Deserted ships, ghost sightings, and deceased crews – we bring you the best ghost ship stories from throughout history and across the globe.
Although the earth’s warming temperatures mean that the Northwest Passage is now free (albeit not easy) to sail through, this was not always the case. The search for the elusive passage claimed the lives of many ambitious sailors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; keen to find an alternate trade route to Asia, their ships would become lodged in Arctic ice, sealing their fate in the Great White North. The Octavius was one of many to meet such a fate, but the grim scenes found on board was what made the story of this ghost ship particularly terrifying.
The three-masted schooner departed from England in 1761, but was found off the coast of Greenland in 1775. Her captain had, unluckily decided to try and use the then nonexistent Northwest Passage (which superyacht Rosehearty has since cleared) to return home. The five men who boarded the derelict ship in 1775 were confronted with a ghostly sight; the entire 28-man crew was below deck, but frozen to death. The icy figure of the ship’s captain was discovered sitting at his desk, writing in his logbook, pen still in hand. The last logbook entry was in 1762 – the ghost ship and her crew had been lost at sea for 13 years before being found.
2 . SS Ourang Medan
One of the most notorious ghost ship stories, the tale of the SS Ourang Medan is shrouded in mystery. The legend goes that in 1947 a cargo ship off the coast of Indonesia put out a distress call with the words: “All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” Before help could arrive, a second message was radioed in with just two words: “I die.”
Rescue workers who boarded the ship discovered to their horror that the crewmembers were indeed deceased with their bodies contorted and arms outstretched as if fending off an attacker, but without any signs of injury. An engine room fire then caused the ship to be abandoned and eventually sink, taking its ghastly secret, and any chance of an autopsy investigation, to Davy Jones’ locker.
Later reports contradicted this supernatural tale, however, with a 1948 newspaper article citing a survivor who blamed the deaths on a leak of its deadly cargo — sulphuric acid. What’s more, there is no record of the SS Orang Medan in Lloyd’s Registry, leading some to conclude that this ghost story is pure fabrication.
3 . Mary Celeste
No ghost ship compendium would be complete without the tale of the brigantine Mary Celeste. Her fate has passed into maritime myth thanks in large part to a short story by Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes.
What we do know is that the Mary Celeste had sailed from New York on November 7, 1872 bound for Genoa with a cargo of alcohol. Almost a month later on the afternoon of December 5 she was spotted drifting somewhere between the Azores and Portugal by Dei Gratia, another brigantine on an Atlantic crossing.
Captain Morehouse of the Dei Gratia knew Captain Briggs of the Mary Celeste to be a capable sailor and was suspicious. He ordered a boarding party to the Mary Celeste and his crew found a deserted ship in seaworthy condition.
Captain Morehouse split his crew and sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar. To this date the fate of Captain Briggs, his wife, child and crew of seven remains unsolved. Whether Briggs abandoned ship because of bad weather or whether there is a distinctly more sinister reason for their disappearance will never be known.
More recently, the body of German sailor Manfred Fritz Bajorat was found slumped over the desk of his yacht Sajo in early 2016. The grim discovery was made by fishermen when they boarded the drifting yacht off Barabo in Surigeo del Sur province. After a post-mortem was carried out, local police said there were no signs of foul play and it was believed Bajorat dies of natural causes, possibly a heart attack. It is thought his yacht had been adrift for many months before it was discovered and the dry, salty conditions on board had caused his body to mummify.
5 . Kaz II
This more recent tale concerns the catamaran Kaz II, which was found deserted off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The 9.75 metre yacht was seen drifting by a helicopter on April 18, 2007 a few days after she had set off from Airlie Beach, Queensland.
When she was boarded on April 20 the maritime authorities found everything normal but no crew. Food was on the table, a laptop was on and the engine was running. The only indication of something out of the ordinary was a ripped sail.
Conspiracy theories as to the fate of the three men, inexperienced sailors in their 50s and 60s, abounded, ranging from pirates, insurance fraud and even paranormal activity. A coroner’s court found something far more prosaic – that the three friends had drowned after falling overboard as a result of their lack of nautical nous, though one cannot say for certain as their bodies have never been found.
6 . Carroll A Deering
The fate of the crew of five-masted schooner Carroll A Deering, which ran aground off North Carolina in January 1921, was investigated by no less than five US government departments. In the process it has become one of the most infamous maritime mysteries of all time.
The ship was returning to Norfolk, Virginia after delivering a consignment of coal to Rio de Janeiro. The captain, W B Wormwell, had been drafted in on the first leg of the journey due to the illness of the original captain and was said to have an uneasy relationship with the crew. Thus, mutiny was suspected as the most likely reason when the Carroll A Deering was found deserted after being boarded by rescuers on February 4, 1921. The ship’s navigation equipment and lifeboats had gone but, to add the mystery, food had been prepared for the next meal.
7 .The Flying Dutchman
The most iconic ghost ship in maritime culture is certainly The Flying Dutchman. The legend tells that this haunted ship is unable to make port and is cursed to sail the seas forevermore. The fable of this Dutch man-of-war ship appeared in the seventeenth century. The Flying Dutchman’s captain is apparently inspired by the stories of Barend Fokke, who’s exceptionally fast trips from the Netherlands to Java were presumed to be aided by the devil.
Sightings of the phantom ship, which apparently occur in bad weather, are supposed to be bad omens for those who pass her. The most famous report of The Flying Dutchman was by King George V, who apparently saw her all aglow along the coast of Australia as they were sailing in the Bass straight. The ship has become a famous trope in literature, art and movies since; she inspired Richard Wagner’s opera of the same name, and more recently made an appearance in the 2006 film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.
8. Japanese ghost ships
The Japanese Coast Guard has reported nigh on 200 instances of ghost ships over the last few years. However, unlike the Bermuda Triangle, the boats have been found, and with a grisly human cargo on board. One such recent incident happened off Fukui, a port city on the main Honshu island. The decomposing corpses of seven people were found on a drifting wooden fishing vessel in mid-December last year. The Japanese authorities are said to be puzzled by the fate of the ‘fisherman’ but one theory for this and the other floating ghost ships is they were defectors from the totalitarian North Korean regime across the treacherous sea to the west.
9 .High Aim 6
Auspiciously timed, this ghost ship was last seen leaving a port in Tawain on Halloween, 2002. The 20-metre boat was sighted cruising, abandoned, in the Timor Sea, within an 80 nautical mile range of Australia’s Rowley Shoals. The fishing boat’s owner had last been in touch with the captain in December of that year, but by January 2003 High Aim 6 was discovered unmanned. Strangely, the vessel was found with its engines fully fuelled and running, with all of the crew’s personal belongings and provisions on board. There was also no apparent signs of struggle or damage above or below deck.
The mystery remains unsolved; the only information the authorities received was from a single crew member they had managed to track down and taken into custody. He claimed that the crew of High Aim 6 had mutinied, but no reason was given as to why.
10 .HMS Resolute
HMS Resolute was a British Royal Navy ship found in 1854, abandoned and adrift, off the coast of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. She had originally been sent to find the remains of another lost expedition, that of Sir John Franklin’s to locate the then frozen Northwest Passage, but met a similar fate. HMS Resolute had become lodged in an ice floe and abandoned by the crew, of whom no trace was ever found.
An eerie scene met those who had discovered the ghostly ship in 1855; the captain’s cabin remained undisturbed with a teapot, bible and glasses full of liquor on the desk. A British Flag had been left draped over the chair of the ships’s commander, Captain Kellett. HMS Resolute was eventually retrieved, and retired 1879. Her timbers were used to construct the Resolute desk, which has been used by almost every American president in the Oval Office since the 19th century.