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.
The events surrounding the Ourang Medan, a ship out of Malaysia, are so bizarre that it is difficult to establish their veracity. Some even question the existence of the ship. This much is certain. The United States Coast Guard wrote about it in its May issue of Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council in 1952. The original writer, Silvio Scherli, wrote a series of three articles in a local Dutch-Indonesia newspaper in 1948.
According to his account, two American ships off the Strait of Malacca received a frantic SOS from a freighter. The person sending the message by Morse code said that everyone on the ship was either dead or dying. The message ended with the words, “I die.”
When the two ships arrived, they found a horrendous scene. The ship though perfectly intact had corpses strewn everywhere including the body of a dog. Those who boarded the Ourang Medan noticed the most grotesque faces on the dead all looking in the same direction with many pointing to something that must have been hideous beyond description.
Before the rescuers could search the ship, a fire broke out and spread so rapidly they had to withdraw. Not long before returning to their own ships, a huge explosion shook the Ourang Medan and it sank. What horrifying thing did these sailors witness before they died? And what was it that so effectively killed everyone on board including the dog?
The Caleuche of Chile holds all the mystery and foreboding one expects in a Steven King novel. According to Chilota mythology, the ship is actually a living being that sails around the island of Chiloe off southern Chile every night. With its well lit deck and three masts decorated with five sails each, it seems cheerful enough; that is until you realize its purpose is to collect the souls of all the sailors who have died at sea.
And while this alone may frighten the casual observer, a pleasant aspect surrounds this story. The ship always has a festive atmosphere aboard; think of an endless party with Jimmy Buffett playing parrothead songs twenty-four seven. Once the souls are on board, they are able to resume their lives as they had before their death.
Life out on the sea can be beautiful, but it can also be lonely. When one is away from civilization for long periods of time, the imagination can play tricks. But when the truly bizarre happens, no amount of rationalization can explain the incredibly bizarre.
How about you? Do you believe in ghosts or the paranormal? Do you know someone who’s had their brush with ghosts and spirits out on the seas? Let me know. Maybe we can add their story to the body of literature that’s out there. Meanwhile, stay safe and be careful, very, very careful, of what you bump into tonight.