The Ghost Ship Carroll A. Deering

Off the coast of North Carolina’s outer banks, there’s an area both mysterious and deadly. Here, the cold Labrador current meets the warm waters of the gulf stream, creating treacherous waters. Strong offshore winds help create a perfect spot where low- and high-pressure weather systems collide.

These dangerous waters have earned the nickname, “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” due to the high number of shipwrecks and countless lives lost in the region.

Since the 1500s, sailors have been wary of the area, but despite the cautions, it still claims ships and lives. It’s in this dark region, in the early 1900s, that a great maritime mystery was born.

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The Carroll A. Deering was a five-masted schooner built in Bath, Maine by the G.G. Deering Company. Although it was a cargo ship, the Deering had features unheard of for the period including a bathroom with plumbing and cabins with electricity.

The ship was built to move cargo from South America to ports on the east coast of the United States. It was captained by William Merritt along with his son, first mate, S.E. Merritt.

The ship’s journey was plagued with complications from the start.

In August 1920, after leaving port in Norfolk, Virginia, Captain Merritt fell seriously ill. This ship was forced to make an unscheduled stop at the port of Lewes, Delaware so he could be attended to. Merritt’s illness was so severe that he was unable to continue the voyage. Concerned about his father’s health, the younger Merritt elected to stay in Lewes to help care for him.

The Deering was suddenly without a Captain or a first mate. Hoping to keep the vessel on schedule, the company scrambled to find replacements. Captain W.B. Wormell was hired to guide the ship and a man named Charles McLellan was brought on as first mate.

Under Wormell’s direction, the ship made it to Rio de Janeiro in late 1920. It departed on December 2 on route back to company headquarters in Maine.

Captain Wormell decided to make a stop in Barbados to pick up additional supplies and give the crew some time to relax on dry land. Wormell himself took the opportunity to meet up with an old friend; another ship’s captain named Goodwin. During the visit, Captain Wormell told his friend there was trouble aboard the Deering and that the only crew member he could trust was Herbert Bates, the ship’s engineer.

Specifically, there seem to be a lot of trouble between Wormell and McLellan, the Deering’s first mate.

McLellan himself was voicing his own opinions in town. He was overheard complaining about the captain and at one point, he even threated to kill Captain Wormell before the voyage was over.

McLellan was drinking heavily and got so out of hand that he was arrested and charged for being drunk and disorderly. Despite his distrust of the man, Captain Wormell stepped in and bailed him out so the ship could continue its journey back to the states with a full crew.

On January 9, 1921, the ship left Barbados.

Nothing was heard from the Carroll A. Deering until January 28. The ship was sighted off the coast by the Cape Lookout Lightship.

The Lightship’s keeper, Captain Jacobson reported that a thin, red headed man with a foreign accent was shouting from the deck of the vessel. The man was not dressed as an officer which Jacobson found strange.

Jacobson also reported that the crew of the Deering was clustered on the quarterdeck. It was, at the least, very unusual behavior. The thin man called out reporting that the ship had lost its anchors and to please get a message to the Deering company so they could send assistance.

As the ship drifted away, little did those on board know there would be no help coming from the company. It turned out, the Lightship keeper’s radio was broken, so he was unable to contact the Deering’s company headquarters.

Jacobson did try to contact a passing steamer by blowing the Lightship’s whistle, but the steamer ignored the call. This too was odd behavior since maritime law required a response. The steamer itself was somewhat mysterious because Jacobson could not find the vessel’s name anywhere on the ship.

Three days later, January 31st , the Carroll A. Deering was found on a sandbar on Diamond Shoals near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Diamond Shoals is known as one of the most treacherous bodies of water in the world. It lies off the barrier islands of the North Carolina coast.

The Deering’s sails were set, all lifeboats were gone, and the crew was nowhere to be found. Due to rough seas, rescue crews couldn’t get to the ship to board it until February 4 th . When they finally reached the ship, their discoveries added further to the unfolding mystery of the Carroll A. Deering. The ship’s navigational instruments were gone, as well as the personal possessions of the crew members.

It looked as if they had abandoned the ship, but if so, when did they leave and why were there no reports of them anywhere in the region?

Other puzzling things were discovered on board the ship. The galley was set as if the crew was about to sit down for a meal. In the Captain’s quarters, three different pairs of boots were found and the spare bed in the Captain’s room had clearly been slept in.

The ship’s logs were yet another mystery. They were clearly written by Captain Wormell, at least, through January 23 when the handwriting changed. The logs revealed no clues as to what had happened to the ship’s crew.

There was one living soul found on board the vessel—a six toed cat.

It was impossible to rescue the ship from the sandbar, so it was abandoned to the elements. By March 1921, authorities deemed the vessel a hazard and it was ordered it be loaded with dynamite and sunk.

Before its destruction, locals salvaged timber from the ship and the wood was later used in the construction of several houses in nearby Buxton.

Mysteries remained. What exactly had happened on board the Deering, and where was the crew?

Dozens of theories were suggested. Some thought there had been a mutiny on board the ship, others suggested pirates had taken the vessel or that the crew itself had turned to rum running and left the ship to move on to another vessel. Still others suggested the ship had been caught in a hurricane or some other natural phenomenon out at sea.

Potential supernatural causes were suggested too. Perhaps the Carroll A. Deering was a cursed vessel and something unearthly had taken the crew.

An official investigation was launched to try to solve the puzzle. Ultimately, authorities could not explain what had happened on board the ship or how the crew had vanished. The investigation was closed without resolution in 1922.

Researchers and historians have continued to try to explain the strange case of the Carroll A. Deering. Some have suggested that the Deering went through the infamous Bermuda Triangle where it fell victim to the strange forces said to have affected other vessels over the years.

While it is true the Deering did pass through the triangle, the ship and its crew were spotted well after they had exited the boundaries of the famous region so the weird case could not be attributed to the deadly triangle.

Some think the specters of the ship’s crew might still linger along the coast where the vessel came to rest.

Over the years, ghostly ships have been reported off the shores of the outer banks. Phantom images of another time that fade away or vanish into the mist. Are they simply illusions, residual forms, or something else altogether?

Perhaps the spirits of past ships and sailors still roam the seas of the Atlantic, looking for salvation or at least resolution.

The mystery of the Carroll A. Deering is still unsolved. Will it remain one of the secrets that the Graveyard of the Atlantic will never give up?