Ghosts at Sea

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The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman

There are many tales of ghost ships that ply the seas: phantom ships that appear after sinking, ships whose crews have mysteriously disappeared, ships that vanish into thin air, and more.

The Flying Dutchman is without a doubt the most well-known of all ghost ships. Although much of its story is legend, it is based on fact -- a vessel captained by Hendrick Vanderdecken, who set sail in 1680 from Amsterdam to Batavia, a port in Dutch East India. According to the legend, Vanderdecken's ship encountered a severe storm as is was rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Vanderdecken ignored the dangers of the storm -- thought by the crew to be a warning from God -- and pressed on. Battered by the tempest, the ship foundered, sending all aboard to their deaths. As punishment, they say, Vanderdecken and his ship were doomed to ply the waters near the Cape for eternity.

What has perpetuated this romantic legend is the fact that several people claim to have actually seen The Flying Dutchman -- even into the 20th century. One of the first recorded sightings was by the captain and crew of a British ship in 1835. They recorded that they saw the phantom ship approaching in the shroud of a terrible storm. It came so close that the British crew feared the two ships might collide, but then the ghost ship suddenly vanished.

The Flying Dutchman was again seen by two crewmen of the H.M.S. Bacchante in 1881. The following day, one of those men fell from the rigging to his death. As recently as March, 1939, the ghost ship was seen off the coast of South Africa by dozens of bathers who provided detailed descriptions of the ship, although most had probably never seen a 17th century merchantman. The British South Africa Annual of 1939 included the story, derived from newspaper reports: "With uncanny volition, the ship sailed steadily on as the Glencairn beachfolk stood about keenly discussing the whys and wherefores of the vessel. Just as the excitement reached its climax, however, the mystery ship vanished into thin air as strangely as it had come."

The last recorded sighting was in 1942 off the coast of Cape Town. Four witnesses saw the Dutchman sail into Table Bay... and disappear.

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Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes

Edmund Fitzgerald
Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Great Lakes are not without their ghost ships either.

  • The famed Edmund Fitzgerald (pictured above), an ore freighter which sank in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975 losing all 26 of its crew, was sighted by a commercial vessel 10 years later.
  • In September of 1678, the Griffon left Lake Michigan's Green Bay... and vanished. Yet in following years, several sailors claimed to have seen the Griffon afloat on the lake.
  • A recreational diver exploring the depths of Lake Superior in 1988 came upon the wreckage of the steamer Emperor. Swimming inside the old wreck, the diver swears he saw the ghost of a crewman lying on a bunk who turned and looked at him.
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Faces in the Water - S.S. Watertown

Ghost faces of the S.S. Watertown
Ghost faces of the S.S. Watertown.

James Courtney and Michael Meehan, crew members of the S.S. Watertown, were cleaning a cargo tank of the oil tanker as it sailed toward the Panama Canal from New York City in December of 1924. Through a freak accident, the two men were overcome by gas fumes and killed. As was the custom of the time, the sailors were buried at sea. But this was not the last the remaining crew members were to see of their unfortunate shipmates.

The next day, and for several days thereafter, the phantom-like faces of the sailors were seen in the water following the ship. This tale might be easy to dismiss as maritime legend if it weren't for the photographic evidence. When the ship's captain, Keith Tracy, reported the strange events to his employers, the Cities Service Company, they suggested he try to photograph the eerie faces - which he did. One of those photos is shown here.

Note: This photo might have been proved to be a hoax. Blake Smith has written an in-depth analysis and investigation of the photo for ForteanTimes. Read it here.

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S.S. Iron Mountain and the River of Death

S.S. Iron Mountain
S.S. Iron Mountain.

It's understandable how a ship could be lost in the vast, deep, and volatile oceans, but how could a ship completely disappear without a trace in a river? In June, 1872, the S.S. Iron Mountain steamed out of Vicksburg, Mississippi with an on-deck cargo of bailed cotton and barrels of molasses. Heading up the Mississippi River toward its ultimate destination of Pittsburgh, the ship was also towing a line of barges.

Later that day, another steamship, the Iroquois Chief, found the barges floating freely downriver. The towline had been cut. The crew of the Iroquois Chief secured the barges and waited for the Iron Mountain to arrive and recover them. But it never did. The Iron Mountain, nor any member of its crew, were ever seen again. Not one trace of a wreck or any piece of its cargo ever surfaced or floated to shore. It simply vanished.

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The Queen Mary

The Queen Mary
The Queen Mary.

One of the most famous of all cruise ships, the Queen Mary -- now a hotel and tourist attraction -- is said to be host to several ghosts. One may be the spirit of John Pedder, a 17-year-old crewman who was crushed to death by a watertight door in 1966 during a routine drill. Unexplained knocking has been heard around this door, and a tour guide reported that she saw a darkly dressed figure as she was leaving the area where Pedder had been killed. She saw his face and recognized that it was Pedder from his photographs.

A mysterious woman in white has been sighted near the front desk. Typically, she disappears behind a pillar and does not reappear. Another ghost, dressed in blue-gray overalls and sporting a long beard, has been spotted in the shaft alley of the engine room. Ghostly voices and laughter have been heard by the ship's swimming pool. One employee saw the wet footprints of a child appearing on the pool deck... with no one there.

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The Admiral Returns

Admiral Sir George Tryon
Admiral Sir George Tryon.

On June 22, 1899, at exactly 3:34 p.m., the Royal Navy flagship Victoria was rammed by another ship and sank. Most of the crew was killed, including its commander, Admiral Sir George Tryon. The accident, subsequent reports determined, was caused by mistaken orders by Sir George.

As the ship was sinking, he was heard by survivors to say, "It is all my fault." At the very moment of the tragic accident, Sir George's wife was hosting a party at her home in London. Not long after 3:30 p.m., several guests swore that they saw the distinguished figure of Sir George walk across the drawing room.

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The Ghost of the Great Eastern

The Great Eastern
The Great Eastern.

The Great Eastern was the Titanic of its day. Built in 1857, at 100,000 tons it was six times larger than any ship ever built and, like the Titanic, seemed destined for trouble. When its builders tried to launch it on January 30, 1858, it was so heavy that it jammed the launch mechanism and stopped dead. Even though it was eventually put afloat, it lay in harbor for about a year because the money had run out to finish it.

The Great Eastern was then bought by the Great Ship Company, which finished it and put it out to sea. But during its sea trials, a huge ventilator explosion killed at least one man and scalded several others with boiling water. One month later, its builder, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, died of a stroke. Despite its size, the cursed ship never carried a full complement of passengers, not even on its maiden voyage. On her fourth voyage, it was badly damaged in a storm, necessitating costly repairs.

In 1862, while carrying its record number of passengers -- 1,500 -- it sailed over an uncharted area and tore open its bottom... saved from sinking only by its double hull. On several occasions, a strange hammering noise of an unknown source could be heard far below decks. The crew said it could be heard even above the gale of a storm and sometimes woke sailors from their sleep.

The ship continued to lose money for its owners, but was successful in helping lay a transatlantic cable in 1865. Better ships built for the purpose soon replaced the Great Eastern, however, and for 12 years it sat rusting until it was eventually sold for scrap metal. As it was being taken apart, the source of the ship's bad luck, perhaps (and the phantom hammering), was discovered: within the double hull was the skeleton of the master shipwright who had mysteriously disappeared during construction.

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Mary Celeste - The Ship That Sailed Itself

Mary Celeste
Mary Celeste.

The tale of the Mary Celeste could be an article in itself, as it is one of the most famous, intriguing, and still unsolved mysteries of the sea. On December 3, 1872, the crew of the Dei Gratia, sailing from New York to Gibraltar, found the Mary Celeste floating unmanned about 600 miles west of Portugal.

The ship was in perfect condition. The sails were set, its cargo of 1,700 barrels of commercial alcohol were untouched (except for one barrel, which had been opened), a breakfast meal looked as though it been abandoned in the middle of being eaten, and all of the crew's belongings remained onboard. Yet its captain, Benjamin S. Briggs, his wife, his daughter, and the ship's crew of seven were gone.

Some versions of the story say that the ship's lifeboat was missing, while others say it was still in place on deck. All that seemed to be missing was the ship's chronometer, the sextant, and the cargo documents. There was no sign of a struggle, violence, storm, or any other kind of disturbance. The last entry in the ship's log was made on November 24, and made no indication of any trouble.

If this ship had been abandoned soon after this entry, the Mary Celeste would have been adrift for a week and a half. But this was impossible, according to the crew of the Dei Gratia, considering the ship's position and the way its sails had been set. Someone -- or something -- must have worked the ship for at least several days after the final log entry. The fate of the crew of the Mary Celeste remains a mystery.

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Amazon - The Cursed Ship

Amazon - Mary Celeste
The cursed Amazon.

Some ships just seem cursed with bad luck. The Amazon was christened in 1861 at Spencer Island, Nova Scotia, and just 48 hours after taking command of the ship, its captain suddenly died. On its maiden voyage, the Amazon struck a fishing weir (a fence), leaving a gash in its hull. While being repaired, the ship suffered a fire which broke out on board. Not long after, during its third Atlantic crossing, the Amazon collided with another ship.

Finally, in 1867, the ill-fated ship was wrecked off the coast of Newfoundland and abandoned for salvagers. But the ship had one last date with destiny. It was raised and restored by an American company who sailed it south for sale. It was purchased in 1872 by Captain Benjamin S. Briggs who raised its sails and headed out to sea toward the Mediterranean with his family... only now the ship was renamed the Mary Celeste!

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Ourang Medan

Ourang Medan
Ourang Medan.

In June, 1947, several ships in the straits of Malacca near Sumatra picked up an S.O.S. that included the message, "All officers including captain are dead lying in chart room and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” That was followed by another message from the sender that read simply, "I die."

Two American merchant ships picked up the message, which was identified as coming from the Ourang Medan, a Dutch freighter. The closest to the troubled ship was the Silver Star, which sailed full power in hopes of aiding the ship. When it arrived, the crew tried to signal and otherwise contact the Ourang Medan, but there was no reply.

Upon boarding the ship, the crew of the Silver Star made a shocking and mysterious discovery: everyone aboard the Ourang Medan was dead, including the captain on the bridge, the officers in the wheelhouse, right down to the crewman who sent the message of distress, with his hand still on the Morse Code wireless.

Every member of the crew lay dead with their eyes wide open and their mouths agape, as if they had witnessed some unspeakable horror before their deaths. No apparent cause for their deaths could be observed. How did they die? Pirates were ruled out because none of the bodies showed any signs of wounds or injury. There was no blood.

The Silver Star decided the thing to do was to tow the Ourang Medan back to port where the mystery could be sorted out. Before they could leave the area, however, smoke began billowing from below decks of the Ourang Medan followed by a tremendous explosion that shattered the ship and sent it quickly to the ocean floor.

Exactly what killed the crew of the Ourang Medan remains unexplained. One possible explanation is that the crew was overcome by methane gas that bubbled up from the ocean floor and enveloped the ship. More fantastic speculations blamed extraterrestrials. In any case, the deaths aboard the Ourang Medan have never been conclusively explained – and perhaps never will.

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SS Baychimo

SS Baychimo
SS Baychimo.

The fate of the SS Baychimo is one of the strangest ghost ship tales on record. It sailed the seas -- unmanned -- for 38 years!

Built in Sweden in 1911, the stream ship was first christened as the Ångermanelfven for a German shipping company and served as a trading vessel between Hamburg and Germany until the advent of World War I. After the war the ship was handed over to Great Britain for war reparations and was renamed Baychimo.

In October, 1931, with a shipload of furs, the Baychimo got stuck in ice pack near the town of Barrow, Alaska. The crew left the ship for Barrow to wait until the ship was free enough from the ice to resume its route. When the crew returned, however, the ship had already broken free and floated away. On the 15th of October, it became trapped in the ice again. Some of the crew decided to wait in the area until they could rescue the ship, but during a blizzard on November 24, the Baychimo disappeared.

At first the owners believed the ship must have sunk in the storm, but a native seal hunter reported seeing it about 45 miles away from where it had last got stuck in the ice. The crew found the ship, removed what furs they could, and abandoned the ship, believing that it was not sound enough to survive the winter.

But the SS Baychimo did survive. Over the next several decades the ship was seen and even boarded by other ships’ crews who found it adrift. Each time, however, they were not able to tow the cursed ship to harbor or were forced away by bad weather. Sightings include:

  • 1932 – spotted by a dog sledder on his way to Nome, Alaska
  • 1933 – boarded by some Inuit (Eskimos) who were trapped aboard by a storm for 10 days
  • 1934 – boarded by the crew of an exploring schooner, who had to let it go
  • 1939 – boarded by Captain Hugh Polson, who also had to abandon it because of ice build up
  • 1962 – seen adrift in the Beaufort Sea by Inuit
  • 1969 – found once again frozen in ice pack – the last sighting of the Baychimo

Because it has not been seen since 1969, it is assumed that the Baychimo has finally sunk, although no wreckage of it has ever been found. Who knows? The phantom ship might again one day sail out of the cold mist of the Arctic waters.