The sea has always held a mystical quality for so many. Being so vast and, at times, unforgiving as the Earth’s waters can be has ingrained a deep respect within the hearts and minds of sailors the world over. An almost endless amount of beliefs and rituals associated with the sea and ocean-going voyages have developed over the centuries to assist men with handling the extreme risk and unknown qualities of the task they chose to undertake.
Be it any of various gods, or other mystical nautical beings presumed to be in charge, or in the name of the sea herself, as if from a single being, what happens while aboard ship has always been attributed, at least in part, to a fate or a will outside that of normal human powers. Sometimes, men and women are trapped in the force of that will; other times, entire ships and their crews get caught up. Whatever the reason, the sea frequently raises more questions than it answers, especially for those who sail on it.
To most anyone, The Flying Dutchman is the most famous ghost ship of all time. The legend is a simple one: The captain of a vessel of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century defied logic and the gods when he steered his vessel into a storm near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Predictably, the ship crashed on the rocks, killing all aboard her. But that wasn’t all. This captain’s transgressions were so great that death wasn’t his only punishment. He and his crew were also doomed to sail the waters near the Cape of Good Hope for all time, and any man who laid eyes on the phantom vessel would die soon thereafter.
There have been numerous sightings over the centuries in the waters near South Africa of a ghostly vessel sailing within a storm of its own, appearing and disappearing into thin air. It is said that those who see the Dutchman will die of drowning soon thereafter. It was also thought that the vessel had the ability to lure other ships to their demise, smashing them into the same rocks that claimed her all those years ago. The Flying Dutchman has become almost a generic term for any phantom vessel sighting and has moved beyond a tale told amongst sea-farers to an iconic legend. When it comes to ghost ships, The Flying Dutchman is the only place to start.
The S.S. Queen Mary is likely the most famous of the modern era ships to carry with it an air of the unknown. The Queen Mary, nicknamed the Gray Ghost for the color of her hull while ferrying troops across the Atlantic during World War II, has a reputation for being inhabited by several ghostly passengers including, reportedly, Winston Churchill.
There’s a young sailor who died aboard during a fire-fighting exercise, who is said to keep banging on the door that killed him. There are ghostly footprints that appear of a small child near the long-since-drained swimming pool, and various other spectres ranging from female passengers appearing out of nowhere then vanishing just as suddenly, or ghostly engineers showing up to work in the engine room. The ship’s long history has led to many events, some of them unfortunate, happening within her hull, and amongst modern day vessels, she’s said to be one of the most haunted.
The S.S. St. Paul is another large cruise liner that reportedly was done in by ghosts from its past. The ship, which carried troops all around the world, including Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, was involved in a serious collision with a British liner, the Gladiator in 1908. The two ships collided, the Gladiator getting the worst of the affair, killing 27 members of her crew.
A decade later, while in port in New York being refitted for military service, the St. Paul suffered an inexplicable accident, causing the ship to sink and killing four sailors in the process. Interestingly enough, the ship sank precisely ten years to the very minute that she collided with the Gladiator. Some have said that it was the ghosts of those doomed sailors that took their revenge on the St. Mary. After the accident, the ship was salvaged for a short time, but eventually scrapped five years later.
The Tricolor was a Norwegian merchant vessel that caught fire and had a load of chemicals in her hull explode on January 5, 1931 near Sri Lanka. The vessel encountered a severe tropical storm during her fateful journey, and it is thought that a lightning strike started the fire. The destruction of the ship was witnessed by a French liner, the S.S. Porthos, which responded to the distress call.
Five years to the day after the Tricolor’s demise, a British freighter, the S.S. Khosuru, sailing in the same waters came across a derelict ship that seemed to be devoid of all crew. The ship passed close enough to the Khosuru for crew members to read the name of the vessel from her hull. It was the Tricolor. Before the crew of the Khosuru could overtake the vessel, a torrential rain blocked out all visibility. Five minutes later, the rain let up, but the derelict was nowhere in sight. It was only later that the captain of the Khosuru discovered that the position he had seen the strange ship was the exact place where the Tricolor had met her demise five years earlier.
Ghostly presence aboard ship aren’t always harbingers of doom, however. In 1895, Captain Joshua Slocum started out on a voyage that would make him the world’s first solo circumnavigator of the globe. He refitted a worn-out old oyster boat for the trip, but near the beginning of the three-year voyage, he encountered a bit of trouble. Heading toward Gibraltar, Slocum ran into a gale so severe that it stripped the fittings from the deck of his vessel. In addition, he was suffering from food poisoning at the time.
During the howling storm, Slocum told of a phantom sailor claiming to be a member of Columbus’ crew who would steer him to safety. Slocum claims to have passed out, and that the ghostly helmsman led the trip on the proper course through the storm some 90 miles while he slept. In a book published after the completion of his historic voyage, Slocum gives credit to this apparition, claiming that he surely would have died if not for the otherworldly helping hand.
But if it’s unexplained ship disappearances you’re looking for, there is no better place to seek them out than the infamous Bermuda Triangle. There are so many accounts of vessels of all kinds simply vanishing in the small region in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida that it’s difficult to keep up with them all. This region isn’t known simply for vessels disappearing inexplicably, however. Sometimes, they come back.
There are numerous incidents of vessels having been reported missing that have later turned up, abandoned and drifting freely about the ocean. In one of the most disturbing aspects of this region, never in the entire history of the Coast Guard seeking vessels reported missing in this area, has a body turned up, even in the numerous cases where the boat was actually found still afloat. More still, never once has a signal from an emergency beacon, many of which are designed to signal automatically when separated from a vessel, ever been picked up from a missing vessel within the triangle.
On average, there are about 20 yachts each year that sail into the Triangle never to be seen or heard from again. The Bermuda Triangle is one of the most inexplicable, and potentially hazardous areas for boat travel on the globe. And, as yet, we still don’t know why.
Click below for more fright-filled stuff. And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…
The 13 Days of Halloween