History of Ghost Ships and the Haunted Maritime World

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Horror Mystery and Lore
Ghost ship on land
Photography by Massimiliano Morosinotto

What is a ghost ship exactly? Well, within lore it’s a ship that is considered to be haunted by a ghost crew, which brings it into the realm of the paranormal, but really what it is when talking in mixed company that might not all enjoy the odd theory of the paranormal or supernatural occurrences within their safe, normal world, it’s actually just a vessel with no living crew aboard. Phantom ships, as they are also known can be haunted vessels within folklore and fictional sources such as the ghost ship Jenny, but in the realm of the factually supported tales there are often derelict, abandoned, and at-risk vessels floating in the abundant and ever-changing waters of our world.

The Science Behind Ghost Ships

The oceans are a vast wilderness, full of more unknowns than knowns, where the veil between life and death is at its thinnest.

The wild torrents of the oceans hold the most unknown aspects of the entire world, without a vast improvement in technology we can’t hope to learn about every nook and cranny of our own planet. There is literally no shortage of eerie and unexpected tales that reach us from the dark depths of the sea. When there is no one but the crew to witness what occurs in the close-quarters of the most remote regions of the planet, there is an unlimited potential of overwhelming horror that can follow. Only 5% of the world’s oceans have been discovered, explored, and charted–much of which is what lies under the surface–and considering how much of the earth is covered by water (approximately 71%) it’s not difficult to see just how easy it can be a scary place for plenty of people around the world. There is a long history of humanity’s horrors that will continue to haunt the world, despite the more plausible scientific explanations.

True Tales of Mysterious Ghost Ship and Their Legends

The Mary Celeste

The circumstances of the Mary Celeste were never truly understood, but the last entry in the ship’s log had the vessel passing the Santa Maria Island in the Azores on November 25, 1872. When this merchant ship was found on December 4, 1872, it was completely empty of any crew, but still intact and sailing towards the Strait of Gibraltar. The lifeboats were missing, yet the ship was in good condition with a large number of provisions still in the hold and the crew was never found.

The Ourang Medan

February 1948 brought a distressing hail from the Ourang Medan when an S.O.S. was sent through morse code as American ships were passing through the Strait of Malacca along the southern shore of Malaysia. Both the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star responded to the following distress call. “S.O.S from Ourang Medan. We float. All officers including the captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge. Probably whole of crew dead.” At that point there was garbled code before the last words, “I die,” came through after which, no more communication followed.

Rescuers found a gruesome sight upon reaching the ship, with corpses littering the deck, on their back with their faces twisted in wide-eyed fear and even the crew’s pet dog looked as if it had died from fear. Before the ship could be towed into port, a fire had started within the hold and rapidly spread to the point of the rescuers having to flee and watch from the distance as the ship was engulfed in flames. Although this story in the context of how it has been told seems to point fully towards paranormal events, this ship has little record of having ever existed, but World War II had ended not too long before this story broke. This fact plays into the theory that there were a large amount of deadly chemical compounds that were being sold on the black market–nitro glycerin’s reaction to saltwater in the hold would have produced a mixture of toxic gasses which would have inevitably killed the crew and resulted in an explosion which would have destroyed the vessel.

The Joyita

Another merchant ship who met a tragic end, the Joyita left the harbor of Apia in Samoa on October 3, 1955 with a course for the Tokelau Islands. When the vessel was finally found five weeks later, all twenty-five of the passengers were missing; the radio was broken, but it was clear that a distress signal was being attempted. All of the lifeboats were missing, as was the captain’s log, navigational equipment, and firearms that were kept on the ship. The investigation into it brought no true determination as to the fate of the passengers and crew.

The Baychimo

For twenty years, the Baychimo sailed the seas, but in 1931 it became trapped in the encroaching ice of the arctic ocean. As the ice surrounded the ship, it began to squeeze and crush the hull. A majority of the crew were rescued after two weeks of surviving the elements, the rest of the crew, including the captain, stayed behind in an effort to salvage what they could. These remaining crew members moved off of the boat and camped on the ice, but the weather took a turn for the worse and for nearly two months they experienced an unceasing blizzard. When the snow eventually cleared, the boat was gone, believed to be lost to the depths of the Arctic Sea.

A little over thirty years later, in 1962 Inuit hunters in kayaks caught sight of the Baychimo on its side from a distance; while they were unable to get close enough to gather any information about the ship, they reported the encounter when they returned to shore in Barrow, Alaska. This abandoned ship matched the Baychimo, and after being adrift for over thirty years at sea it was still being sighted and reported until 1969. An Alaskan government search party was launched in 2006, but there has still been no trace since it was last sighted in 1969.

The Resolute

A vessel of the British Royal Navy, the Resolute was abandoned in 1854 after being trapped in ice in Viscount Melville Sound, Canada while on a search expedition to find John Franklin who happened to be a British explorer who had gotten lost in the Arctic. The ship drifted 1,200 miles before being found a year later off of the coast of Baffin Island, Canada having been freed from the ice. Fun fact, the wood Resolute was used to construct the desk that now sits in the Oval Office of the current Presidential Mansion, the White House.

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman is one of the most famous ghost ships, it has made it into the field of legend and has inspired books, movies, and operas. Sailors know this particular vessel, as it has gained some infamy through the tale in which it hovers above the water. It is said that it has been seen to fly even over landmasses. Another part of the legend suggests that it is known to appear inverted upon the horizon, with its derelict masts pointing downward to the sea, a sign which is taken as an omen of misfortune to come.

Others know this to be an optical illusion–this one, in particular, is known as the Fata Morgana, a mirage created by a thermal inversion over the ocean. The Fata Morgana happens when a layer of warm air sits above the layer of cold air and light waves are carried in an atmospheric duct, then curves downwards in a more severe angle than the curvature of the earth. When our brains attempt to make sense of the visual information it is processing, our eyes perceive the light as a straight line. That is not to say that there is no ship, just that the atmospheric reflection is the result of the thermal inversion and not necessarily The Flying Dutchman. This is the same optical illusion that has explained the visual phenomenon of phantom islands and floating castles.

Tales of the Black Freighter (2009)

Althought Watchmen (2009) isn’t exactly a horror movie–unless you account for the horror of complete world annihilation by nuclear war–but the Director’s Cut with Tales of the Black Freighter allowed us to engage with some good ol’ comic book horror. Tales of the Black Freighter isn’t even a paranormal horror in the sense of a ghost ship, but there is a hint at something supernatural occurring within the context of this story. Truly horrific within its own rights, it deserves an open-minded view to really understand the depths of tragedy and fear that lie in the human soul.

Tales of the Black Freighter (2009)

Movies & Films

While not all of these deal with haunted ships, all of them deal with ships and our beloved paranormal and supernatural addictions.

Television Series

While this is certainly not an exhaustive list of all of the ghost ships that are historically known to haunt the waters of the world, it just goes to show how uncertain we are of this enormous portion of this planet. Do you know anything more on ghost ships that we haven’t addressed in this article? Leave us a comment!