The following is a short piece of mystery fiction originally submitted to a local literature newsletter in May, 2018.
31 October 1803
Captain William Bainbridge was not about to waste any more time, even if it was just for one ship. He was stern but fair and extremely well-liked by his crew. He had also had enough of this “keeping the beaches company” mission, as he called it. The Barbary War was in full swing now, and if any chance, no matter how small, availed itself to press an advantage against the greedy pirates, he would take it. After all his ship, the 36-gunned USS Philadelphia, was one of the strongest frigates in the United States fleet. He had nothing to fear. They should be in the thick of things.
Darkness had begun to settle on this All Hallows Eve. It was a cool night in the shallow but turbulent waters of the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Tripoli. The Philadelphia was on station where she had been for several weeks monitoring the coastline. She had seen some action in battle, but it was too few and far between and Captain and crew were getting antsy to really make their mark in this fight. Suddenly, one of the deckhands tolled out a warning on the bell, after the crew sighted a large, black pirate ship at full rigging on a rapid intercept course. Despite the low visibility in the twilight, Captain Bainbridge stared at the black ship and convinced himself he saw a red flag raised on its bow, indicating they were preparing to attack. He had secretly hoped a white flag was shown instead, for that meant safe bartering and negotiating would be in play. As anxious as he was to put his vast armament to use, he would just as soon not engage in a nighttime battle. But if this is the hand he was dealt, he’d play it alright.
With the enemy ship at full sail, time was getting short and Bainbridge had a decision to make. He wasn’t interested in taking evasive action, for that would just lead to a long cat-and-mouse game in the open sea, something he reviled. If this was the chance for he and his ship to achieve any semblance of glory, he would not let it go. Bainbridge ordered a course change toward the approaching ship, turning the Philadelphia from the hunted to the hunter. The strong seas were rocking the ship side to side, the waves crashing over the deck boards and saturating the sails. The constant movements made it hard to focus his vision, yet he was certain their deck flag was red, and almost as certain he saw a series of cannon flashes pointed in his ship’s direction. Believing they were under fire, he yelled orders to turn into the pirates’ direction at all speed.
On the bridge of the pirate vessel, chaos was evident among the many shouting voices. Hesitation had taken over, but when they saw the much stronger-armed American ship coming toward them, they tried to turn and make a desperate run up the coastline. Their hope was to reach the waters near Tunisia and then onward toward Spain where they would be safe. But the ship was struggling to come about, laboring to steer through the tall waves. It seemed Bainbridge’s idea worked; The Philadelphia closed the gap while the shadowy pirate ship adjusted it’s heading and was now within firing distance. The darkness was made worse by a swirling nighttime fog that had risen off the sea, which nearly eliminated all visibility when Bainbridge gave the order to open fire. Thunderous bursts shook the Philadelphia as the cannons let loose in the direction of the other vessel. After several best-guessed blasts from her 32-pound carronades, what sounded like secondary explosions echoed in the distance and a dim fire could be seen on the horizon through the mist. And then it was gone in a flash. The crew stood in grim, silent satisfaction as Bainbridge scanned the seas looking for any sign of the pirate ship. Just when the crew of the Philadelphia had assumed victory, a violent thud knocked most of the men off their feet, slamming them onto the slippery deck with a concussive force. The Philadelphia was still at full sail when she repeatedly bounced hard off a series of large, submerged rocks before coming to a bow-breaking halt less than 200 yards from the Tripoli beachfront. During the chaos of the running battle, combined with near zero visibility, the crew of the Philadelphia miscalculated her bearing and had run her aground.
Over the next several hours, all efforts to refloat her failed. The crew began to salvage what they could while jettisoning weapons and equipment which they couldn’t allow to fall into pirate hands. When all the important gear was safely disembarked, Bainbridge gave the order to abandon ship. The crew packed into the two small life boats they had aboard and began to row inland. To their dismay, their efforts were hampered with over-capacity and a strictly lateral wind drift. For every yard the crew rowed the boats forward, they also drifted a yard or more to port. Worse yet, the extended time and effort in the choppy seas caused the lifeboats to become waterlogged. Captain Bainbridge shuddered at the thought of having to swim to shore, but there was a very real possibility of being forced to do so. No sooner had the idea of losing the lifeboats occurred to him, they were surrounded by multiple pirate vessels that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
By dawn the survivors of the USS Philadelphia were all captured and held as wartime slaves, having been accused of violating rules of engagement by blatantly attacking a ship that was carrying wounded on a mission of mercy.
Shipwreck diving and weaving together the fascinating mysteries of old sea legends was more than just a profession to Dr. Michael Varna, of the Institute of Maritime History. it was his passion. That passion was shared by his crew on the research vessel Hermes, and they all truly loved learning everything the sea could teach them. He was hoping this time it could finally teach him and his staff about an old pirate ship that was last seen in the southern Mediterranean over 200 years ago.
The ship was called the Hellbourne and it was reported lost during the First Barbary War in 1803.
In the many decades that have followed since that fateful Halloween night, the legend of the Hellbourne has only gained steam. It has become one of the truly great as-yet unsolved oceanic mysteries there is. All the eyewitness stories that make up the legend are the same: At night, during rough seas, the image of a large old pirate ship at full sail can be seen on the horizon, approaching fast and aggressively, a white deck flag waving to signal surrender, followed by a flash of light. Then it’s gone in a second. Disappeared, as if it was never there at all. The phantom schooner was said to cause fright and panic and drive any vessel in the vicinity off course.
Though many ship hunters, including Michael, had searched much of the Mediterranean for years, no trace of the Hellbourne has ever been found. Once, in 1987, Michael thought he found the wreckage of the elusive ship at the bottom of the North Aegean Sea. The location was logical, and the size of the wreckage was very consistent with pirate ships of that era. After spending weeks piecing together fragments of the wreckage with various computer simulations, the overall shape and design had made it nearly identical to the known specs of the Hellbourne. But elation quickly turned to deflation as what Michael realized he found was not the Hellbourne, but rather her sister ship, the Demeter. Surely it was a grand find, but it wasn’t quite the holy grail he had been hoping for. Now he has taken up the quest for the Hellbourne again from scratch, and decided to begin his search in the most logical place: Her last known vicinity.
The Hermes was beloved by Michael and his staff. She was a true gem of a ship, the first in her class and she had become a certifiable “home on the ocean” for those who worked on board. She was ahead of schedule on this day in the Med and had set anchor in the calm waters near Zarzis. Michael and two of his crewmates decided to use the downtime to take a quick recreational dive and see if they could scrounge up some lobster while the rest of the crew planned an impromptu party on the deck.
Descending through the oddly calm waters, Michael took a meditative moment to thank whatever deity in the universe allowed him to live his dream every day. It was a tranquil time in the clear, warm water. The depth gauges of the Hermes indicated just 46 feet, even shallower than Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor, so visibility should be excellent all the way down. Perfect for lobster hunting, Michael thought.
As they reached the rocky sea bottom, the group spread out and began to investigate the crags and crevices for any signs of the tasty crustaceans. Pulling himself over a short wall of reef into a flat, sandy area, a glint of something metallic caught Michael’s eye. There, half-buried in the ocean floor was the impression of a bell – a deck bell to be exact. Though heavily deteriorated and encrusted with barnacle, this chunk of steel was clearly from a very old ship. He then noticed another odd segment of metal. And another. Michael waved his two teammates over to his area and they elevated themselves a dozen or so feet above the bottom to get a better view of what may be – eureka! Strewn about this section of the sunlit Mediterranean bottom was debris of all shapes and sizes, laid out in a pattern as only the sea currents could muster. This was indeed parts of a shipwreck, just one he did not expect to find.
After returning up to the Hermes and back down several more times to collect and transfer samples, then to his lab in Florida to carbon-date the findings and analyze the material, Michael and his team couldn’t believe their discovery. Nor could they contain their excitement. It took two weeks of extensive analysis, but it was confirmed; After many years and thousands of miles of searching, they had found the Hellbourne.
Michael did indeed believe in coincidence and fate, but how strange to locate the vessel at a moment when he wasn’t actively looking for it! A simple rec dive turned into one of the greatest ocean discoveries in history. Alone in his lab after a long day, he had another thankful meditation, this time praising whatever force that shooed him over – or rather down – to the right place at the right time.
The discovery was more than just a huge achievement for Michael and his team. Not only would this guarantee a large increase in funding, but it would be a chance to finally solve one of the biggest 19th century maritime mysteries: Was the Hellbourne really trying to surrender? Or did she attack the Philadelphia first and thus seal her own fate?
As the weeks went on and looking for any official records of the ship resulted in one dead end after another, Michael was overjoyed to be sent copies of transcripts from the logbook of the Hellbourne from a small museum in Spain. He sat down to pour over the photocopied pages the second they arrived. As a firm believer in the paranormal, he bought the theory that sometimes ghosts remain when they have unfinished business on earth or were victims of a wrongful death.
The last entry in the Hellbourne’s log made Michael’s heart sink.
Log of the Hellbourne: 29 October, 1803
We may be finished. The battle at Djurba Midun was harsh and took a major toll both on ship and crew. Though damaged we are still buoyant, so we docked and took on survivors from the bloody beachfront, including many women and children. We began the journey back toward Spain, but our mast structure and rudders are severely battle damaged and navigation is near impossible. I fear we are just going in circles. This morning we got lucky and signaled the Red Deceit who was spotted patrolling a few miles to our starboard and transferred as many wounded as she could hold. As they attempt to tow us, I am also transferring this log to them for safekeeping and an SOS to prepare for rescue in case either ship suffers any further disaster. A storm is coming. We have ditched all our armament and booty in hopes of lessening our weight, but we are taking on water. I hope she can hold together.
Copies of the log of the Red Deceit, provided by the same Spanish museum, claims they were unable to secure the tow ropes to the Hellbourne when gale force winds and large waves from a storm separated the two ships within seconds. The Red Deceit raced off for help as fast as she was able to, but it was to be too late. The Hellbourne would never be seen again.
Michael’s team continued their work at the lab and after examining the ships’ logs as well as multiple historical documents and U.S. Naval records, it would seem the Philadelphia running aground that night may have been instant karma after all.
Analysis of the remains of the recovered mast fragments and brass fittings near what would’ve been the top of the Hellbourne’s bow-mounted flag pole indicated something. There were traces of fabric still in the eyelets, though reduced to miniscule levels after more than two centuries at the bottom of the sea.
This proved that a flag had indeed been raised there when the ship went down.
A white one.