The Tsunami Fishing Boat
& Other Ghost Ship Stories
When a 50-foot long Japanese fishing boat was spotted last week, some 150 miles off the coast of British Columbia, there was little doubt that it’s been adrift since the powerful earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan a year ago. As no one is believed to be aboard, many also thought about the countless ghost ship tales that’s part of the ocean lore since ancient times.
There’s probably not much mystery about this vessel and others before it, abandoned by their crew following some catastrophic event in the middle of nowhere. Yet there are a few whose inexplicable fate is as enduring and deep as the sea is vast and unpredictable. And unlike this particularly rusty boat, they do have names and records that only add to their allure.
There’s something about the Mary Celeste, the Carroll A. Deering, and the Zebrina, to name a few, that still defies a completely logical explanation, as they all may share elements of foul-play, illegal activity, mutiny, some unexpected fact or a combined variation of any of such possible causes, none enough to determine for sure what actually happened onboard.
Then again, as any crusty sea captain or battle-scared sailor would tell you, once one’s heading out to the vastness, most assumptions about logic and predicament should be left ashore, anyway. Even though oceans cover the majority of Earth’s surface, and humans have been crisscrossing them since pre-historical times, it still takes a special breed to brave them on a regular basis.
HERE COMES THE TSUNAMI DEBRIS
The Japanese boat, which was spotted by the Canadian Coast Guard and would’ve made it to shore if it hadn’t been sunk, was so nondescript, that its sight calls attention to a much more important issue, that completely upstage its appearance: the debris generated by the Hokkaido Earthquake that’s been slowing crossing the oceans towards the North American west coast.
Besides the obvious navigational hazard a ship that size can represent, detritus that were previously thought would cross the ocean only a year from now, are already making landfall throughout the coasts of U.S. and Canada and may increase in the coming months. That is, whatever is not caught in the vortex of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, itself a hazard in so many ways.
Still it’s interesting that it took a full year for the boat to be spotted and a small miracle to have avoided collision in the busy shipping lines between continents. The company that owns it has been notified, but there’s no plans at the moment to dispose of such a huge piece of rubbish. Thank goodness it’s not a tanker.
DOUBLE-JEOPARDY OF MARY CELESTE
Cargo was at the center of the enduring, cinematic mystery of the Mary Celeste. A tall ship, it was spotted 140 years ago navigating at full sail near the Azores Islands, with most of its crew’s personal belongings left intact but with no one aboard. It’s arguably the text-book for all ghost ship stories that came after it, including a memorable 1935 Hammer film with Bela Lugosi, and many other tales.
The crew and Capt. Benjamin Briggs, who reportedly may all have left ‘in a great hurry,’ simply vanished, never to be found again. And despite all sorts of theories about what doomed those people, the mystery of their disappearance remains intact to this day. To compound the Mary Celeste‘s enduring appeal, the ship’s history didn’t end there.
After it was restored, it lasted another 17 years, until it wrecked for good off the coast of Haiti. That crash was what caused her last captain, Gilman Parker, to face scrutiny and then a lengthy trial, charged with an elaborated insurance scam to defraud investors. The trial ended in a hung jury and Parker walked. But alas, his luck didn’t improve much and he died three months after it.
WHEN THE WAR CLIMBS ON DECK
The threat of being sunk by torpedo from a German U-boat was the most likely cause to what happened to the 3-masted sailing barge Zebrina, which run aground off the coast of France in 1917. The cargo was left intact but the crew was never found, the only but crucial element of the ship’s fate to have left a sinister mark on history books.
Everything seems to match the dominant theory about it, as it was common during both World Wars for commercial ships being bombed and sunk, either on purpose, for the content of their cargo or simply by mistake. In most cases, though, the crew was either rescued by an ally or spotted being eaten by sharks. The Zebrina crew didn’t seem to have had a chance for neither.
A curiosity about the schooner’s name is that Tradescantia zebrina “is a species of spiderwort more commonly known as an inch plant or wandering jew,’ according to Wikipedia. The fact has obviously nothing to do with the ship’s tragic fate, and the official persecution of Jewish people by Nazi Germany would begin only with WWII, some 20 years later. Still, we found it odd.
DOOMED BY THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE?
Neither crew nor their belongings or lifeboats were found also when the Carroll A. Deering ran aground on the shores of North Carolina in 1921. To this day, historians believe that what caused the mysterious end of the five-mast commercial schooner was a mutiny or a violent argument over some piracy bounty, which may have also caused the untimely demise of its crew and captain.
To others, the ship was doomed when it crossed the infamous Bermuda Triangle, sometime before the wreck, and they’re not about to let small facts such as nautical distance or the crew’s reputation to get in the way of their theory. The area, which has served as a coverup to many a foul-play or accidents related to poor-understood atmospheric conditions, has its own share of mystery too.
As an added level of allure to the fate of the Deering was that other powerful romantic image connected with the sea: the proverbial message in a bottle. Found by one Christopher Columbus Gray, it read like a call for help and it was written in a typical seamen lexicon. But at the end it strangely asks the finder to “Please notify Headquarters Deering,” not the Coast Guard or law authorities.
VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE MIND
There are other ghost stories around, of course. As Jungian psychology holds, the oceans are equated with the unconscious, the depths of imagination and the ever evolving imagery produced by the active mind. But even without the psychobabble, the bottom of the sea remains even more mysterious than the outer space, at least in terms of sheer knowledge about what’s going on down under.
After all, just yesterday film director James Cameron emerged from a breakthrough dive to Earth’s deepest point, the Mariana Trench that sits about seven miles below the Pacific island of Guam. He touched the bottom aboard a 12-ton craft of his own design, that promises to revolutionize the exploration of a vast region of our planet, virtually untouched by humans.
As a director whose greatest hit was Titanic, about the most famous shipwreck in history, Cameron naturally plans to edit and turn the material he filmed underwater into DVDs and TV specials. But further exploration of that unknown stretch of sea floor may represent an important scientific achievement, helping us understand a bit more about the oceans, the lure of ghost ships and our own minds.