Spectral ships

In honour of Halloween, Rachel Walker rounds up some spooky tales of “ghost ships” down through the ages. Enjoy with a nice cup of tea – and perhaps the occasional pinch of snuff!

The SS Baychimo, trapped in ice in 1931

A “ghost ship” is an abandoned vessel, which carries on sailing, without direction, despite being unmanned. For example, a cargo steamer called the Baychimo had to be abandoned when it became trapped in an ice pack near Alaska in 1931. The crew was airlifted to safety, but when the ice melted, the Baychimo became free and continued its voyage alone. It remained adrift for decades and was last seen in 1969: an eerie sight indeed (and perhaps it’s still out there, drifting still). Here are some more, rather spookier examples…

The Flying Dutchman, painted by Albert Pinkham Ryder in 1887

The Flying Dutchman

In 1680, a merchant ship set sail from Amsterdam, destined for modern-day Jakarta – and to be immortalised as the legend of the Flying Dutchman. This was not, in fact, the name of the ship, but the name of the captain: a madman called Hendrick Vanderdecken who drank like a fish, and swore like, well, like the sailor he was.

As the ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope, a tempest started stirring the waters. As it got worse and worse the crew begged the captain to turn the boat around. But the deranged Hendrick ignored their pleas and ploughed onwards, standing at the helm, drinking and shouting at the storm. The weather worsened. Waves pummelled the ship, winds tore at the sails, but still Hendrick refused to change course. When he finally fell into a drunken stupor, the crew mutinied and tried to turn the ship round. But Hendrick awoke, shot the head mutineer dead, and threw his body overboard. According to the legend, as the body hit the water, the clouds parted, and a figure boomed down from above: “You’re a very stubborn man!” To which Hendrick replied: “I never asked for a peaceful voyage. I never asked for anything, so clear off before I shoot you too!”

Hendrick lifted his gun and fired at the figure – but the weapon exploded in his hand. “You are condemned to sail the oceans for eternity with a ghostly crew of dead men,” the voice boomed. “You will bring death to all who sight your spectral ship; you will never make port or know a moment’s peace. Furthermore, gall shall be your drink, and red hot iron your meat.” From that day to this, the phantom ship has continued to strike fear into the hearts of sailors, who have reported sighting it from time to time. Scientists have dismissed such occurrences as optical illusions, but the sailors who have seen it would disagree…

The Mary Celeste, painted by an unknown artist – very appropriate

The Mary Celeste

In December 1872, the Mary Celeste, a British merchant shop, was spotted drifting across the calm Atlantic waters towards the Strait of Gibraltar. She had been heading from New York to Genoa with a cargo of 1,701 barrels of alcohol. But somewhere along the journey the eight-man crew and two passengers had disappeared from the face of the earth, never to be seen again.

Captain Morehouse of the Dei Gratia – a frigate which had been following a parallel course – boarded the Mary Celeste to investigate, and came across scenes of a rapidly abandoned ship. Stories of half-eaten breakfasts, even still-smoking pipes and warm tea emerged. The ship had a six-month supply of uncontaminated food, plenty of fresh water and there was no sign of a struggle. All the cargo was still accounted for too, so it’s unlikely that pirates were the cause.

Soon, whispers emerged about the curse of the Mary Celeste. In the following 13 years, she changed hands 17 times, with disaster following disaster, including death, drowning and great financial loss. Eventually, she was deliberately wrecked on rocks along the Haiti coastline, to claim on the insurance. The original mystery has never been solved. Some say mutiny, others suggest vapours emanating from the alcohol in the barrels wreaked havoc, others still suggest piracy. But no explanation is water-tight.

The mysterious Ourang Medan

The Ourang Medan

In 1947, two American ships were navigating the Malaysian coast near Sumatra, when they got a distress call from a nearby Dutch freighter, the Ourang Medan. The SOS message said: “All officers including captain are dead lying in chart room and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” And then two haunting words: “I die.” After that, all communication ceased.

The closest of the American ships, the Silver Star, raced to the scene to help. But by the time they arrived, every single member was indeed dead – with their mouths agape, their arms outstretched and their eyes wide open, as if frozen by some unspeakable horror. No blood, no wounds or injury – but petrified. People have speculated for decades over the various possibilities, but the mystery has never been solved.

If you have any maritime ghost stories (however tall!), especially if they involve fishermen, please write and share them with us at info@discoverseafood.uk.