables for a meal and even a fire burning. Nowhere was there any sign of damage to the ship or any evidence of a struggle, and everything seemed as if someone would be returning at any moment. The only things out of place were a missing lifeboat and a small fortune in coins was also found to be missing, but nothing else was. The missing coins seem to point to foul play, but they also may have just been taken along by the captain when he left the ship, for whatever reason that may have been. The crew has never been found, the reasons for why they would so suddenly abandon ship never resolved, and the case is so mysterious that The Resolven has been sometimes referred to as the “Welsh Mary Celeste.”
Just a year before the discovery of the crewless The Resolven there was also the 1883 case of the J.C. Cousins, which was a 66-foot luxury schooner that had been refitted as a pilot boat operating out of Astoria, guiding boats around the treacherous sand bars of the Columbia River. On October 6, 1883, the J.C. Cousins went out on what was to be its final run. At first things went completely normally. The boat went out to anchor off Peacock Spit, near the entrance of the river, where they would wait to aid any ships that were in need, and nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary at this time at all.
However, later that afternoon the J.C. Cousins was seen to be behaving strangely by a tugboat called the Mary Taylor. The boat was on the move, which seemed odd since there were no ships in the area and so no one would have need of their help at that time. Even stranger still was that instead of moving through the ample calm water all around, the boat was heading straight through a zone of potentially dangerous breakers. It didn’t make any sense. The J.C. Cousins made it through the breakers to head out towards sea, before turning around to head back, after which it turned again to head back out towards the ocean yet again. It was all extraordinarily bizarre behavior, and the boat continued to go back and forth in this manner until nightfall, and when morning came it was found to still be in this tireless, continuous loop, presumably having done so all night long.
The strange course of the ship had gathered a group of spectators from the shore, who gawked and wondered what was going on, and the J.C. Cousins continued this loop until around 1PM, when it finally ran aground on a sandbar and fell on its side like an exhausted beast. Since the tide was still high no one was able to approach the ailing ship, and there was concern because no crew exited the ship as it sat there lifeless upon the beach. When the boat was finally boarded there was found to be no one aboard. Additionally, the lifeboats were missing, and a variety of paperwork was also apparently gone as well. This somewhat suggested that the crew had intentionally abandoned the vessel, but no one had actually seen them do so, even though the boat had gone out to its position as normal and had been visible the whole time.
There were a lot of theories floating around at the time. One was that a man known only as Zeiber had been hired to murder the crew by another boat’s captain to eliminate competition, but considering that the J.C. Cousins was insured and was immediately replaced by an even better and more up-to-date ship by the company owners, the plan didn’t seem to be very logical if that was the case. Other ideas were that there had been a mutiny for some reason, that the crew had escaped to dodge some sort of financial problems, or that they had been kidnapped by nefarious parties. More decidedly bizarre notions were that they had been attacked by a sea monster or even the victims of a ghost ship that was rumored to prowl the area, with one old local claiming to have even seen a spectral vessel bearing down upon them. To this day it is not known what happened to the crew of the J.C. Cousins, or at what point they exited the boat or why.
One very famous case of a vanishing ship crew is that of the Carroll A. Deering, a five-mast commercial schooner which departed from Norfolk, Virginia on September 8, 1920, on its way to deliver a cargo of coal to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The cargo was delivered in late November on schedule, and the crew stayed a few days in Rio before heading back on December 2, stopping off at Barbados to pick up supplies on January 9. Up to this point everything had gone smoothly and according to schedule, with no cause for concern, but things would soon begin to take a turn for the strange.
During the Carroll A. Deering’s stop in Barbados, it became apparent that there had been growing friction between some of the crew and the ship’s captain, a Captain W. B. Wormell. According to First Mate Charles B. McLellan, these frustrations stemmed from the fact that Captain Wormell, who had not been the original captain but rather a last minute replacement for a William M. Merritt due to severe illness, seemed to be an incompetent leader, on top of the fact that his eyesight was supposedly quite poor. To say that McLellan and Wormell did not get along would be an understatement, and things became so heated between the two in Barbados that McLellan had threatened the captain’s life, leading him to being arrested and temporarily detained.
It was in this state of chaos, frustration, and animosity that the Carroll A. Deering would leave the shores of Barbados on its way to becoming a great maritime mystery. A few weeks after its departure, there was a transmission from the vessel that was picked up by the ship the Cape Lookout Lightship, during which time a man with a foreign sounding accent allegedly explained that the ship had lost one of its anchors. Rather spookily, the captain of the Cape Lookout Lightship claimed that the crew of the Carroll A. Deering had been acting oddly and wandering about on the deck as if in an agitated state. Then, just two days later on the morning of January 31, 1921, the ship was found drifting aimlessly off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where it then became stuck on a sandbar.
When the ship was boarded by the Coast Guard things really started to get bizarre. The vessel turned out to be completely empty, with no sign of any of the crew members, and in addition it was found that all of the lifeboats, the navigational equipment, and the crew’s belongings were gone as well. The only thing that seemed to be left behind was a half-prepared meal, as if they had all abandoned ship in a hurry. There were other oddities as well, such as the fact that the captain’s personal quarters had three different sets of footprints littering the floor, possibly indicating intruders, as well as an extra cot that had oddly been set up there and appeared to be recently used. On the captain’s desk was a navigational chart, which starting from January 23rd had suddenly changed to a completely different person’s handwriting. Other than that, there were no clues at all as to what could have happened to the crew and no trace of them has ever been found.
Theories on what became of the crew of the Carroll A. Deering have swirled ever since. The most rational explanation seems to be that there had been a mutiny aboard. After all, captain Wormell had apparently not been the most popular guy among his crew, and he and his first mate had been at each other’s throats since at least Barbados. However, even if there was a mutiny why would they have abandoned a perfectly good ship in the life boats along with all of their gear? Other theories include that they were the victims of pirates, smugglers, or even communist terrorists, and of course they had all vanished in the same general region as the Bermuda Triangle, so take your pick of aliens, strange portals, sea monsters, or some other paranormal phenomena. It’s likely we will never know what really happened, and the mysterious disappearance of the Carroll A. Deering’s crew has become an infamous and enduring sea mystery.
Such mysterious vanishings have occurred into more modern days as well. On April 20, 2007, a 9.8-metre catamaran identified as being the Kaz II was discovered drifting off the coast of Australia near the Great Barrier Reef with its engine still running. When authorities boarded the ship they found that although no one was aboard, all of the lifejackets were accounted for, the radio was fully operational, a smaller escape boat was still tied up and secured where it should be, food was set out on the table for a meal, the laundry was hanging out to dry, fishing lines were carefully laid out, and there was even a laptop computer sitting on a table open and turned on. Nothing appeared to be missing, with even a firearm and ammunition left behind in a box. The interior of the boat was neat and tidy, there was no sign of struggle, foul play, or anything awry at all, the yacht seemed to be in good order, and the whole scene was eerily calm and normal except for the fact that no one was there. The only thing that seemed out of the ordinary was a single damaged sail.
Further investigation discovered that the Kaz II had been headed for Townsville and that there had been 3 crew members consisting of Derek Batten (56), and friends Peter Tunstead (69) and James Tunstead (63), all of whom were from Perth, Australia. The trio had apparently departed from Airlie Beach, and had planned to head out from Townsville to embark on an ambitious voyage up around the northern coast of Australia to end up at their final destination in Western Australia, a destination which they would never reach. A video taken by the crew dated April 15 was found, which showed the three men on the deck of the ship apparently enjoying themselves and not under any sort of duress. The only potential clues that could really be gleaned from the video were that the sea seemed to be somewhat choppy and the men were not wearing life vests. Analyzing the background also gave an impression of where the boat had been at the time, but other than that there was not much to go on.
At this point the main theory was that the crew of the Kaz II had been swept overboard by a rogue wave or some other sudden incident, and there was an intensive search for the missing men utilizing both boats and aircraft, which scoured the region of the last known GPS coordinates of the vessel on both land and sea, utilizing advanced equipment such as infrared systems up and down the coastline. Despite these massive efforts, no trace of the missing men was found and it was feared that they had not survived whatever had happened to them.
What happened to the crew of the Kaz II? The crew was purportedly experienced and had been on trips aboard the Kaz II before without incident. The boat was also reported to have been in good condition and perfectly seaworthy, with no prior problems. The official theory was that the crew had for whatever reason been swept overboard to their fates, either by a sudden gust of wind, rough seas, or a rogue wave of some sort, a notion supported by the apparently turbulent water evident in the last known video of the men, but this is not known for sure and indeed the pristine state of the cabin does not seem to suggest such a sudden, jarring tragedy. There was also no sign that any of the lifesaving gear had been equipped or taken, and no distress call, which would mean that if such an incident had really occurred then it must have dispatched all three of them with alarming suddenness.
There is also the idea that the Kaz II may have run aground on a sandbar and when the crew had disembarked to free it they had been washed out to sea. Another is the theory that the Kaz II met with some other vessel and then went aboard, only to be kidnapped. However, all of these ideas are pure speculation. Just about the only thing agreed upon is that there was no obvious evidence at all that foul play had been involved aboard the vessel itself. Whatever happened to the crew of the Kaz II remains a perplexing mystery to this day.
It is hard to tell what has happened in any of these cases. With such little evidence left behind and what clues there are remaining so confusing and strange, they are left open to interpretation. Just about the only thing anyone knows for sure is that these ships set out with a full crew and with no troubles, only to end up ghost ships. These people were there, and then they weren't, their disappearances in the process often leaving behind odd details that only further increase confusion. What happened to these people? Where did these crews go off to and why did their vessels abruptly become true ghost ships? We may never know for sure, doomed to look out over the waves and wonder.