Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Ghost Ship Carroll A. Deering

There's an area off the coast of North Carolina's outer banks that is both mysterious and deadly.  It's an area of treacherous waters where the cold Labrador current meets the warm waters of the gulf stream.  Strong offshore winds help create a perfect spot for low and high pressure weather systems to collide.  These dangerous waters earned the nickname 'graveyard of the Atlantic' due to the high number of shipwrecks and the countless human lives lost in the region.  Since the 1500s, sailors have been wary of the area, yet still it claims ships and lives.

It's here that one of the greatest maritime mysteries of the ages was born. 
The Carroll A. Deering was a five-masted schooner built in Bath, Maine by the G.G. Deering Company.  Although it was a cargo ship, the Deering had features unheard of for the period including a bathroom with plumbing and cabins with electricity.  The ship was built to move cargo from South America to ports on the east coast of the United States.

The ship was captained by William Merritt along with first mate, S.E. Merritt, his son.  Complications were almost immediate.  In August 1920, after leaving port in Norfolk, Virginia, Captain Merritt became seriously ill.  The ship had to make an unscheduled stop at the port of Lewes, Delaware so he could be attended to.  Merritt's illness was so severe that he could not continue the voyage.  His son decided to stay in Lewes to help care for his father leaving the ship without a Captain or first mate.  The company scrambled to find replacements and hired Captain W.B. Wormell to guide the ship along with a man named Charles McLellan as first mate.

Under Wormell, the ship made it to Rio de Janeiro late in 1920.  It departed Rio on December 2, 1920 on route back to company headquarters in Maine.  Captain Wormell decided to stop in Barbados to pick up additional supplies and give the crew some time to relax.

Wormell met with an old friend and fellow Captain named Goodwin.  During the visit, Wormell told Goodwin that the only crew member he could trust was the engineer, Herbert Bates.  Wormell's first mate, McLellan, clearly didn't like his Captain and was overheard in town complaining about the man.  He even threatened to kill the Captain before the voyage was over.  McLellan got so out of hand that he was arrested and charged for being drunk and disorderly.  Despite his expressed hatred of Wormell, the Captain bailed the first mate out anyway so they could continue the trip.  The ship finally left Barbados on January 9, 1921.

Nothing was heard from the Carroll A. Deering until January 28, 1921 when it was sighted off of Cape Lookout Lightship.  The Lightship's keeper, Captain Jacobson reported that a thin, red headed man with a foreign accent was shouting from the deck of the vessel.  The man was not dressed as an officer which Jacobson found strange.  The thin man called out that the ship had lost its anchors and to please get a message to the Deering company.  Jacobson also reported that the crew of the Deering was clustered on the quarterdeck.  A most unusual behavior.
The ship drifted away but its bad luck continued.  The Lightship keeper was not able to contact the Deering headquarters because his radio was broken.  He attempted to contact a passing steamer by blowing the Lightship's whistle but the steamer ignored the call.  This too was unusual because maritime law required a response.  Adding to the mystery of the steamer, Jacobson could not see a name anywhere on the ship.

On January 31, 1921, the Carroll A. Deering was found on a sandbar on Diamond Shoals near Cape Hatteras.  Diamond Shoals is known as one of the most treacherous bodies of water in the world.  It lies just off the barrier islands of the North Carolina coast.  The Deering's sails were set, all lifeboats were gone and the crew was nowhere to be found.  Due to rough seas, rescue crews couldn't board the ship until February 4th.  What they found only added to the mystery.  The ship's navigational instruments were gone as well as the personal possessions of the crew members.  The galley was set as if the crew was about to sit down for a meal.  In the Captain's quarters, three different pairs of boots were discovered.  The spare bed in the Captain's room had clearly been slept in.  The ship's logs were another mystery as they were obviously written by Captain Wormell but only until January 23 when the handwriting changed.  The only living being on the vessel was a six toed cat.

Since it was impossible to rescue the ship from the sandbar, it was abandoned.  By March of 1921, the ship was determined to be a hazard and was dynamited.  Before its destruction, timber was salvaged that was later used in a number of houses in nearby Buxton.

There were dozens of theories that attempted to explain what had happened to the ship.  Did the crew mutiny?  Were they the victims of pirates? 
An official investigation was launched to try to solve the mystery of the Carroll A. Deering.  Numerous theories were presented.  The ship's crew had mutinied, they were victims of pirates, hurricanes, communists.  They had decided to become rum runners, or perhaps the cursed ship had fallen prey to some supernatural force.  The investigation was closed in 1922 without resolution.  No official explanation was ever given to explain the strange disappearance of the ship's crew.

Some theories have even proposed that the ship fell victim to the strange forces of the Bermuda Triangle.  Although the Deering did sail through the dreaded triangle, the ship and it's crew were spotted well after they had exited it, so there is little evidence to support a connection.

Over the years, ghostly ships have been reported off the shores of the outer banks.  Phantom images of another time that fade away or vanish into the mist.  Are these simply illusions, residual forms or something else?  Perhaps the spirits of lost ships and sailors still roam the seas of the Atlantic, looking for resolution.  The answer to the mystery of the Carroll A. Deering remains unsolved and it's unlikely that the graveyard of the Atlantic will ever give up all of its secrets.

North Carolina has a museum devoted to the Graveyard of the Atlantic.  You can visit their website below:

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