The world is obsessed with otherworldly things. Vampires and zombies have been with us a long time. In fact, one of your neighbors might be one and you don’t even know it. I have my own suspicions about one on my street.
The world of mariners is no different.
Ghost ships, sometimes called phantom ships, are a very real phenomenon, and you don‘t even have to believe in things that go bump in the night to realize this is true. They aren’t exactly the same thing as haunted ships though more than one sober and sensible salt would give me a hell of an argument about that.
In the nautical world, ghost ships are defined as vessels out on the sea that have no crew or passengers. Drifting with winds, currents, and tides, they harbor not one living soul. Because no one is left to tell what happened, the circumstances surrounding everyone’s disappearance are always fraught with mystery and fright. While the sober-minded amongst us rationalize the events, it’s possible we have entered that nether region known as the twilight zone. Since these occurrences defy explanation, even a master story teller like Rod Serling would be baffled.
Since the history of ghost ships goes back centuries, I could write a book about all of them, but I’m going to share with you just three.
The first story has been embedded in the subconscious of mariners for centuries. The Flying Dutchman is no stranger to anyone familiar with sea lore.
According to one account, the ship was captained by a Dutchman, Bernard Fokke. Because of the speed with which he traveled from Netherlands to Java, many believed he had sold his soul to the devil. His crew, because of their nefarious ways, were condemned to the same fate as their captain. To sail the seas for eternity.
Yet another account names the captain as Van der Decken who made several attempts to round the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa. He obstinately refused to put into port and swore to the devil himself that he would sail all of eternity if necessary in the ferocious storms.
The story of the Flying Dutchman was given further credence when Prince George of Wales, later to become King George V, swears he and thirteen others saw the Dutchman glowing off their bow. The next day the sailor who first spotted the phantom ship fell to his death from the ship’s main mast.
The poet Sir Walter Scott perceived the crew as pirates who committed unspeakable acts. Their punishment is to sail endlessly without ever touching land again. To see the Flying Dutchman is to portend disaster.
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Much has been written about the evils of pirates and privateers, the latter being those hired guns whose sole purpose was to wreak havoc on another country’s enemies. But one of the best kept secrets about these men of the sea is that they were pivotal in the birth of the United States.
You’ve heard of John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, but you’ve never heard their names mentioned in the same breath as pirates and privateers. Yet without the daring bravery and audacity of privateers with tactics perfected by pirates, the name of the United States might only be a minor footnote in the annals of history.
Glance at a map of the original thirteen colonies, and it becomes apparent almost all bordered the ocean, bays, and rivers ripe with ports for trade. And as the saying goes, “Where there are seas, there are pirates.” Or privateers. Throughout history it often becomes hard to distinguish between the two, but it’s worth noting a few distinct differences. To become a pirate, all you had to do was get a ship and crew and raid till your heart’s content. Or till you were caught and hanged.
Privateers, on the other had, though they shared a likeminded attitude towards raiding, faced several restrictions. For example, privateers had to obtain a letter of marquis from the government they worked for. They usually had to put up a bond as well. They also agreed to attack only certain ships. In the case of the colonies, British ones. Finally, they agreed to bring back the plundered booty for sharing. Aarrrgh!
From New England to South Carolina and beyond, ports with generous harbors abounded, and when things heated up between Colonial America and Britain, so did the activity of privateers. As you can imagine, when the colonies declared their independence, Britain not only amassed large armies on its shores to suppress the rebellion, but sent her finest ships commanded by her most able sea captains to blockade the ports. This was particularly true from Boston to the Mid-Atlantic states.
Without goods coming in or out of the colonies, defeat was all but inevitable. With a stranglehold on needed supplies from countries like France, the war against Britain was destined to become nothing more than a miserable failure. But Congress and state governments granted at least nine hundred letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to do what pirates have always done best. Raid ships, harass the captains, steal cargo, and cripple trade and commerce both on the seas and in port.
We’ve had terrible news last week with the loss of thirty-three lives aboard the cargo ship El Faro. It was lost off the Bahamas in the middle of Hurricane Joaquin. On top of that, South Carolina has endured devastating floods that have left thousands homeless. So it’s nice to be able to share some really good news today.
This past week three notorious poachers, all officers aboard the Thunder, were convicted of forgery, pollution, damage to the environment, and recklessness. Captain Luis Alfonso Rubio Cataldo (Chile), Chief Engineer Agustin Dosil Rey (Spain), and Second Mechanic Luis Miguel Perez Fernandez (Spain) received sentences between thirty-two and thirty-six months. In addition, they must pay fifteen million euros, well over sixteen million US dollars.
But none of this would have happened without the courage and persistence of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The drama actually unfolded in early January when the Sea Shepherd’s ship, The Bob Barker, captained by Peter Hammarstedt, chased one of six ships, the Thunder, notorious for overfishing, for months. During that time, the crew of the Thunder did everything conceivable short of sinking their own ship to shake the tenacious crew of the Sea Shepherd.
On the hundred and tenth day, they did exactly that, scuttling their ship to destroy possible evidence to be used in court though they would deny it. The Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker and sister ship Sam Simon, captained by Sid Chakravarty, plucked the wet and unhappy crew from their life rafts and brought them to justice. Several of the toothfish they poached in Antarctic waters became damning evidence.
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I was going to follow up last week’s blog with fifteen more worthy maritime organizations you might be interested in joining to help save the oceans, but as you no doubt know by now, South Carolina has been inundated with torrential rains that have had widespread consequences. None of them good. In fact, most schools in South Carolina were closed from Tuesday through Friday presumably because of flooding even though many are nowhere near a flood zone.
I find this cruelly ironic since those four days were knock dead gorgeous with sunshine from sunrise to sunset. Given the fact that many of the past ten or eleven days were filled with forecasts of heavy rains, thunderstorms, or clouds.
And while the historic rains had no good consequences, the fact is they did bring two blessings to me. With my daughter and son-in-law preoccupied with their jobs, my grandchildren Luke and Nora had nowhere to go. So for three afternoons, my wife and I harbored them in our house. And what a particular harbor it was. I think Jimmy Buffett would be proud.
One day we played the afternoon away on a weight bench that served as a pirate ship much as it has for the past four years. With plenty of pirate swords, hats, a real compass, and several treasure chests, there was booty aplenty to plunder.
But the best day was Thursday. No pirate ship that day. Captain Bill had something else planned. He hooked them young scalawags with a treasure hunt. Well, it wasn’t really a treasure hunt. The truth be told we was burying treasure, we was! On me special island in the back of me secret hideout.
But you can’t bury treasure without something to bury. So we rifled through me boxes and drawers filled with all kinds of treasures. If me memory serves me right, there was a small moon, an oversized coin of Florida, a coin with skull and crossbones on one side and a genuine pirate ship on the other. Me grandson threw in some jewels, the likes of which no pirate has ever seen. Rubies, emeralds, and more coins.
And so there we was, mates, two young pirates and this old salt, slipping out our secret door and into the unknown wild. Me grandson with a chest loaded with booty in one hand, his pirate sword in the other; me granddaughter with a treasure map tight in her fist and a pen in the other because what good is burying treasure if ye don’t know where ye hid it? Continue reading →
Does it make you sick to see the oceans becoming sicker and the creatures of the deep more abused and pushed closer to extinction? Want to help right the wrongs you constantly read about? It seems impossible not to pick up a newspaper or magazine without coming across at least one or two environmental groups working hard to fix some problem.
Some are like an uncle we love but rarely see. We know them. We know they do good, but somehow we just never get in touch with them. Some groups are like the new neighbor down the street who we never get around to meet.
We’ll here’s your chance to not only get in touch with that uncle who does a lot of good, or meet that new neighbor but partner with them in a real and lasting way.
Opportunities abound to join environmental groups on the forefront of making a difference. Because the list is so vast, I’m going to concentrate just on maritime organizations. Blame it on the pirate in me! Aarrrghh!
Before introducing you to them, I want to explain these groups fall primarily into two types. Those that have members who are activists along with those who support them through money or time or by raising awareness of important issues.
The other type of group is made chiefly of activists who literally put their butts on the line. Close to the action, they often place themselves in harm’s way. Those who support them can be thought of as followers or supporters and do so with money.
Of course, some groups are hybrids of the two, but whatever group you are attracted to, I encourage you to learn as much as you can about them before committing time or money to them. All contribute to the ocean and its children in some way. A smaller group doesn’t imply the value of its work is any less noble.