Tales of ghost ships have been crossing the world’s oceans as long as sailors have. Sometimes these eerie tales whisper of phantom ships, harbingers of doom, while others speak of real stories where vessels have inexplicably sail the seas long after the crew have mysteriously died or disappeared.
1. Flying Dutchman
There are dozens of legends about this mythical ship and her crew-of- the-dead who are doomed to sail the seas until Judgment Day. It’s said that the ship’s captain made a deal with the devil and became famous for his ability to make the passage between Holland and Java in impossibly good time. Sure they could outrun capture, the crew eventually committed a terrible crime (although some versions claim they became infected with the plague) and the vessel was prohibited from entering port. Undaunted by denial of entry and confident in his ability to sail through at record speed, the captain attempted to round the Cape of Good Hope during a terrible storm.
When the frightened crew begged the captain to seek safe harbor, the captain swore into the wind that he and his crew would round the Cape “if he had to beat about the waves until Judgment Day.” The ship foundered in the storm and all aboard perished. But true to the captain’s word, Flying Dutchman continues to sail the seas with her damned crew still trying to complete her ill-fated passage.
There have been hundreds who claim to have seen this ghost ship, which supposedly hovers above the waves with an eerie, glowing mist about its masts in lieu of sails. The ship is believed to be a harbinger of imminent doom. One of the most famous sightings was reported by Prince George of Wales in the late 1800s, while making a passage off the coast of Australia between Sydney and Melbourne. He claimed at least 13 crewmembers spotted a glowing phantom ship at four a.m. The omen manifested itself later that day when the crewman who originally spotted Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast and was “smashed to atoms.”
2. Ourang Medan
There is some skepticism as to whether Ourang Medan actually existed, but its legend is well known. Around 1948, Morse code distress signals were picked up by several ships off the coast of Indonesia. The vessel in distress was a Dutch freighter called Ourang Medan, a Malay name meaning “Man from Medan.
Though the distress calls were intermittent and garbled at times, nearby ships were able to ascertain that the captain and all the officers were dead, the entire crew was in jeopardy and after several attempts at additional transmissions, a final message simply said, “I die.” Shortly after the last transmission, a vessel responding to the distress was able to locate Ourang Medan. The ship appeared to be in sound condition, but there was no response to the attempts to make contact, so a boarding party was dispatched. Upon entering the ship, they found a terrifying scene. The entire crew was found dead, their bodies were contorted with arms outstretched, eyes open and expressions of horror on their faces. Even the ship’s dog was found dead, baring his teeth at some phantom adversary. Yet upon closer observation, no injuries were observed on any of the bodies.
After some deliberation, a decision was made to tow the vessel to port to investigate the tragedy. However, as the salvaging crew prepared to tow the vessel, smoke began to pour out the hull. The crew was forced to abandon the ship and cut the lines to escape the thick smoke. Moments later, Ourang Medan exploded. Macabre speculation continues to surround the fate of the freighter and her unfortunate crew. There are those who believe that the crew was terrorized by demons or extraterrestrials; other stories claim the ship was carrying gruesome chemical weapons that accidentally killed the unprotected civilian crew charged with transporting them. And of course there are conspiracy theorists who say it was a military crew disguised aboard a civilian ship, carrying a mystery weapon that may have changed the course of history had Ourang Medan not met an untimely end.
Legend says Octavius was found adrift off Greenland in 1775. When she was boarded, her crew was found frozen and perfectly preserved. The captain was found seated in his cabin, frozen in place while making his last entry in the logbook. The date of the entry was 1762, meaning the frozen crew had been sailing the Arctic for 13 years. Though there are those who swear the legend of Octavius is true, no actual record of the vessel has been found, leading some to believe that it might be a mistelling of the Baychimo ghost ship. But you'll have to wait for the next installment of our stories to find out why!
Baychimo was a Swedish cargo steamship built in 1914. It was used for trade between the Inuit natives of Victoria Island and settlers of the Northwest Territory. In 1931, Baychimo became trapped in ice and the crew abandoned ship, setting up camp nearby. They briefly re-boarded when the ship temporarily broke free, but it soon became ice-bound again. All but a 15-man skeleton crew were airlifted away while the remaining crew kept watch over the trapped vessel and its cargo from a nearby shelter.
During a violent blizzard, Baychimo disappeared and the crew assumed she broke apart during the storm and sank. However, days later, the vessel was spotted 45 miles away, again trapped in ice. Her crew was able to retrieve the cargo but made no attempt to salvage the boat, which seemed to be on the brink of sinking.
But Baychimo did not sink, as there were at least 11 reported sightings of the derelict ship over the next four decades. The last sighting was reported by an Inuit fisherman who spotted her off the Alaskan coast (trapped in ice, of course) in 1969...38 years after her crew abandoned her.
Dubbed the “Ghost Ship of the Arctic” in 2006, the Alaskan government established a committee to determine her fate. However, she has never been spotted again and her ultimate fate is unknown.
5. Mary Celeste
In early November 1872, Mary Celeste, her crew of eight and two passengers set sail from New York to Italy with a cargo of 1,700 barrels of American alcohol. The crew of Dei Gratia, which left the harbor seven days after Mary Celeste, spotted the ship under full sail heading towards the Strait of Gibraltar. Although no distress signals were flying, Dei Gratia’s crew suspected Mary Celeste was derelict and sent a boarding party to investigate.
Upon boarding Mary Celeste, the Dei Gratia crew found the boat in relatively good condition — two hatches had been left open, and those areas were a “watery mess” but otherwise all appeared fine. However, there was no sign of the vessel’s crew or passengers. According to some accounts, there was food on the table and full cups of tea. Other odd observations were that the ship’s clock had stopped and its compass was destroyed. The sextant and chronometer were missing, as were most of the ship’s papers (although the ship’s logbook was left behind). The lifeboat had been set adrift and the only remaining passenger was a sleeping cat.
The last entry in the logbook had been made two weeks earlier, placing Mary Celeste 160 kilometers west of the Azores, and was otherwise unremarkable. After sailing the abandoned ship to Gibraltar, it was discovered that even though all 1,700 barrels of alcohol were aboard, nine of them were empty. Because the circumstances were so suspicious, the crew of Dei Gratia was awarded only a tiny fraction of the salvage. Wild stories abound as to what really happened — some say the ship was pilfered by pirates who then set the crew and passengers adrift to die at sea. Others suspect the crew was eaten by sharks during a morning swim, but the reality is that we will likely never know what befell the lost souls of Mary Celeste.
6. The Watertown Ghosts
While making way off the Mexican coast in the mid-1920s, two crewmembers of the SS Watertown were asphyxiated by gas fumes while cleaning out a cargo hold. The bodies of the deceased crewmen were buried at sea. The following day, just before dark, the entire ship was in an uproar when crew reported seeing ghosts of the two men in the water at the ship’s stern. The sightings continued and a crewman claimed he had been able to snap a picture, proving their existence with a camera. With the film untouched and left inside the camera, the captain delivered the camera to a commercial photographer to develop the images and authenticate the photo, which shows the faces of two men in the waves. To this day, the image of the Watertown ghosts is believed by many to be a legitimate paranormal photograph of ghosts at sea.