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sinbad's genie and the mary celeste

James H. Kimball, Meteorologist

Mary Celeste, the Argosy of an Abandoned Ship, by Charles Edey Foy, invites a critical examination of the weather leading up to the mystery of that modern Flying Dutchman found forsaken on the High Seas 70 years ago. There can be no further question as to the trustworthiness of her owners, her underwriters, her master, Captain Briggs or her crew, neither can any doubt remain as to seamanship or soundness of vessel.

water spout and clipper ship
A waterspout at sea In: The Atmosphere translated by
James Glaisher, 1873 From the work of Camille Flammarion
Figure 65, p. 351

Undoubtedly the ship left New York properly loaded. Captain Briggs came to New York on October 20th, 1872 for the purpose of supervising the loading, selecting his officers and crew and seeing that all was well for the start. On November 3rd, four days before he sailed, he wrote his mother: “Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage”. Furthermore, that a man of Captain Briggs’ proved seamanship would willfully abandon a staunch vessel is a suggestion so completely at variance with tradition as to make it incredible as well as repellent to men of the sea.

Some catastrophic situation must be envisaged before one can believe that the Captain would judge an overloaded lifeboat in a rough sea as providing a greater measure of safety for his family and crew than did his own vessel, which he had ample reason to think to be sound. Yet many thousands, both landlubbers and mariners, have believed and do now believe that the entire ship’s company of ten put off from the Mary Celeste in her small boat and were lost: all this in despite of the fact that there is nothing in the testimony brought out in the Vice-Admiralty Court salvage proceedings at Gibraltar to establish the belief that a lifeboat was lowered.

Notwithstanding, those who have given the most painstaking consideration to all available facts are inclined to consider tentative abandonment as the least objectionable solution– the intention being to bring the boat back to the ship by the aid of a towline if and when the threat had disappeared. This presupposes a state of panic; otherwise, how could the assumption, that the boat was safer than the ship, be maintained for a period of time sufficient to prepare and launch the boat? The state of panic presupposes a terrifying surprise occasioned, as is presumed by many, by an explosion in the hold. But if there was an explosion it occurred after two hatch covers had been removed and properly placed on deck. This methodical handling of hatch covers does not suggest the work of men in a state of panic, neither does the collection of the navigating instruments and the ship’s papers, presumably to be carried off the ship; for all of them were missing when the vessel was discovered. The vessel was loaded with alcohol.

To support the assumption that the vessel was abandoned, it is necessary to presuppose a lapse of time sufficient to unlash and right the boat on deck, stow the instruments, ship’s papers, a cask of water and some provisions, get the boat over the side and onto a rough sea, make fast the towline and get ten people, including the Captain’s wife and child, into the boat. Certainly all this could not be done in less than five minutes by a panicky crew.

It would seem likely that in the five long minutes of preparation, at least someone would have regained his sense of reality and have refused to leave the vessel; and, in that event, there is a strong probability that a survivor would have been found by the boarding party. Had the vessel been abandoned in a panic the boat’s lashings would have been cut, not loosened by fumbling fingers; but neither their frayed ends nor any attached part of the towline were observed by Mate Deveau, commanding the boarding party from the Dei Gratia, which sighted the desolate Mary Celeste December 4, 1872.

The abandonment theory could better be supported if complete separation were envisioned. This would eliminate the suggestion of the use of a towline, and, at the same time justify the spread of canvas as left for the purpose of securing the greatest possible distance from the vessel. The explosion surmise calls for more careful consideration of the probable loading than appears in the evidence.

Nine barrels were found empty at Genoa on March 26th, 1873: they had been in the hold since November 3rd, when Captain Briggs reported that the vessel was in “beautiful trim”. The barrels were not reported at Genoa as broken, merely empty, so it so it may be assumed that their contents had seeped away gradually. Each barrel probably contained 50 gallons. Such barrels would be approximately 30 inches high, 20 inches in diameter at the head and 24 inches at the bung. This figures to a total of about 17,000 cubic feet, to which must be added 25% for broken stow, bringing the total to 21,250 cubic feet. This is only a few hundred cubic feet less than the capacity of the hold of the vessel, which was approximately 100 feet long, 30 feet wide and 12 feet deep.

Consequently, the vessel must have been loaded to within a few inches of the deck. Such a loading would leave, in conformance with standard practice, a freeboard amidships of about 3 feet.

Mate Deveau, of the Dei Gratia, testified that on boarding the Mary Celeste he found “a great deal of water below decks - the forward house, full of water up to the coaming– everything wet in the cabin in which there had been a great deal of water”. Second Mate John Wright testified that, on boarding the vessel with Mate Deveau, “there was water in the cabin, between decks and in the forehouse”. Augustus Anderson, seaman, also in the boarding party, testified, “the cabin was wet– everything was wet in it, the clothes and all. There was three foot and a half of water in the hold, there was a good deal of water between decks and also in the forwardhouse”. This testimony relates to conditions found on December 4th.

On December 23rd the surveyor at Gibraltar reported having found under the forward hatch “a new hawser which had never been used and was perfectly dry– had any quantity of water found its way through this hatch the hawser would have exhibited signs of having been wetted. It exhibited none nor did any other of the articles which I observed here”. Presumably, then, some of the water found by the boarding party on December 4th had come into the hold after November 24th through leaky floors. Ordinarily, in the Mary Celeste’s time, floors in cargo vessels were not water-tight. Loosely planked floors would permit the escape of alcohol vapor into the living quarters if there were a dangerous accumulation of so odorous a fume in the nine days of voyage when the sleeping quarters were almost constantly occupied. Had there been fumes in sufficient quantity to cause apprehension the fact would have been noted in the ship’s log.

No doubt the barrels were stowed to within a few inches of the deck– stowed in tiers on their sides, bungs up and end-to-end. Such a stow suggests gradual leakage in several places and localized accumulation of alcohol with subsequent vaporization and permeation of the approximately 400 cubic feet of otherwise unoccupied space.

The discovery of the nine empty barrels was made when the vessel was unloaded at Genoa, about twenty weeks after loading in New York. On the assumption that each barrel originally held 50 gallons the loss would have been 450 gallons, at the rate of 3.2 gallons per day. If the leakage was gradual and if it began at the time of sailing, the total leakage up to November 25th would have been approximately 73.4 gallons. The fact that the free-space consisted of a thin layer just under the deck supplemented by many small interstices does not in itself weaken the explosion theory; but the fortuitous occurrence of a detonating spark caused by the rubbing together of metal barrel-hoops in a space containing a sufficient explosive-mixture concentration, during the relatively quiet period after four days of storminess throws grave doubt on it.

In the 70 years since the disaster fancy has run rife in search of an explanation. There have been stories built up from conceptions of fraud, mutiny, drunkenness, panic, yellow fever and, to cite perhaps the most imaginative, the picking off of the ship’s company, one by one, by an octopus. But nowhere does there appear more than a superficial consideration of weather as a possible cause beyond speculation that the vessel did not go through a severe storm. And yet, all that happened could have been done by a waterspout.

The plan of the voyage would be laid down before the vessel left Sandy Hook, and sine the ship was to be heavily laden the course selected would be that recommended for sailing vessels, i.e., east until reaching the 50th meridian; then about east-southeast until nearing the island of Santa Maria; then east-northeast to pass north of the island and reach the current normally flowing east-southeast.

Normally, such a course would avoid much of the storminess well known to prevail farther north in November.

Plottings now available show the likelihood of gales in the 5° zone next north of the 40° parallel between longitude 40°W and the Azores to be nearly twice as great as in the corresponding 5° zone to the south of the 40° parallel.

Also it would be good seamanship to pass to the northward of the island of Santa Maria since from that location the set of the current leads directly into Gibraltar. Moreover, in November the set leads through a region less liable to calms than does the more southerly approach. The choice of course, to the north or to the south of Santa Maria would necessarily remain open until the ship neared the island, since the Dollabaret Shoal, 21 miles to the northeast of the island, presents a difficult problem.

Presumably, it was Captain Briggs who chose the northerly course. A less experienced navigator would not care to risk the more dangerous passage which the circumstances requires must be made on a stormy night. This suggestion is in refutation of the charge that a mutiny had deprived the Captain of his command.


On November 7th, when the voyage was begun, and for the two following days, an area of low pressure was moving slowly eastward across New England and the maritime provinces. Then, on the 10th, there followed an area of high barometer holding to westerly the winds that had come from that direction since the beginning of the voyage. On the 12th another low approached from the lower Lake Region and the winds off-shore responded by shifting to southerly, but, as the low passed rapidly across New England, they soon resumed their original course. Then followed another high sustaining the westerly winds. This succession of lows and highs, none of which was of considerable development, gives reasonable assurance of fair winds and moderate weather for the first part of the passage.

The assumption of the officers of the Dei Gratia that storms prevailed for most of the time between the departure of the Mary Celeste on November 7th and her abandonment on the 25th, because such was their experience in starting from New York eight days later, disregards the normal behavior of Atlantic storms. Storms of the Atlantic ocean that would affect the Dei Gratia usually bear northeastward, crossing the middle part of the European Shipping Route. They are of only moderate frequency in November, and rarely are they diverted to easterly, as would be necessary to reach the location of the Mary Celeste some 1200 miles ahead.

The theory of similar weather experienced by both vessels is offered as the basis for the belief that the hold of the Mary Celeste had not been ventilated from the time the vessel left New York.

The weather experienced during the latter part of the voyage is indicated in the experience of the Dei Gratia, then in the same meteorological neighborhood; the heading of the derelict when found, and official reports provided by the meteorological Service of the Azores.

According to the testimony in the Vice Admiralty Court the Dei Gratia was in winds from the northward on December 3rd and part of the night of the 3–4th. These subsided in the forenoon of the 4th and probably shifted to southerly in the middle of the day. Under such circumstances, the greatest distance that the Mary Celeste could have been to southward of a direct course to Gibraltar would be less than 10 miles. During the four preceding days she must have been drifting to southward under the then prevailing northerly winds as reported by the Dei Gratia. That surmise places the derelict well to the north of her course on December 1st.

There seems to be no sound approach to an estimate of this departure other than to make it fit as nearly as possible to a straight-line drift (378 ½ miles) between the known locations, i.e., those of November 25th and December 4th; and hold the average speed to be less than 4 knots, the near-maximum for an uncontrolled vessel of this sort with shortened sail. If the vessel is considered to have been propelled at an average speed of 2 knots for the 222 hours between noon of November 25th and noon of December 4th, the distance covered is found to be 444 miles, or a departure of 65 ½ miles from the direct course. But from December 1st to the night of December 3–4th, the drift was to southward. Consequently, between November 25th and December 1st the Mary Celeste must have been pushed to the northward. Assuming the drifts to be approximately equal, the vessel would have been, on December 1st, near 39° 30' N, 22° west.

From this speculation, the Mary Celeste must have experienced winds prevailingly south of west from November 25th as reported by the Meteorological office at the Azores and another period of light airs on December 4th as reported by the Dei Gratia.

The winds immediately preceding the lull on November 25th may be inferred from the state of the sails that were found set, i.e, the lower topsail hanging by the four corners, the jib and fore-topmast staysail set on the starboard tack, the middle staysail and topmast staysail lowered, and the mainsail, gaff-topsail, topgallant-sail and royal furled. The foresail and upper foretopsail had been blown away.

That both sails on the mainmast and the two uppermost sails on the foremast were furled indicate that increasing storminess was anticipated early enough to allow time for the completion of this much of the job. Why the main-staysail and topmast-staysail were not furled is open to speculation, but it is more likely their condition indicates the end of an uncompleted job than that the hoisting of more canvas had been started with these two sails.

Persistent north winds recorded in the Dei Gratia’s log as prevailing for four days preceding December 4th suggest a slow moving low proceeding eastward on a course well to the northward of the Azores. This is not unusual. A file of daily Atlantic charts for the first week in December shows such a storm on December 3–6th, 1925 and another on December 1–5th, 1929. Besides, it is to be expected that a fresh to strong northerly wind continuing for four days along the Dei Gratia’s course would reach to the Mary Celeste never more than 250 miles to the southward. A fresh 4-day northerly wind of such spread is a logical development in the Azores region when a slow-moving low approaches Southwest Europe.

The records of the meteorological stations in the Azores show stormy conditions prevailing on November 24th and 25th, the wind shifting from southwest to northwest between 3 P.M. and 9 P.M. November 25th. At the time of this shift (9 P.M.) The station at Ponta Delgarda reported a wind 38 miles an hour. During the forenoon of the 25th the winds were light but later they became of gale-force. The record does not state how much later, but presumably it was on the same day. This suggests that storm moving to the eastward provided the gales after the calm of the 25th, also the fresh to strong westerly winds experienced by the Dei Gratia on December 1–4th.

Only a short quiet time-interval need be assumed between the differing winds since it is a common experience for vessels on a north Atlantic passage to report successive days of strong “westerlies” shifting from southwest to northwest and back.

Presumably, then, the mainsail, gaff-topsail, topgallant-sail and royal were lowered and furled at about 8 P.M. of the 24th when the weather became threatening and a large part of the crew was available for the task.

Since the Dei Gratia made 150 miles between noons December 3rd and 4th on a southeasterly course or 6.2 m.p.h. she must have had made only 90 miles in the 24 hours next preceding the sighting of the Mary Celeste. According to the testimony the wind in this period had been strong but it became light by the time the derelict was sighted. No mention was made of a shift so it would seem that the change to east-southeast occurred after the wind had subsided.

This indicates that the two vessels were on approximately the same course on December 3rd and 4th , the Mary Celeste being to the southward and leading but being overtaken during the night, and that a short time before, say, in the forenoon of December 4th, the wind shifted to east-southeast and the Mary Celeste came to a west-northwest course when probably not more than 10 miles from the place where she was discovered. The record shows that the Dei Gratia made in the preceding 24 hours ending December 1st, 200 miles; 2nd, 162 miles; 3rd, 150 miles, and 4th, 90 miles.

Likely, in the neighborhood of the Mary Celeste, the wind was south of west most of the time from November 25th to December 1st, since from November 27th while the Dei Gratia was approaching from the 20th parallel– that vessel had winds that were mostly west-northwest to northwest.

According to Mate Deveau, when the Mary Celeste was discovered, “The wind was to the northward, not much then, although it had been blowing heavily in the morning with rain and squalls– her head to the northward”, and from the testimony of the second-mate: “The head of the other vessel was northwest-by-north as far as I could judge”. The wind must have been from northwesterly all night to account for the speed, 8 knots, made by the Dei Gratia.

But, when sighted, the Mary Celeste was 4 to 6 miles on the Dei Gratia’s port or windward bow when the Dei Gratia was heading southeast by east. Under these circumstances it would be impossible to judge very closely the course of the Mary Celeste, but if she was making 1 to 2 knots, it seems likely that she must have been headed about west-northwest, assuming that the wind direction was the same in the location of both vessels; and, that since shortly after 4 A.M., the Mary Celeste’s wind was light east-southeast.

The gradual lulling of a northwest wind in the morning of November 25th and other circumstances to be commented on later, suggests a waterspout as the cause of the disaster.

Waterspouts are more frequent in the general neighborhood of the disaster than elsewhere in the eastern part of the Atlantic, and many have been observed there in November; in fact, the November frequency is only 2% less than that of October, the month in which the largest number has been observed in that area. The spouts usually occur in the lull between southerly and northerly winds, for at that time the cool air aloft overflows the warm surface drift producing a steep temperature lapse rate and the convective instability essential to their formation.

In the development of a waterspout warm moist air rising to an elevation of 1,000 feet or more develops a thick black cloud from which a vortex-tube thrusts downward. In the meantime, the ocean near the point of approach becomes agitated and later the disturbed surface is circumscribed by a ring of spray. As the whirling tube grows, it becomes a cylinder containing rising air mixed with fresh and salt water, while the encircling spray mounds up around the tip of the vortex giving it a bulbous appearance.

Well developed spouts remain intact usually for more than 15 minutes, during which time large quantities of water are accumulated in the parent cloud, whence rain descending around the vortex and mixing with the spray falls to produce the so-called cascade.

In many other respects waterspouts appear to be lawless. They form in both settled and stormy weather; they may travel at any angle, down wind, athwart wind, or against wind. Sometimes they have only a slight forward movement, at other times their speed exceeds 75 miles an hour. Sometimes they are alone, and again in groups numbering two to ten or even twenty. They have been reported in all hours of the day and night but more frequently around dawn and mid-day. The average waterspout has a diameter of 20 feet and travels 13 miles an hour.

Meteorological literature contains many accounts of vessels that have been seriously damaged and others that have been destroyed in encounters with these weather outlaws. Usually, in the daytime, a steamer has but little difficulty in avoiding waterspouts but for a sailing vessel, particularly at night and becalmed, they are among the major perils of the sea.

One of the largest waterspouts of which there are dependable measurements was observed from Cottage City, Massachusetts, during the generally fair weather prevailing on August 19, 1896. The following are some of the measurements:

Diameter of the spout at bottom............... 240 feet
Diameter of cascade............... 720 feet
Height of cascade............... 420 feet
Diameter of vortex at middle............... 144 feet
Diameter just at base of cloud............... 840 feet
Approximate height of tube............... 3600 feet

Another waterspout was observed from the Weather Bureau office overlooking the Upper Bay, New York Harbor, September 5, 1924. The tube of this one did not reach to the water surface, but the invisible whirl of air in the intervening space was damaging to a south-bound steam lighter that was unable to get clear of it. The parent cloud covered almost the entire upper Bay at an elevation of about 1,000 feet, while the funnel, at the stage of its greatest development, reached to within 500 feet of the water surface.

At the cloud base the diameter of the tube was between 300 and 400 feet, whence it tapered to a flattened extremity 100 feet across. Directly below this funnel, and advancing northeastward with it, there arose a conical whirl of mist and spray. From a water area about 100 feet across, the cone extended to a flattened top having a diameter of 50 to 60 feet.

The phenomenon was viewed from a distance too great to disclose whether or not at any time harbor water was elevated in quantity sufficient to produce a cascade. It was visible for four minutes, during which time it traveled about 4,000 feet or to within one half mile of the point of observation. There was no visible rain in the immediate vicinity of the spout, but a sharp shower occurred before it formed and another after it dissipated.

The mound of whirling air, spray and mist enveloped the lighter, tearing away the tarpaulin that had covered the deck-load and transported overboard seven bales each weighing 125 pounds. The bales that were amidships and those on the port side were not disturbed, nor was the lighter damaged materially.

Another spout, described to the writer as part of the early sea-going experience of a thoroughly trustworthy witness was encountered while he was mate of a barkentino loaded with lumber and bound from Brunswick, Georgia for Las Palmas, Canary Islands. The vessel had just crossed the Gulf Stream and the time was between 11:00 p.m. and midnight. The southwest wind had become a light air. But the sky was inky black and so threatening that sail had been shortened in anticipation of a squall. The spout came suddenly out of the northeast, passing over the forward part of the vessel.

In a matter of seconds, the whirling wind struck, first on the port side causing the vessel to lurch violently, then on the starboard side, throwing her in the opposite direction. Quantities of water were shipped. When the spout struck, the mate was on one side of the ship and three sailors were on the other; but when the spout had passed, all four found themselves crowded in a space left in the cargo, up to their necks in water.

The lower sails, yards and rigging of the foremast were found in a tangle wound around the fore-topmast, while all spars, sails and rigging farther aloft had been carried away. Yet where the Captain stood at the wheel the passing of the spout was inconsequential.

In establishing the time of the catastrophe of the Mary Celeste as the middle of the forenoon the earlier investigators had access to the ship’s log, which has sine disappeared, and to the testimony of Mate Deveau as to entries found on the log slate.

The log write-up to noon of November 24th appeared to have been complete while as to the memoranda on the slate, all that was recalled was the following: “At 8, Eastern Point bore SSW”. All writings on the slate were erased by Mate Deveau to provide space for the record beginning when he took charged. On the witness stand he did not recall whether or not there were other notes on the slate. This uncertainty weakens his statement as to his recollection of the note quoted.

The only other support for the widely accepted timing is the testimony regarding the condition in which the galley and cabin were found when the derelict was first boarded. Two items are important, namely, (1) There was no evidence of preparation of a meal, nor of one having been recently served, and (2) the beds were not made.

In sailing ship’s routine, the cook is called at 5 a.m. and shortly thereafter preparations for breakfast are begun. Then there is but little respite until after the mid-day dinner. Such a schedule leaves the middle afternoon and the night and the very early morning as the only considerable periods in the 24 hours in which there are no signs of activity in the galley. Furthermore, the surmise that the catastrophe occurred in the period between breakfast and dinner runs afoul of the ritual of the housewife of that period.

It is hardly believable that a woman of Mrs. Briggs’ upbringing would leave her beds unmade until the middle of the forenoon. Mate Deveau may not have recalled correctly the note he found on the log slate, but whatever may have been the hour of the disaster the following situation seems to fit the known facts.

The log book was found written up to and including noon of November 24th, on which day the winds were fresh to strong northerly. During the following morning the wind subsided as shown by the records of the Meteorological Service.

The main and lazarret hatches were found removed. This must have been done on the morning of the 25th since no other suitable period for ventilating the hold had occurred for several days previously.

Sine the wind before November 25th had for four days been blowing from some northerly direction, the air over the region must have been abnormally cold. With the lulling of the wind, the air-mass would begin to warm, the process proceeding upward from the water’s surface. This would set up a steepening temperature lapse rate, and produce the state of convective instability precedent to formation of a waterspout.

On the assumption that the vessel was struck by a waterspout, some such situation as the following becomes reasonable.

A fully developed spout is observed approaching from the southwest. It bears down on the vessel so rapidly that nothing can be done to mitigate the onslaught. The whole shop’s company gathers in a terrified huddle. The southerly blast to the right of the center of the vortex strikes the vessel, causing it to lurch violently to port; as it is being righted the tube passes over; its circling wind from the north careens the ship to starboard, the deckload of water shipped when the Mary Celeste careened swoops across the deck.

Passage of the waterspout’s vortex over the vessel would require but a few seconds, the twinkling of an eye, and in that moment the entire ship’s company, and the boat they hoped would save them, are swept into the sea, which buries its secret with the dead.

October 10, 1942

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