Sunday, April 18, 2010

101 Interesting Things, part forty-one: Real-Life Ghost Ships!

I was reading Dino Comics at work the other day - which I highly recommend, by the way (Dino Comics, that is, not wasting time at work with pixellated fun in Courier font - I must not have fun. Fun is the time-killer.) - when...

Wait. Let me start over.

This Dino Comics strip taught me about the Baychimo, allegedly the very best of boats. After looking into the matter, I agree. But I also found out about a bunch of other crazy ghost ship stories in the process, and today I am going to share them with you. We'll start with the Baychimo.

In 1931, Baychimo became trapped in ice, and shed her crew because they were holding her back. She broke free in two days, only to be boarded again by her once-and-future taskmasters, and so she got stuck again within the week (a little passive-aggressive for a boat, don't you think?). Most of the crew gave up and went home in planes, their flighty temperaments no match for Baychimo's determination. The fifteen who remained lasted about a month longer, at which point Baychimo - I'm not making this up - escaped under cover of blizzard. You go, boat!

Baychimo was spotted days later and boarded for the purpose of taking her most valuable cargo, then abandoned in the frigid sea to presumably die of exposure. But after seventeen bitter years of servitude to the Hudson's Bay Company, Baychimo decided to make the most of her newfound freedom and roamed the seas for thirty-eight years, despite repeated boardings from unprepared yahoos who didn't know what to do with her (or didn't have the equipment even if they did, anyhow). Techinically, that should be "thirty-eight years and counting," since she is only presumed sunk. I prefer to think that she drifted all the way to the Moon and is now renovating the abandoned dinosaur cities on its dark side. If you don't believe me, you're welcome to check, just let me know when you're going so I can also buy a ticket.

Next, we go back in time to 1872 to discuss the Mary Celeste. On the night of November 4th, Captain Benjamin Briggs (of the Mary Celeste) met with his friend Captain David Morehouse (of the Dei Gratia) for dinner with their wives in New York. Both ships were headed for the Mediterranean, as it turned out, though Morehouse didn't leave for another week. But on December 4th, the Dei Gratia spotted Mary Celeste about six hundred miles West of Portugal. Nobody was on deck, there was no distres signal. After two hours of staring at the empty ship, she was boarded and explored, with perplexing results:
Oliver Deveau, chief mate of the Dei Gratia, boarded the Mary Celeste. He reported he did not find anyone on board, and said that "the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess". There was only one operational pump, two apparently having been disassembled, with a lot of water between decks and three and a half feet (1.1 m) of water in the hold. However, the ship was not sinking and was still seaworthy.

All of the ship's papers were missing, except for the captain's logbook. The forehatch and the lazarette were both open, athough the main hatch was sealed. The ship's clock was not functioning, and the compass was destroyed; the sextant and marine chronometer were missing. The only lifeboat on the Mary Celeste, a yawl located above the main hatch, was also missing. The peak halyard, used to hoist the main sail, had disappeared. A rope, perhaps the peak halyard, was found tied to the ship very strongly and the other end, very frayed, was trailing in the water behind the ship.

- Wikipedia on the Mary Celeste
Piracy, foul play on the part of Dei Gratia's crew, mutiny, and insurance fraud are all silly explanations, as many very valuable things were left intact, the captains of both ships were good friends, there was no sign of any kind of struggle, and the insurance payoff wouldn't have been worth the planning. Likely of importance was Mary Celeste's cargo: 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol. Briggs was not a fan of such dangerous cargo, and the possibility of an explosion may have motivated him to evacuate the ship with his wife, daughter, and crew at a sign of trouble. A brief fire from alcoholic fumes might not have left any scorch marks on the ship, and could explain the hasty evacuation. If Mary Celeste ran into a waterspout (tornadoes of the sea!), "Lower air pressure resulting from a waterspout might have thrown off measurements of how deep the water level was in the ship's hull. A dipstick-like device was used to monitor water levels in the bilge. Low pressure could pull water up the tube around the stick, creating the impression of a sinking vessel." (Wikipedia again.) In either case, it's likely that the evacuating crew tied their lifeboat to the rope that was found frayed and trailing the ship.

Finally, we conclude our journey through ghost ship history in 2007 with the Kaz II, a catamaran which bore three men to mysterious watery doom. On April 18th, Kaz II was spotted drifting by a chopper near the Great Barrier Reef. Once boarded, the Queensland Emergency Management Office found everything to be perfectly normal: the equipment was all intact (save one torn sail), the engine was running, a laptop was on, no life jackets had been used, and food was set out on the table (spooky!). There were just no people. Footage recovered from the ship, timestamped the morning of the ship's departure, showed a 360-degree view of surrounding scenery which allowed investigators to pinpoint Kaz II's location, as well as various other details which had been altered by the time of the ship's discovery, aiding efforts to piece together the story. The official report is, to my mind, a good piece of reasoning which incorporates all the evidence:
"On Sunday, April 15, 2007, at 10:05 A.M., the Kaz II was sailing in the vicinity of George Point. Up to that moment everything was going as planned but, in the following hour, their situation changed dramatically. The men hauled in the white rope that was trailing behind the boat and bundled it up on the foredeck, possibly to dry, next to the locker it was normally kept in. For unknown reasons, James Tunstead then took off his T-shirt and glasses and placed them on the backseat. The report says that since the men's fishing lure was found entangled in the ship's port side rudder, an obvious explanation would be that one of them tried to free the lure and fell overboard while doing so. Standing on the boat's 'sugar scoop' platform (a platform at the back of the ship close to the waterline) while the boat is moving is perilous and falling in the water is easy, but getting back aboard almost impossible. One of the other men then came to the rescue of his friend, while Batten, still on board, started the motor and realized he had to drop the sails before he could go back for his friends."

As he left the helm to drop the sails, a deviation of the ship's course or wind direction could have easily caused a jibe, swinging the boom across the deck and knocking Batten overboard. This could even have happened before Batten was able to untie and throw out the life ring to his friends. A blue coffee mug found near the life ring may support this. Since the boat was travelling before wind and at a speed of 15 knots, it would be out of reach of the men within seconds. The report states: "From that point, the end would have been swift. None of them was a good swimmer, the seas were choppy; the men would have quickly become exhausted and sunk beneath the waves."
But perhaps spookiest of all, the comic strip which started this all cannot be found! No, seriously, I'm glad I e-mailed myself the link, because searching for ghost ship or Baychimo with OhNoRobot doesn't turn it up (try it!). Oooh. Poor ghost ships, they wouldn't be so lonely if they weren't so hard to find...

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