Episode 6 Mary Celeste

Roger Meachem

Roger is a writer and ‘modern’ story-teller. He presents the Perennial Porridge Pot podcasts. All his tales contain facts (and at least one fib). The fun is in deciding which is which. He lives on the Scottish North Sea coast in a house that contains no straight lines. His default settings are Curiosity and Quirkiness.

The True Story of the Mary Celeste is appearing here in print for the first time having spent decades being told to the toughest critics to be found – children.

The True Story of the Mary Celeste.

You’ve all heard the tale of the Mary Celeste, the ghost ship? 

You haven’t? Well, look it up. Go on, do a search for Mary Celeste. Where’s the computer? It’s down in the cellar. Off you go.

You found out what?  There were no ghosts.  That’s right, I was just trying to get your attention. But there was a ship found abandoned on the high seas in 1872, a sailing ship. No crew, no captain’s wife, no children, just the ship sailing along. It’s been a mystery ever since. Arthur Conan Doyle – you know – Sherlock Holmes –  wrote a short story about it – he called the ship, in his tale, the Marie Celeste. There’ve been lots of guesses about what really happened. Was it mutiny? There was no sign of any fighting on the ship. Had they run out of food? No, there was plenty on board, in fact there were half eaten meals sitting on plates. Could it have been aliens? Don’t be silly! Let’s keep to the facts. The ship was sailing across the Atlantic from New York. The Captain, his wife and children and all the crew had disappeared. There was no damage to the ship apart from a couple of planks missing from the deck near the ship’s wheel. There were half eaten meals sitting on plates and some of the bunks had been left as though their occupants had got out of bed quite suddenly. But the hold was full of cargo so it couldn’t have been pirates.

Which brings me to a confession. You see, it’s a family secret, my family secret. We know what happened to the Mary Celeste. It’s about time I told the world.

I’ll begin with my Great, Great Grandad. Grandad Grizzle. This is the tale he told his children and they told theirs and so on. It has to be true. Grandad Grizzle said it was true. And it’s too good not to be true. And in any case, it fits the facts. 

Let’s begin with Grizzle. Great, Great, Grandad Grizzle. had never wanted to go to sea. He’d wanted to be a nurse. Florence Nightingale was all the rage just then, the pop star of the age, and Grizzle was desperate to be just like her. The cap, the candle, the works. But fate was set against him. You see, Grizzle had a wooden leg. He wasn’t born with a wooden leg and family history doesn’t say how he got a wooden leg, but one of his legs – I’ve no idea which – was wooden. Now that wouldn’t have prevented him becoming a nurse perhaps, but he also only had one eye. Even that didn’t stop Grizzle, he could hop like the wind and thread a needle with the best of them – providing someone held the needle, because Grizzle also had a hook instead of one of his hands. Well, you don’t get that far in the nursing profession with one leg, one eye and a hook for a hand. Not to mention the parrot. Grizzle’s pet parrot. But Pret a Manger the Parrot doesn’t come into the Mary Celeste story, so I won’t mention him. No, Grizzle had had to find a different job and piracy being out of fashion in the 1870s he took up work as a helmsman. He steered sailing ships. Grizzle was the helmsman on the Mary Celeste when she sailed out of New York in 1872.

On board Mary Celeste was the Captain, his wife and seventeen children, the crew and Great, Great, Grandad Grizzle. It was a good ship, a fast ship and plenty of food on board for the crew, but the Celeste wasn’t a happy ship. The problem was the Captain’s wife. You see, she was clever, very clever, easily the cleverest person on board. She knew more about sailing ships than anyone, she knew everything about the Mary Celeste from the bow to the stern, from the bilges to the mastheads. She also knew how to navigate, how to set the sails and all about signals. But this was 1872 and it was easier for a woman to be a pirate or a nurse than to be a captain. So her husband was captain. Of course, he knew who really had the brains. In private he always took her advice, but out on the open decks they pretended that he was in charge, that he commanded the ship. His wife had only one job to do, she did the laundry. 

She hated doing the laundry. It was the old fashioned rub-a-dub-dub washing in a tub. You try washing clothes in a tub the size of a bath all day long. And sailors’ clothes get all tarry, that’s why sailors used to be called old tars. Try getting tar out of clothes when all you’ve got is soap. Then there were the children; they got covered in tar as well. Worse than that, they explored the bilges. You know what kind of things you find in a ship’s bilges – you don’t? Don’t ask. But the clothes had to be washed and the children had to be bathed, daily! The sailors took baths on the second Sundays of every month unless the month had an ‘R’ or a ‘Y’ in it. On those months the captain took a bath. Don’t ask me why – it’s an old sailing custom. Great, Great Grandad Grizzle didn’t take baths at all. He claimed he didn’t need them since he was steering and waves would wash over him quite often.

The Captain’s wife lasted one week doing all that laundry before she had an idea. She found a great length of thin rope in one of the ship’s lockers and caught hold of a passing child. Ignoring its shrieks she threaded the rope up through a shirt sleeve and down through a trouser leg before letting the child go. She did this with each of her children, the rope went up a shirt sleeve and down a trouser leg (they all wore trousers). Now all seventeen children were free to scamper, but joined by the rope. She didn’t stop there. One by one she caught each sailor, rope up a sleeve, rope down a trouser leg until all the sailors were free, but joined by the rope. She didn’t stop there. Soon the Captain was on the rope, protesting, but on the rope. She did stop there. She looked at Moby, but decided she didn’t want the bother of washing his clothes.

This wasn’t the end of her cleverness. Now she set up a complicated system of pulley wheels all around the ship and finally, once she was ready, she filled her tub with hot soapy water and pulled hard on her rope.

The first child came shrieking up and out of a hatch. It’d been eating breakfast and still held a porridge spoon. No matter, child and spoon went into the tub, rub-a-dub-dub until it was clean, then, when the Captain’s wife pulled on her rope the clean, but dripping  child found itself hoist up amongst the sails and left there to dry.

The same thing happened with the next child, and the next until all the children were hanging to dry amongst the rigging. 

The Captain’s wife was stronger than she looked and in any case the pulleys made the task easier so now when she next  pulled on her rope a sailor appeared through the hatch, plucked from his hammock and still fast asleep. No matter, into the tub he went and soon he too was up amongst the rigging hanging out to dry. One by one each sailor and the clothes he was wearing was washed. Finally the Captain, still protesting and then all was done and his wife could put her feet up and enjoy a cup of tea and her book.

It went on like this day by day. The Captain’s wife liked having everyone clean and ship-shape. She found she got through much more reading than before – right now she was learning all about steam engines and how to improve them. She was dreaming about inventing a steam powered washing tub. Grizzle didn’t mind not having children shrieking and running all over the ship and he kept busy steering and polishing his hook. It was the sailors who were most upset. They were being washed every day even though there was a  letter ‘Y’. And, you never knew when you’d be yanked out of your bed or away from your breakfast or dinner and into the tub. Even worse, the Captain’s wife didn’t change the water. Imagine landing in a wash tub that umpteen people had been washed in before you, a washtub that also contained bits of people’s breakfasts and dinners. But worst of all was the indignity of being hauled up into the rigging and left there to dry – sometimes upside down. Sailors on board passing ships would point and laugh and make jokes. 

Still, all would have gone well and the Mary Celeste would have reached her destination with her cargo and her very clean crew had it not been for Grizzle’s hobby.

Some people collect matchboxes, some people collect toy soldiers, some people collect hats and some collect shoes. Great, Great Grandfather Grizzle collected whales. He had nearly collected the full set: Beaked and Minke, Beluga and Blue, Humpback and Orca, Right and Wrong. But he had one missing from the collection, one whale he’d been hunting his whole life, the white whale known as Moby Dick. And one fine morning, just before the Captain’s wife began her daily wash, Grizzle saw Moby on the horizon and steered the Mary Celeste towards his prey. 

As he got closer, he prepared his harpoon. But let me be clear, he didn’t have a harpoon spear, he didn’t intend to hurt the whale. Grizzle wouldn’t have hurt a fly let alone a whale. He had a harpoon sucker. As the Mary Celeste came closer and closer to Moby Dick, who was sunning himself and lying half asleep on the waves, Grandfather Grizzle licked the sucker, aimed the harpoon and launched it across the sea. 

It splatted onto Moby Dick’s back, tickling the monster. The whale woke up, saw the ship and began to swim away as fast as it could.

Now, Grizzle wasn’t dim, he knew the whale might try to escape and he’d prepared for that emergency. He’d tied a handy rope, a thin rope onto the handle of his harpoon. 

The whale sped over the waves, the rope sped out of the ship after him and the first child came shrieking out of the hatch, followed by another, and another, and another. That was a little upsetting, but what was worse was that the children were followed by the sailors and finally by the captain.

The Captain’s wife had run a turn of the rope around her waist, now she gripped the washtub and held on tight, but the whale was too strong, he lifted her and the washtub both straight off the ship. 

Grandfather Grizzle hadn’t been idle either while all this had been happening. He found the loose end of the rope and tied it around his middle, then he found a knot hole in a deck-plank near the wheel and screwed his wooden leg into the hole. On his other leg he wore a hobnailed boot and this he stamped into another plank so that he was firmly attached to the ship. But all to no avail. Moby Dick was simply too strong and pulled Grandfather off the deck with the two planks attached to him.

So it was that the Mary Celeste was found abandoned on the high seas in 1872. No crew, no captain’s wife, no children, just the ship sailing along with two planks missing from near the ship’s wheel. And that was how Grandad Grizzle invented water skiing. 

The children? The crew? The Captain and his wife? Its not certain you know, but there was a tiny Pacific Island discovered in the early 1890’s inhabited by a whole bunch of people claiming to have been marooned there. The cleanest bunch of marooned people ever found, was the report at the time. ‘They all looked like angels.’ So the island was named Angel Island. Ships used to call there to get their laundry done. You can find it on all the best maps.

Each episode begins and ends with excerpts from ‘Rain’ by Martin Stephenson, sung by Helen McCookerybook.

Sound effects under licence from Zapsplat and Freesound: Bumplesnake, Hoerspielwerkst.

The author retains copyright to The True Story of the Mary Celeste.

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