The image of sailors as being particularly mentally unbalanced has a surprising degree of official confirmation. As far back as 1815, Sir Gilbert Blaine, the Royal Navy’s Physician of the Fleet and the Prince Regent’s personal doctor, reported that sailors were roughly seven times more likely to go mad than the general population. Considering the many stress factors from cramped quarters to horrifying diseases with very high mortality rates such as yellow fever, no one can blame them.
When it comes to mental health, it’s not a matter to be taken lightly. While some of the people mentioned in this list may come across as whimsical or just odd, there will be some tragic entries included as well. Additionally there are both famous accounts from antiquity and recent, relatively obscure stories. All such stories are worth telling.
10. Holly Graf
By 2010, this then 46-year-old captain from a family with a long naval tradition had taken command of the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser. That was when her years of erratic behavior caught up with her. When she was relieved of command, it was reported that a number of her subordinates openly cheered.
In an investigation conducted from March 2008 to July 2009, it was found that in person she was abusive enough to throw ceramic coffee cups and binders at subordinates when not having them stand in the corner during meetings. When she believed she ran her ship the USS Winston Churchill aground in 2003 while leaving a port in Sicily, she grabbed a Royal Navy navigator and blamed him for it. In 2009 she nearly caused a collision between the Cowpens and the USS John McCain in a drag race at top speed. Despite being loathed by her crews and being an evident risk to the navy, when she was relieved of command she had been on the fast track to being promoted to a position at the Pentagon.
9. Robert Fitzroy
Born in 1805, this captain and scientist received what he considered an ill omen for the course of his life in 1822 when Lord Castlereagh, his uncle and the family member to which his mother said he bore the strongest resemblance, committed suicide. Despite his long depressive episodes during which he would fret that he would go out the same way, in 1828 he became a captain at the remarkably young age of 23 during a voyage to Tierra del Fuego aboard the HMS Adventure. His successor, Captain Pringle Stokes, had shot himself.
It would be in 1832 and 1836 during his second voyage to Tierra del Fuego that Fitzroy would gain lasting fame, for this time he brought incestuous icon Charles Darwin with him, believing that the shape of Darwin’s nose meant he would be steadfast and reliable. Darwin was both amused and impressed by Fitzroy, claiming both he had a Napoleonic/Horatio Nelson quality and that he never mentioned his fiance in the five years they were voyaging together. Said fiance was later attributed with pushing Fitzroy into religious fundamentalism with the Church of England, which brought Fitzroy into conflict with his former colleague after Darwin published his famous findings. At a high profile 1860 debate on evolution, Fitzroy reportedly held a bible over his head and ranted “The book, the book” over and over.
It’s a pity that Fitzroy is only remembered for accompanying and later butting heads with Darwin, for he was something of a renaissance man. He was an early advocate for native rights during his time as a governor in New Zealand. He was a pioneer in weather forecasting, and helped found MetLife, a significant insurance company. But all of that is less known than the fact he eventually succumbed to the condition that loomed so large for much of his life and shot himself in 1865.
8. Marcus Arnheiter
Moving back to more current times and less esteemed sailors, there were signs Arnheiter meant trouble even before he ever entered naval academy. He had previously been expelled from West Point, which was part of the reason why he graduated more than five years older than most of his classmates in 1952. By 1960 he’d been assigned to the propaganda arm of the Pentagon called the Progress Analysis Group, where his highest profile accomplishment was promoting a phony journal ostensibly from a defected Soviet sailor, a document every publisher had passed on. On December 31, 1965 he was assigned command of the USS Vance. He was relieved of command on March 31, 1966.
Even during his brief 99 days he ran up an impressive list of appalling actions. He disobeyed orders and as a result entered waters illegally. He lied to the press about his actions. He mistook a flock of chickens for a squad of Vietcong and had the location bombarded. He forced Catholic sailors to attend Protestant services, he nearly ran the ship aground and overtaxed its engines in general. He tried to chase down a suspected Chinese submarine even though America wasn’t at war with China. Ultimately it befell Chaplain Dando to compile a report on how unfit Anheiter was for command, which became known as the “Mad Marcus Log.” During his review that ended his career, Arnheiter insisted that the “mutiny” was due a radical antiwar movement influencing his crew and officers. Despite his high profile loss of command, Arnheiter stayed in the US Navy until 1972.
7. Peter Mims
As farcical as Arnheiter’s time in command was, Peter Mims’ tour of duty was at least equally horrifying and sad. The sailor was serving his third year aboard the cruiser USS Shiloh when he requested counseling due to stress factors that included financial difficulties due to failing to report a divorce which left him $7,000 in debt. The request was turned down. On June 8, 2017, after making such seemingly sincere claims as saying he’d been to space and that he could shoot fire from his hands, he disappeared.
It took a week of searching before he was found inside one of the escape passages leading from the engine room, which was so hot that Mims had essentially put himself in a sweat box. He had been sustaining himself off a jar of peanut butter and was covered in his own sweat and excrement, his sailors having assumed the horrid smell was engine exhaust and that it meant he couldn’t have been hiding where he was. However, a general personnel review found that morale among the Shiloh was dangerously low in general, so it probably wasn’t quite so surprising to Mims’s fellows that he snapped.
6. HMS Challenger Crew
Speaking of crews driven to and beyond the breaking point by a stressful environment, consider the voyage this ship went on from 1872 to 1876. It was in its own way as momentous as the Second Beagle Voyage. It performed depth measurements around the world, took temperature readings to study currents, and studied and catalogued tremendous biological findings from depths where it was previously believed that life would be impossible.
It also was such repetitive and taxing work that only 144 of the 240 person crew returned. Some succumbed to disease, some deserted while the ship was at port or were even abandoned at ports. Eight of them went horribly mad. One of them who paid a permanent price for “temporary insanity” was Lieutenant Henry Harston. On June 6, 1876, near the end of the voyage, he died of drinking a poisonous chemical called choral.
5. John D Bulkeley
On a vastly lighter note, there’s the long and distinguished career of this vice admiral. A Naval Academy graduate in 1933, he took part in historic naval events even before the generally acknowledged start of WWII by witnessing the sinking of the USS Panay during the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. By 1942, he was commanding the torpedo boat that evacuated Douglas MacArthur and his family from the Philippines. In 1944, he led minesweepers clearing the way for the landings at Utah Beach on D-Day. After being placed in command of the destroyer Endicott, he attacked two German corvettes with only one functioning artillery piece and still sunk both, admittedly with the support of two British gunboats. He would be promoted to Rear Admiral by John F. Kennedy himself then was sent to command Guantanamo Bay, saving the base when the Cuban government tried to cut off water supplies by installing desalination facilities.
It would be during his command of a base in Clarksville, Tennessee during the 1960s that he would develop his most unhinged habit. He would dress into what’s generally, inaccurately regarded as a black ninja outfit, blacken his face with makeup, and then see how easily he could sneak around the base as a security test. Considering that he did not tell anyone he was planning to do this, he was definitely risking being shot by his own men. Well, the first time he did this before someone found out it was him, anyway.
4. Gabriel A. Romero
The record indicates that this Machinist’s Mate Auxiliary Fireman knew he was mentally unwell and took steps to treat himself. Over the last three months of his life, he voluntarily made eight visits to the Submarine Embedded Mental Health Program (SEMHP). Only during one of those did he actually speak to a psychiatrist. He wasn’t diagnosed as having any problems despite a noted habit of crying during disciplinary hearings. Ultimately his problems resulted in tragedy on December 4, 2019 when he killed two shipyard workers, injured another, and ultimately took his own life with the M-9 pistol he’d been issued. He was 22 years old.
As with Peter Mims, an investigation in the wake of his breakdown had truly ominous findings. It found that SEMHP had underdiagnosed a number of enlisted personnel who had similar social problems to Romero, even though they had good analytical skills and were otherwise competent. Indeed, several of Romero’s superiors claimed that SEMHP hadn’t even passed on to them information that Romero was seeking counseling. Hopefully communication channels have been improved to prevent copycat shootings.
3. Vendee Globe Racers
While the mental stresses of prolonged isolation at sea have been an unavoidable aspect of naval life, the people who participate in willfully subject themselves to just about the worst possible version of it. Since 1989, the Vendee Globe Race has challenged sailors to take a journey 24,000 miles around the world completely alone the entire time while managing boats that can be as much as 60 feet long. It’s so daunting that as of 2020 only 89 of the hundreds of people who entered finished the race. That’s about 50 times less people than have been to the top of Mount Everest, and less than a fifth as many people as have gone into space.
Since 74 days is near the bare minimum these contestants can expect to spend in self-imposed life-threatening solitary confinement, it’s not too surprising that it draws unusual people. It’s even less surprising that reported common side effects of taking the challenge include people hallucinating and losing the will to live. That three people that died as of 2008 during the race amounted to a 4.5% fatality rate might sound relatively low, but it goes to show just how real the danger is.
2. Bernard Moitessier
Twenty-one years before the Vendee Globe Race, the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race challenged sailors to a 30,000 mile voyage. Ten sailors took the news outlet up on it, the most colorful being Bernard Moitessier. The French heir born in Saigon, Vietnam when it was still a French colony in 1925 had already set a world record when he sailed the 14,216 from Marseilles, France to Tahiti and then back in 1963. When the race started on August 22, 1968, he was the immediate favorite and quickly pulled into the lead.
Then around the Cape of Horn, Moitessier had a bizarre change of heart and decided to abandon the race despite still being in the lead. He threw a message onto a passing ship that he intended to spend the rest of his life at sea, sailed to the Cape of Good Hope, then returned to the Pacific Ocean, allowing Robin Knox-Johnston to win instead, the only sailor who even finished the race. Moitessier was too busy hallucinating sailing companions and attempting to befriend passing animals while growing a massive beard to care about such trivialities as a race, though eventually he did decide to sail to Tahiti. By the time he ended his voyage on June 21, 1969, he had sailed 37,455 miles. He said his only regret of his decision to abandon the race was that in the message he slingshot at the passing boat he had included the word “perhaps” in a sentence about the sea saving his soul.
1. L. Ron Hubbard
Hubbard is most known for popularizing Scientology, the belief that all humans are potentially supreme beings whose powers are kept in check by thetans, a sort of particle bombarded into our bodies at the command of the alien overlord Xenu. More significant than any of the particulars of his religious teachings was abusive behavior. For example during a period in the 1960s while in international waters to dodge taxes his religious organization developed a practice of throwing people who’d fallen out of favor off his ship. That was hardly the most brutal thing he did. In 1950 when his wife pressured him to get psychological help, he instead fled to Cuba with their daughter and then told her that he’d “cut her into little pieces and then dropped the pieces in a river.”
Even during his time in the US Navy from 1941 to 1950 he caused crazy trouble. In June 1943, the boat PC-815 under his command sailed into Mexican territorial water. Not knowing where he was, Hubbard ordered a practice bombardment on a nearby island. Though there were no casualties, the Mexican military sent a message that they considered the act of aggression grounds to attack any US ships that ventured in Mexican waters. The US Navy apologized immediately, relieved Hubbard of command, and with startling leniency decided to just stick him with a desk job for the rest of his time in the service. Judging by the hardships these other sailors endured and inflicted on duty, frankly that was probably a blessing for him.
Dustin Koski cowrote the sci-fi supernatural comedy Return of the Living with Jonathan Wojcik.