Monday, August 17, 2009

Ancient and Modern Sea Mysteries: Mary Celeste and Arctic Sea

Mary Celeste, one of the most intriguing mysteries of all times, has appeared in the Top Google Searches today. It is hard to consider the Mary Celeste story to be a part of the hot news, but it was logically linked to the new mystery of a cargo ship Arctic Sea, which was found today after vanishing for two weeks.

Arctic Sea Story
The ship's owners, Solchart Management, confirmed to CNN that the vessel and its crew (15 seamen) were safe, following Russian media reports that it had been found near the Cape Verde islands off the West African coast by Russian military vessel Ladny.

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Since it disappeared off the charts, rumors and conspiracy theories have stirred in the Russian-crewed vessel's wake, with a fog of conflicting sightings and reports doing little to help separate fact from fiction.
Conjuring plots worthy of "Hunt for Red October" author Tom Clancy, online chatter threw up numerous possibilities about the fate of the Arctic Sea, casting the ship variously as a covert weapons transporter, a drug courier or the booty in a mutinous crime venture.

Then there were the predictable supernatural explanations, invoking Bermuda Triangle legends or drawing comparisons to the Mary Celeste "ghost ship," a twin-masted merchant vessel that was found under full sail -- minus its crew -- in the Atlantic in 1872.

Fueling the Cold War-style conspiracies was Moscow's involvement: The Kremlin said the Russian Navy, backed by space hardware, was in hot pursuit of the Arctic Sea. Sightings of Russian attack submarines off the U.S. coast last week have only helped to fan the flames.

However fanciful, these theories did at least attempt to explain why anyone -- whether hijackers, pirates, or spies -- would be interested in a 17-year-old Turkish-built, Maltese-flagged vessel with a rather mundane payload of Scandinavian wood.

An apparent ransom demand, which Finnish police said had been issued to shipping company Solchart Management, suggested some motive for abducting the vessel, but did little to clarify the events since the ship was reportedly boarded by hijackers on July 24.

After that incident off the coast of Sweden, according to a confusing array of sightings and reports, the Arctic Sea sailed through the English Channel, was possibly hijacked a second time off Portugal, vanished on July 31, was sighted off the Cape Verde islands on Friday and then blipped back onto computer screens in the Bay of Biscay for a fleeting moment on Saturday.

There is the real possibility that much of the mystery surrounding the ship is as a result of a media blackout imposed by military and law enforcement agencies to protect the lives of the 15 crewmen as they attempted to take out or negotiate with those behind an extortion bid.

Micro-blogging site Twitter, meanwhile, worked overtime to try to fill this vacuum of facts, with users collating and swapping a litany of claims by unnamed sources and sketchy media reports.

Some speculated the disappearance was part of a Russian military training exercise, or perhaps a rehearsal for a 9/11-style terror event involving non-military merchant craft bound for the United States.

Piracy theorists meanwhile speculated that the ship's original boarders never left, maintaining an illusion of normality through the English Channel before spiriting it off to an unmonitored port for resale.
While this seemed one of the most credible explanations, maritime experts expressed strong doubts that such an attack would or even could take place in heavily-policed European waters.

Others worked with the premise that the ship was never boarded in the first place, and accounts of the hijacking were fabricated by the crew with the intention of making off with the ship and selling it on.
The most dramatic theories argued that the Arctic Sea picked up weapons or a mafia drugs consignment while undergoing maintenance during a recent port call in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, then the drug deal went sour, or the weapons mission attracted outside intervention.

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Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian Maritime Bulletin, told CNN he believed the Arctic Sea must have been carrying a "secret cargo", to attract such attention, however he would not elaborate on its nature.
In a breathtakingly bold piece of geo-political deduction that now looks largely discredited, one Russian Web site took this even further, detailing a plot that had the Kremlin using the Arctic Sea to deliver cruise missiles to Iran with the aim of drawing U.S. attention away from territorial disputes with Georgia. However, it claimed, the mission was thwarted by a covert U.S. military operation.

Will we know the truth?

Not sure.

Mary Celeste Story
While there are very slim chances that the real story of the Russian Arctic Sea will ever be discovered, the mystery of the famous Mary Celeste attracted curious minds of the many generations. Here is a brief case review with the most probable explanation.

The British brigantine Dei Gratia came upon the Mary Celeste sailing erratically midway between the Azores and Portugal on 4 December 1872. The crew could spot no one on deck threw their spy glass so the captain of the Dei Gratia dispatched a boarding party lead by 1st Mate Oliver Deveau. Deveau's team reported that the ship was fully provisioned and perfectly seaworthy yet mysteriously abandoned. A few clues indicated the crew of the Mary Celeste had quickly launched a small yawl for no apparent reason.

The Mary C had departed New York on 5 November loaded with 1,709 barrels of grain alcohol bound for Genoa, Italy.

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The crew endured strong winds from the time they left New York until arriving at Santa Maria Island in the Azores --- they'd sailed the last few hundreds miles in a gale.

It seems reasonable to suggest that in order to take a break from the pounding, the captain gave the order to sail to the lee side of Santa Maria Island where the cook started a fire in the large galley stove to make hot food while other members of the crew furled most of the sails, leaving just enough canvas up to hold her course as they made their way slowly along the lee shore. Other crew members set about pumping the bilge and doing other chores. When the food was ready, the men stopped what they were doing and ate. After taking a smoke break, the Captain gave orders to get underway and the crew went back to work. Some went back to pumping the bilge; others started to set the sails they had just furled. Just then the seafloor started dancing up and down in a violent seaquake, relatively common in the Azores

During rapid vertically shifting of the hard bottom, the seabed becomes like a giant transducer, pushing and pulling the water, sending powerful alternating pressure waves towards the surface. The results onboard the boat were as if there was no sea at all under the ship....just as though the vessel was setting on dry land during an earthquake. The deck on the Mary Celeste shook violently. The severe vibrations loosened the stays around nine barrels, dumping almost 500 gallons of raw alcohol into the bilge. Fumes spread rapidly throughout the boat. The seaquake also shook the galley stove so violently that it was lifted up from its chocks and set down out of place.

Choking on the alcohol fumes from the leaking barrels while seeing sparks and embers flying about from the fire in the cooking stove was all it took to send the crew into panic and cause them to quickly launch the small yawl and try to get away from the coming explosion.

The elation the crew felt when the alcohol fumes did not explode was short lived.

In the fear of the moment, the crew forgot to secure a line from the life boat to the mother ship. They watched in dismay as the Mary Celeste, now crewless, sailed slowly away from the yawl with her jib and two other small sails set.  As she pulled away from the small sailing yawl, the men had to decide  quickly whether to try to catch up with their ship, or go for the safety of Santa Maria Island, less than 10 miles away. They likely argued about the merits of each course of action, but, knowing they would be disgraced for having abandoned their seaworthy boat and her valuable cargo, they chose to try to catch the Mary C in the small yawl, hoping (1) they could overcome her, or (2) the wind would shift and cause her to tack back towards them. Each day of their journey carried them further and further away from the safety of Santa Maria. They never caught up to their mother ship. Five months later, five highly decomposed bodies were found tied to two rafts off the coast of Spain. One was flying an American flag. Thus is the fate of the crew the greatest sea mystery ever told.

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Definitely, this is just one of the versions of what really happened. What were the other versions? Piracy was immediately ruled out as personal effects were left by the crew, which would have been instantly looted and there had been no reports of pirates around the Azores for many years. Mutiny, storm, underwater earthquake and tsunami have all been touted as possible reasons, but all dismissed. No undersea tremors were recorded by either Briggs or Moorhouse. Briggs was a fair captain, ruling out mutiny. The same can be said for storms, while tsunami was ruled out as the effects would do little or no damage in deep water, apart from a freak wave that would totally destroy the ship. Waterspout is a logical explanation which would explain the water on board, while risk of explosion, considering the cargo of alcohol onboard, would cause the crew to leave the ship hastily. Other more far fetched theories have involved alien abduction and sea monsters.

While placing the underwater quake under question, the fire version remains unbeaten yet. But if there was a fire, why there were no obvious traces of fire or explosion on the ship, when it was found? To answer the question, Chemist Dr. Andrea Sella built a replica of the Mary Celeste’s. He used paper cubes and simulated an explosion with butane gas. The paper cubes neither burned nor blackened. The replica of the hold wasn’t damaged. The fire was a pressure-wave explosive. There was an astonishing burst of flame. Cool air was behind it, but there was no burning, soot or scorching. The explosion could have blown open the hatches. Such a massive flare-up could have been triggered by a spark caused when two loose barrels rubbed together or when a crewman, smoking a pipe, opened a hatch to ventilate the hold. According to records, 300 gallons of alcohol leaked – more than enough to create an explosion.


Justin Davis said...

So do we know what happened to this ship??

Justin Davis
Freight Quote

Michael Pekker said...

I am afraid, we do not have a solid answer yes for any of these cases, but for two different reasons. For Mary Celeste, it was long ago, and there were no witnesses left even at the time. For Arctic Sea, there are certain forces that would be interested in keeping the story unclear. I read all the publications in Russian on the encounter, and they have pretty accurate record on the ship multiple cases of capture and release. I have not translated the details, since different sources have different details, and because it does not look that the details are reliable. The main facts however comply with international description. Ship was found, and the crew is alive and well.