Pop Quiz: Astonishing Tales of the Sea
So you think you know your urban legends? Today, once again, we're going to test your knowledge to see how well you've been paying attention to Skeptoid. In this round, we're going to look at tales of the sea: that romantic genre of storytelling dealing with Davey Jones, sunken pirate ships, and ghostly apparitions dripping salt water. Put your finger on the pause button if you need time to think for each of these ten questions of nautical trivia.
What storybook of nautical campfire tales would be complete without the Mary Celeste, perhaps the most popular story of the sea? It was found creeping along under sail in the Atlantic in 1872, in perfect condition, but with the crew and passengers all missing. A friend of the captain's was sailing another ship on the same route, and upon making the tragic discovery, brought her into port in Gibraltar. Soon, a solid theory developed for what happened, which holds to this day. Was it:
The correct answer is A, the Mary Celeste's cargo of 1,701 barrels of pure grain alcohol. All were of white oak and still full, but nine were of red oak and empty — red oak should never be used for liquids because it leaks through pores in the wood. All the evidence aboard the ship suggests that, upon smelling the thick, flammable alcohol fumes, the captain ordered the hatches opened for ventilation. He then evacuated all hands to the ship's yawl along with all the navigational equipment and necessities. Somehow the tow line came loose or was severed, and captain and crew joined those countless souls claimed by the sea. What mystery exists was added by authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This famous urban legend tells of an experiment aboard a US Navy ship that went awry, causing the ship to disappear and reappear, leaving some sailors materialized inside its steel and others driven mad. We now know how the story was made up from whole cloth by a loner named Carl Allen who lived with his parents after having served briefly in the US Merchant Marine during World War II. Among the more wilder parts of his story is that he had been personally tutored in the physics of invisibility by which famous scientist?
The correct answer is C, Albert Einstein. Carl Allen claimed that, even though he was an ordinary sailor in the Merchant Marine, Albert Einstein somehow learned of him, recognized his extraordinary nature, brought him into the inner circle of those few who knew the details of the supposed Philadelphia Experiment, and served as his personal mentor for weeks.
Various maelstroms are found throughout the world — many with terrifying stories attached to them of sucking ships down to their doom. The best known is the Moskstraumen in Norway. It was made famous to English readers by which author?
The correct answer is A, Edgar Allen Poe's 1841 short story A Descent into the Maelström told the ludicrously exaggerated tale of ship being lost in the Moskstraumen. Other authors such as Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson have used it in their own fiction as well, but Poe's original story was by far the most influential. The Moskstraumen is not actually dangerous to ships — other than its currents pushing them toward rocks — and today tourist boats go out there with each turn of the tide to show off the spectacle.
The infamous Sargasso Sea in the middle of the North Atlantic has long fed sailor's yarns of ships being trapped until their crews starve and die. Which of the following hindrances to navigation is true of the Sargasso Sea?
The correct answer is C, a lack of wind. The Sargasso Sea happens to be geographically located for a confluence of two conditions. First, it's at the center of the North Atlantic Gyre due to the shape of the continents, which brings up nutrients from deeper waters and feeds a rich population of sargassum seaweed, but contrary to rumor, nowhere is this dense enough to trouble sailors. Second, its latitude puts it at about 30-35ºN, which is the location of the subtropical ridge, also known as the horse latitudes. It's right between the trade winds and the westerlies, so is characterized by notoriously calm winds, called the doldrums. Sailors looking to make good time should avoid.
There are always tales of an ancient ship inexplicably found buried in a landlocked desert, most famously, that of a Viking Longship reported protruding from a canyon wall in the American Southwest's Carrizo Badlands by a prospector in 1933. Although his story was both temporally and geologically impossible, he did write down directions to find it on a paper that survives today. Where can that letter be found today?
The correct answer is A, the Julian Pioneer Museum, one of the history museums closest to where this happened. The letter was written to a Mrs. Myrtle Botts. She claims to have followed the directions and found the ship, but it was buried by an earthquake before she could return to show it to her husband. Due to the story's impossibility, it's likely that the letter was a hoax by Mrs. Botts herself.
A ghostly tale frightened sailors aboard the full-rigged ship Ellen Austin in 1881: She encountered an abandoned yet seaworthy ship out at sea and sent a skeleton crew aboard to salvage her. They became separated, but found each other again — the skeleton crew having vanished. A second crew was sent over, but this time, both crew and ship were never seen again. How plausible is this story of encountering an abandoned yet perfectly seaworthy vessel in the 19th century?
The correct answer is B, abandoned yet seaworthy vessels were encountered quite frequently. A few years before the Ellen Austin story, one ship encountered two: one with only minor damage and the other in perfect condition with a full cargo aboard. A survey in 1894 found over 1600 derelict vessels drifting in just the North Atlantic alone, hundreds of which were in perfectly serviceable condition. The most common cause was grounding on the Outer Banks, and after abandonment and disembarkation of cargo, the tide would naturally refloat these ships. A story like that of the Ellen Austin or the Mary Celeste was not all that remarkable.
Christmas of 1900 was when three lighthouse keepers mysteriously vanished from the Flannan Isles Lighthouse. The island itself was cloaked in strange tales of magical beings and bizarre rituals held by ancient religious sects. Off what country's mainland are the Flannan Isles located?
The correct answer is C, Scotland. Despite extensive fictionalization and dramatization of what happened, the evidence suggests — though there's no proof — that two of the men were swept into the ocean by storm waves while attempting to secure some tackle, and the third — who didn't have time to put on his oilskins — was also lost when he rushed down to throw them a line.
Another great tale of the sea is the famous mutiny on the Bounty, after which the lead mutineer, Fletcher Christian, took the Bounty to Pitcairn Island. There a motley crew of mutineers and seventeen Tahitians settled permanently and scuttled their ship. Nineteen years later, an American whaling ship arrived at Pitcairn and found a population of all women and children with a single adult man. Was he:
The correct answer is B, John Adams, an able seaman of the Bounty and a mutineer. The other men — English and Tahitian alike — had all long since murdered one another in disputes over women, authority, and slavery. On Pitcairn Island had Fletcher Christian met his bloody end.
It seems as if all the stories of the most notorious buried pirate treasures all belong to Captain William Kidd, the illustrious 17th century privateer. Today you can hardly turn on a TV show on HISTORY or the other pseudo-history networks without hearing them connect some treasure of Captain Kidd's to some urban legend or ancient mystery. Which of the follow statements is true of Captain Kidd's treasure?
The correct answer is A, Kidd buried only one known treasure. When he sailed to Boston to face charges for piracy in 1699, he and the half dozen or so men who were still with him were allowed to stop at the privately owned Gardiners Island to bury whatever personal valuables they had. They were fearful of being robbed by former crew members who were waiting in New York. These stashes were all retrieved by the court, and either kept as evidence or returned to their owners. Kidd is not suspected to have ever buried any other treasure during his career, which explains why nobody has ever found any.
When it comes to stories of ghost ships, one tale rules them all: that of the Flying Dutchman. In some versions it's name of the ship; in others, the name refers to its captain. Both are condemned to weather stormy seas for all eternity, never seeing their home port. Which of these is true?
The correct answer is A, it's unknown. It was already an old story by the time Wagner wrote his version of it, and no captain of the Dutch East India company is known to have been called any such nickname — though much later authors have added this fictional claim to the canon. Certainly the company had many illustrious captains.
So how did you do? As always, tweet me your score at @BrianDunning. If you got five or fewer right, you need to turn off the TV and listen to more Skeptoid. If you got nine or ten right, then congratulations, you truly do know your nautical lore! Just remember that whenever you hear virtually any maritime legend, you can rest assured that it's been gilded with plenty of exaggerated nonsense — because if it wasn't, it wouldn't be half as much fun.
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