One of the most intriguing nautical mysteries: the Carroll A. Deering “ghost ship”

Ian Harvey
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The discovery of a grounded and abandoned schooner in North Carolina in the winter of 1921 has led to intense speculation over the years, with some even saying the ship was the victim of the Bermuda Triangle.

In September of 1920, Captain W. B. Wormell, a retired seaman with years of experience, was assigned to the Maine schooner Carroll A. Deering after its captain, William H. Merritt, took ill. The ship had a 10-man crew of Danish sailors with orders to deliver a shipment of coal to Rio de Janeiro.

The Deering was built in Bath, Maine, in 1919, the last ship of the G.G. Deering Company. She was 255 feet long and 45 feet wide with 5 masts and 3 decks. She was luxurious for a cargo ship, outfitted in oak, mahogany, and ash wood, with a functioning lavatory, steam heat, and electricity.

While the coal was being unloaded at Rio de Janeiro, the captain granted leave to his crew. Captain Wormell met with the captain of another cargo ship and friend, Captain Goodwin, and discussed his lack of confidence in his crew other than his regard for the engineer, Herbert Bates.

The Deering set sail from Rio in 1920 and stopped for supplies in Barbados. During their stop, while in the town, First Mate Charles B. McLellan, got drunk at the Continental Café and was overheard complaining about Captain Wormell’s competence and making a threat against the Captain’s life. McLellan was arrested and jailed but was released on Wormell’s orders, and they sailed onwards to Hampton Roads.

Launching of the “Carroll A. Deering,” April 4, 1919.

The ship was seen by the Cape Lookout Lightship in North Carolina on January 28, 1921. The Deering attempted to hail the lightship’s keeper, Captain Jacobson, who reported that a man with ginger hair and an accent told him the Deering had lost its anchors. Jacobson acknowledged the information but his radio was not working, and he was not able to report to authorities. He noticed that the crew seemed to be wandering about on the fore deck, an unusual practice.

On January 29, 1921, the Deering was seen grounded on Diamond Shoals off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Rescue ships were dispatched but inclement weather caused a delay, and the ship was not boarded until February 4th.

The ship’s log and navigation equipment, the crew’s possessions, and the lifeboats were gone. The galley was set up for a meal with food still in a frying pan and coffee on the stove, but there was no one on board the ship. There were several different footprints in the captain’s quarters indicating activity there, and there was a map chronicling the ship’s route in the captain’s handwriting up until January 23rd. After that, the records were written in a different hand.

The Coast Guard ship Manning tried unsuccessfully to salvage the Deering. They were forced to dynamite the ship so it would not interfere with other shipping traffic.

The Deering’s desertion under such strange circumstances created speculation all over the world:  bootlegging, hurricanes, piracy, aliens, and an insubordinate crew were some of the theories suggested. It is a favorite victim of the Bermuda Triangle, the region stretching from Bermuda to Puerto Rico that has supposedly swallowed up more than 1,000 ships and planes.

An investigation demanded by Captain Wormell’s wife was opened involving the United States Commerce Department, the Treasury, the Justice Department, the Navy, and the state of North Carolina. Secretary of Commerce and future President Herbert Hoover and his assistant, Lawrence Ritchey, were placed in charge of the investigation. They determined that the sulfur freighter Hewitt and other ships had disappeared in the same area; however, many of the crafts were sailing near large hurricanes. Ritchey tried to trace the route from its last sighting at Cape Lookout to running aground at Diamond Shoals using logs of the Coast Guard lightships and determined that the Hewitt and Deering must have been sailing away from the area of the storms.

The “Carroll A. Deering” as seen from the Cape Lookout Lightship on January 28, 1921. (US Coast Guard). This image is a work of a United States Coast Guard employee, taken or made during the course of an employee’s official duties.

An FBI agent went to Dare County in July 1921 and asked local Coast Guardsmen if they believed the crew had mutinied and abandoned ship. Captain Ballance of the Cape Hatteras station said the coastline was too jagged for lifeboats to land. “I believe they abandoned her after taking everything of value,” he said, “and ran her up on the Shoals intentionally.”

Read another story from us: One of the strangest ghost ship stories: It sailed the seas, unmanned for 38 years

Wormell’s problems with First Mate McLellan were well documented at their stop in Rio de Janeiro and Captain Jacobson at Cape Lookout knew the man who hailed his ship was not Captain Wormell, nor was he an officer. The investigation was closed in late 1922 with no answers ever given, but either mutiny or pirates were assumed to be the cause.