Carroll A. Deering - The Ghost Ship
Carroll A. Deering was a large cargo ship, 255-foot long, more than 44-foot wide, weighing 1,879 tons and having five masts. Why is it connected with Bermuda Triangle and known as a Ghost Ship? Because it passed through a long stretch of the triangle area before it was found abandoned and wrecked without a soul on board. And interestingly, none of the crew members ever surfaced or could ever be traced.
The schooner was built in the shipyard of Bath (Maine) of U.S in the year 1919 by the well known company G.G. Deering. The owner of the company G G Deering named the ship after his son Carroll. It was the last in the fleet of about 100. It was a brand new ship and had served only for over a year when it was scheduled for its last and mysterious voyage.
In late August of 1921 the ship was scheduled to pick up coal at Norfolk in Virginia and then go all the way to Rio de Jeneiro of Brazil to unload the coal, and then return home to Maine.
The Last Journey
The ship would be captained by William H. Merritt, who was also a part owner of the ship. So he used his privilege and selected his 29 year old son as the first mate. 9 other crew members were selected quickly (all Scandinavians) which made it 11 in total. In Late August, Carroll A. Deering set sail.
But after having left Boston, the captain Merritt fell seriously ill. He could no longer continue. The ship was diverted to the port at Lewes, Delaware where he had to be let off. His son too got off to take care of his sick father. Both father and son thus unknowingly escaped one of the biggest maritime misfortunes. However captain Merritt noted that he did not like the crew.
Now the Deering company had to find a new captain, and they did. They appointed a 66-year old retired veteran Captain W. B. Wormell, a big man weighing some 198 pounds as the new leader of the ship. Another man named Charles B. McLellan, who later took the center stage of the story was hired as the new first mate. The vessel then set sail again and finally reached Rio de Jeneiro on September 8, 1921 without any further hiccups.
While the forward journey up to Rio was without any apparent hitch, there was something brewing. And that became apparent after reaching Rio. Having gone through a long and tiresome journey, Captain Wormell offered leave to his crewmen to unwind themselves.
Wormell then met with his old friend Captain Goodwin. During this meeting Wormell sounded concerned and mentioned that he did not like his First Mate McLellan at all and thought he was useless and at the same time a trouble maker. But both agreed that the first engineer in the ship Herbert Bates was quite efficient and a good man. He could be relied upon in case of any problem. Captain Goodwin also knew Bates quite well.
On December 2nd, 1921 the vessel started its return journey. That the first mate McLellan was a trouble maker and a bad man got finally surfaced when the ship docked at Barbados (in Caribbean) for supplies. Here McLellan got drunk and complained against his captain Wormell to another captain Norton and his first mate. McLellan in fact stated that he himself had to do all the navigation due to Wormell's poor eyesight and also had to control the crew who were becoming often restless due to Wormell's interference. In a cafe, Captain Norton and his aides also heard McLellan shouting that he will kill Captain Wormell before they reached home.
McLellan was arrested in a drunken state and put behind the bar. But the merciful captain Wormell went out of his way and got McLellan released from the lock up. On January 9th 1921, Caroll A. Deering set sail again from Barbados for their home at Portland, Maine.
The Final Stretch
It is after setting homebound sail from Barbados when things started going horribly wrong. On January 29th, 1921 the ship was spotted by a lightship at Cape Lookout (North Carolina). A lightship is an anchored ship which guides other ships passing by with its lights and radio communication.
The Captain of the lightship Jacobson heard a crewman from Carroll A. Deering hailing at him saying they had lost their anchors and that needed to be reported to the parent company (i.e. G G Deering). The ship Deering however did not stop and cruised past beyond sight.
Carroll A Deering as last seen from
the Lightship at Cape Lookout
Photo by: US Coast Guard / Wikimedia Commons
Jacobson in his note recorded that the man at the ship did not look or sound like the captain or first mate, rather he looked like a crew staff. He also noticed that several other crewmen were gathering at the fore deck of the ship which was quite unusual as the crewmen are usually not allowed access in that area. That was the last time anyone ever saw Carroll A. Deering sailing in its normal condition.
Soon after this incident and on the same day, another steamer ship was passing by the lightship. It had no name. Since the radio at the lightship was not working, Jacobson blew the lightship whistle to catch attention of the steamer. The whistle was powerful enough to be heard even 5 miles away. But the steamer did not stop as per the required cruising protocol and kept moving on in the same direction as Carroll A. Deering.
Two days later, on January 31st 1921, Deering was found hard aground at Diamond Shoals, a water area located off the coast of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and fringed with reefs. Due to harsh sea conditions, it took time for the coast guards to approach and access the ship. They finally boarded the ship on February 4th in the morning.
What did the coast guards see?
It was a strange and eerie sight once the coast guards boarded the grounded ship. Deering was under full sail. There was nobody on board, not a single crew. Some food were found at the galley which was perhaps getting prepared for next day's meal. So it seemed the abandonment happened in hurry.
However several things were missing including the two life boats. The ropes were hanging from two sides of the ships suggesting that the lifeboats were used to evacuate. All papers and documents including the log, navigational instruments, chronometer etc were also missing.
When the Captain's cabin was inspected, several pairs of boots were found which indicated that the room was used by several persons at the end. Another strange observation... red lights were run up the mast which suggested that somebody wanted to signal that help was required. The main anchors were not there which tallies with what the lightship captain heard from a man on Deering.
A large map on a ship is used to record day to day route and movement of the ship. When this map was inspected in Deering, it was observed that Captain Wormell marked the map till January 23rd as evident from his distinct handwriting, but after that it was someone else's handwriting on the map.
So what actually happened to Deering?
If the answer was found, then this incident wouldn't have become one of the biggest maritime mysteries of all times. Numerous theories and speculations have been cited, but none till date has given a definitive evidence. What I can share here are the findings and related theories that come closest to what might had actually happened. Five departments of the US Government were involved in the investigation of Deering including US Navy and the State.
A plotted rebellion by the crew members and led by the first mate McLellan seems like the most acceptable theory. It was evident from Captain Wormell's comments at Rio that he was not in good terms with the first mate and possibly with most other crewmen. This was further supported by the fact that the first mate McLellan made life threatening statements against Wormell at Barbados.
It's quite possible that Wormell was killed and thrown off board. And this murder would have taken place soon after Jan 23rd because the ship's map did not show Wormell's handwritten markings beyond Jan 23rd. Further on Jan 29th the lightship captain Jacobson was hailed by a crewman, although such reporting is usually done by the captain of the ship himself or at least the first mate. This means Wormell could have been murdered between Jan 23rd and Jan 29th. If Wormell was sick and resting in his cabin, he would have never allowed the ship to get abandoned and derelict.
The theory of mutiny is further substantiated by Jacobson noticing a gathering of the crew on fore deck where it is usually not allowed. The crew taking over control can also be the reason why so many boots were found in Captain's cabin. McLellan and the crew would have then decided to abandon the ship in order to avoid facing inquiry and trial back home. They would have lived with changed identity thereafter.
But despite all this, the big question that looms is why would McLellan pass by the lightship at Cape Lookout and get his crew to inform about the loss of anchors? If he was the man behind such mutiny, then he would have avoided all eyes and taken the ship through a different course beyond the sight of the lightship and others.
2) Rum Runners
During such days of prohibition, smuggling wine and spirits using stolen cargo ships prevailed. Those vessels were commonly called the rum or booze runners. You will recollect that the Captain of the lightship Jacobson also stated that he saw and whistled at an unnamed steamer ship which did not stop. Many investigators have proposed that the steamer was a rum runner and therefore did not want to identify itself. It did not stop because it was carrying illegal liquor. While trying to drop the liquor somewhere along the coastline, it would have come across the ship Deering. In order to eliminate all witnesses, it would have picked up all crew from Deering and later killed them.
Another theory suggested that Deering was actually stolen during its return journey by a group of liquor smugglers who operated out of Bahamas. They used it to smuggle spirits and then left it derelict. It was known that Deering had a huge hold which could easily store more than 1 million dollars worth of liquor. But here the question is ... why would smugglers steal such a prominent looking five masted schooner which is easily identifiable and also quite slow in speed?
Several investigators proposed that piracy which was rampantly prevailing around that time must had been the reason. In fact the widow of Captain Wormell was a big supporter of this proposal. But no definite evidence was found on this and no pirates were ever caught on this account.
The weather department of United States very strongly advocated that hurricanes were the main reason for the dereliction of the ship. They cited and it was a fact that at least 9 other vessels had disappeared or met with fatal accidents in the same area due to hurricanes.
Out of all such vessels, S.S. Hewitt, a sulphur career was the closest to Deering when it came to area and time of occurrence. In fact some claim that the unnamed steamer which passed by the lightship at Cape Lookout and never stopped, was indeed the SS Hewitt. But it was later pointed out that both Deering and Hewitt were moving out of the storm area and therefore could not be affected by hurricane.
The Wreck of Carroll A. Deering
The Wreck of Carroll A. Deering at Diamond Shoals was considered an obstacle and danger for other passing ships. Attempts were made to tow it, but failed. On March 4, 1921 the vessel was destroyed and sunk using a dynamite. Lots of timbers from the vessel later floated ashore at nearby Hatteras Island.
Many house owners in the island (mostly on highway-12 of Hatteras Buxton Village) have used those timbers in construction of their houses. A museum has been built in the island where you can still see few timbers of Deering and an equipment of the ship known as the Capstan.
Rob Powers (February 2017)
Hi Raj, I am a children's fiction author researching the Carroll Deering ship for a new manuscript. Your article is one of the best written and most thorough accounts of what we know and what the theories are about the ship's abandoning. Well done!