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Southern Cultures 8.4 (2002) 9-28

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Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals
The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering

Bland Simpson


In late January 1921, less than two years after her maiden voyage, the Maine schooner Carroll A. Deering ran aground on Diamond Shoals off of North Carolina's Cape Hatteras. The Deering was on a return run up the East Coast after delivering a load of coal to Brazil. All sails but the flying jib were set. Coffee and soup were on the stove, spareribs in a pan. But the captain's cabin was in disarray, the ship's lifeboats, papers, and nautical instruments gone, and not a soul on board.

The mystery of the missing crew and abandoned ship was colored by international—and local—intrigue: prohibition bootlegging, international piracy, Bolshevik anarchy, a message in a bottle, rogue World War I German submarines, and a rebellious crew. Spearheaded by the missing captain's daughter, the case attracted the attention of a future U.S. president and the national media.

This issue of Southern Cultures features excerpts from Bland Simpson's Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals: The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering, a nonfiction novel recently published by the University of North Carolina Press, that take us to this abandoned ship on the North Carolina Outer Banks some eighty years ago.

Two Captains Along the Shore

Near Bridgetown, Barbados

Early January 1921

Again Captain Wormell sought out a friend and fellow ship's captain—G. W. Bunker of Calais, Maine—and together they walked the Barbadian beach, out near the towers and the windmill of the British prison at Saint Ann's Garrison, Wormell nearly exhausted now by the extra work that fell to him and by the strain of bearing up against the unruliness of the schooner's crew, the worst—he said again and again in virtual disbelief—in his entire career.

"Would they turn on you?" Captain Bunker asked.

Wormell paused, but not out of surprise. He had given that question no small amount of thought already, as indeed every captain since the Phoenicians had so wondered. Every master would have his mettle tested by the sea and by the men who said first with their signatures and then by their work and obedience that they trusted him to lead them through and over and across it.

"Not all of them, I don't think," Wormell said at last. [End Page 9] [Begin Page 11]


Light Vessel 80

Off Cape Lookout, North Carolina

Latitude 34°18'27"N

Longitude 76°24'18"W

Saturday, January 29, 1921

4:30 P.M.

The northeast wind that had blown such a gale, such a heavy roaring nor'easter for days now, slackened Saturday all day long. The sailors on Light Vessel 80 started and stopped the bells and fog whistles three times, as the wind came down from thirty-five miles an hour in the night to twenty-five at dawn, to ten and foggy at noon. By later in the afternoon, a calm had come over the cape and its shoals, with the sea smooth and breezes blowing lightly now out of the south-southwest. At 4 P.M. the temperature was fifty-four degrees.

Presently a five-masted schooner drew nigh from the south, all sails set. She was a powerful sight, and James Steel, the Lookout lightship's engineer, stepped to the rail and photographed her as she approached, coming in close. Someone would later recall that the sailor who hailed them was a red-headed man, and that his accent was foreign. He used a megaphone, and cried out:

"We've lost both anchors and chains in the gale off Frying Pan Shoals—forward word to our owners!"

As the Carroll A. Deering sailed past at about four knots, Thomas Jacobson, the lightship's master, noted that the schooner's crew were scattered in an undisciplined fashion about the deck, particularly about the quarterdeck—the captain's province, his and his alone, sacrosanct. To Jacobson, the man who hailed...


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