In 1880, the future King George V of England and his brother Prince Albert Victor (incidently a suspect in the Jack the Ripper case) saw a ghost ship while serving in the Royal Navy aboard HMS Bacchante. It appeared around 4 AM off the coast of Australia, glowing with red light with all sails set. The Princes, along with eleven others, momentarily saw the ship off their port bow at a distance of about 200 yards before it vanished as quickly as it appeared. The next day, the seaman who first sighted it fell to his death in an accident. King George V is the most noteworthy person out of hundreds said to have seen the Flying Dutchman.
The story behind the Flying Dutchman is unfortunately convoluted and colored by the exaggeration of centuries of sailors. The earliest written accounts describe a ship lost with all hands off the Cape of Good Hope. Another story describes a Captain Fokke, who made a deal with the devil to increase the speed of his ship. Then there’s the famous Captain van der Decken, who pushed his ship too hard, cursing at the wind to change direction, promising to push his ship forward until judgement day. It is unknown if all of these accounts describe the same ship, or different ghost ships, but the sightings are always said to herald disaster.
The convoluted story of the Flying Dutchman is just one of many stories about ghost ships. Off the coast of England, near a treacherous area called the Goodwin Sands, a ship wrecked in 1748 appears once every fifty years. Coming from the fog, the ship, called the Lady Luvibund, will appear with full sails set until ultimately making a suicidal turn toward toward land. The story goes that the first mate of the ship, a man named Rivers, snapped during the Captain’s wedding party, killed the helmsman and turned the ship toward land where it was smashed with all hands lost. It was seen in 1798, when it almost ran down another ship, the sounds of the party below decks could still be heard. It was seen again in 1848 when it was mistaken for a ship in distress, and again in 1898. Sadly, the ship has not been seen in recent times.
Another story involves the vessel Palatine, that appears off the coast of New England as a burning ship with a screaming lady standing on the deck. There are several versions of the story, most involving an unrescued crazy woman accidently left on board when the ship was burned. One version states that people on shore had loured the ship into the rocks with lanterns, where they robbed and murdered the crew and passengers before setting the ship alight to cover the evidence, leaving the raving woman onboard to burn.
The Caleuche is a ghost ship sighted off the coast of Chile, and has an even more wildly varying set of attributes than theFlying Dutchman. Some state that the ship is helpful, appearing to ships in distress. Another legend tells of its crew, who drowned when the ship sank, still trying to provide for their families from the grave. Yet another tale weaves a picture of a ship full of shapeshifting ghosts who can appear as men, or fish, or birds. And finally, another states that anyone who unwittingly harms the ship will sail for eternity as a slave working in the galley.
Some ghost ships aren’t ghosts at all. They are abandoned vessels that ply the waters without a crew, sometimes for decades. The Baychimo was a cargo steamer that became trapped in the arctic pack ice in 1931 carrying a load of furs. The crew was forced to abandon the ship, but it broke free several days later and the crew returned, only to get it stuck again in the ice. Left with a skeleton crew that took shelter on land until the ship could melt free, they awoke one morning to see that the ship was gone. Assuming that it had sunk, the crew prepared to go home until the ship was sighted adrift in open water some miles away. They retrieved the valuable cargo and assumed the Baychimo was too damaged to save. Apparently it wasn’t, since the ship would be sighted floating around the area for the next 38 years. The last sighting was in 1969, but some speculate that the ship may be locked in the ice again, waiting to break free and be seen again.
The oddest story of a ship without a crew, at least a live one, is the tale of the Ourang Medan. A very difficult to substantiate account, if true it could overtake all other cases as the strangest story to have come from the seas. In 1948, distress calls were recieved by several ships identified as coming from the Ourang Medan, a Dutch freighter. The transmissions told of most of the crew being dead, then a series of garbled messages, followed simply by the words “I die”. The ship was located drifting off the coast of Indonesia, and a boarding party found the crew laying on the deck facing the sky with horrified looks frozen on their faces, some with their arms in a position of pointing at some unknown horror. Even the ship’s dog was seen to be bearing its teeth in death, as if ready to attack. Shortly after, the ship caught fire, the boarding party escaped and the vessel exploded and sank.
The sea is full of mystery, so the next time you opt for a vacation cruise, if you’re lucky – or unlucky as the case may be – you might just see a ghost ship.