I have, for whatever reason, a deep fascination with disasters and mysteries at sea. To the point that I’ve even watched several Really Bad™ ocean salvage movies (Ghost Ship [No relation] and Lost Voyage, I’m looking at you). And yes, I also saw Titanic.
But that’s not my point.
I do not spend a lot of time on the ocean, haven’t been on a boat in years (and haven’t been out of the breakwater on a boat or ship even longer ago than that), and yet these tragedies of the sea (the Indianapolis, the Lusitania, the Titanic, even stories of the Queen Mary’s time as a troop ship) hold a deep fascination for me.
So when I got Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and her Missing Crew for my birthday I dove right in.
Brian Hicks has clearly done his research; the book is a relatively slim volume at 304 pages (yes, really; I’m not sure how many pages come before the appendices) but the writing is quick and breezy and there were a few unexpected chuckles here and there. Including a story about a man at the New York docks who went to look at a ship for sale, saw the name on her bow, and ran screaming from the waterfront.
The story of the Mary Celeste is not just the story of the abandoned ship, adrift with all her hatches open and her sails half-furled, and whatever other details people believe about her. It’s also a story about a fledgling shipyard, a family of sailors nearly entirely lost to the sea, and the ill luck that attached itself to an otherwise average sailing vessel. Although Hicks goes into detail about the wheres and hows of her building (she was originally christened the Amazon, for example) it was never dull to read. The descriptions of the captain and her crew were informative, as well as what happened to her both before and after (penultimately, she was deliberately run aground with a hold full of rotting fish listed as expensive cargo; ultimately her remains were found by a group funded by Clive Cussler).
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this text, though, is how rumors about the ship most often began, and the lengths to which an irritated Irish judge would go to determine what happened to her crew.
If you like historical details, shipwrightry, or true mysteries, this book has a lot going for it. Hicks also suggests his theory for what happened on the Mary Celeste, but in the end it, too, is speculation.