10 Creepy Ghost Ships that Haunt the High Seas

ghost-ship (Image: George Grie; some ghost ships are more real than you think)

We all love a good mystery, perhaps even a ghost story. From the earliest days of mankind’s interaction with the sea, we have learnt to respect the mighty power of this seemingly endless expanse of nature at its most tempestuous. It’s not surprising, then, that the tales that surround it have been enshrined in folklore since time immemorial; stories of curses, tempests and shipwrecks, and lost mariners never to be seen again. And then there are ghost ships. Creaking, empty vessels that drift through rain and fog, these ships have been stalking our nightmares for centuries. Some are stories, others are simply rumours. But some are very real, and still make an appearance on the high seas to this day.

The Mary Celeste (the World’s Most Infamous Ghost Ship)

mary-celeste-ghost-ship (Image: RedCoat10; Mary Celeste, perhaps the world’s most famous ‘ghost ship’)

On December 5, 1872 the crew of sailing ship Dei Gratia accidentally stumbled across one of the world’s most-enduring mysteries: the Mary Celeste. Found drifting aimlessly in the empty wastes of the Atlantic Ocean, the Mary Celeste was in seaworthy condition and a good state of repair. But an eerie atmosphere hung about the vessel. The Mary Celeste was utterly empty. The ship’s papers were gone. The lone lifeboat was missing. And the crew were nowhere to be seen.

There were no signs of violence. No signs of mutiny. No signs of disaster. Although the story about the food on the captain’s table still being warm is exactly that – a story – the peaceful, empty vessel was still weird enough to fire the public’s imagination. Over the years everything from the Bermuda Triangle to evil omens to a Dalek invasion have been blamed for the mysterious absence of the ghost ship’s crew. Although the real explanation is probably much simpler, the mystery of the Mary Celeste continues to haunt, over 140 years later.

The Ourang Medan

ghost-ship-2 (Image: B1bl1kal; the myth of the ghost ship Ourang Medan)

The story of the Ourang Medan is creepy, unsettling and squats right at the very limits of credibility. In 1947 (some sources say 1948), two American ships picked up an urgent distress call from a Dutch cargo ship off the coast of Indonesia. Approaching, they found the vessel drifting, seemingly-abandoned… and with a very grisly surprise in store.

The newly-rendered ghost ship was littered with corpses. In every room, on every walkway, the rotting cadavers of sailors and animals lay in festering heaps. Some were decaying. Some were fresh. Nearly all of them had a terrified look frozen on their faces. As the American crews investigated, a fire broke out that ultimately took the Ourang Medan down and its gruesome cargo with it.

At least, that’s the story. With incredibly little in the way of actual evidence, it’s now thought that the tale is mostly fiction. Whatever the truth, there’s no denying how creepy the myth of this Dutch ghost ship has become.

The Lyubov Orlova, a Modern Ghost Ship

Lyubov-Orlova-ghost-ship (Image: Lilpop,Rau&Loewenstein; this bizarre ghost ship may now have sunk)

If a giant floating hulk drifting aimlessly among the ice fields of the Arctic Circle, crewed only by hordes of cannibal rats, sounds like the setup to a horror story, think again. The fate of the Lyubov Orlova is very real and very weird.

A luxury cruise-liner built in the former Yugoslavia, the vessel was impounded by Canadian authorities to pay off the owner’s debts a few years ago. When the government was unable to sell it off for scrap, they reportedly allowed the ship to drift away into an apocalyptic storm, presumably in the hopes that it would sink. No such luck.

Instead, the Lyubov Orlova simply floated away, by now allegedly overrun with disease-ridden rats forced to eat one another to survive. Ever since, there have been alleged sightings, including a recent panic in Britain that the ghost ship would drift ashore and unleash its nightmare contents onto the UK. The Orlova is now presumed sunk; but there’s a possibility that the ghost ship still out there, perhaps with a surprise in store for some unlucky salvager.

SS Baychimo

SS-Baychimo-ghost-ship (Image: Aldus Books London; abandoned cargo ship SS Baychimo)

Not all ghost ships are terrifying harbingers of doom and rats, however. Over 38 years, the empty SS Baychimo managed to turn itself into a local favourite.

Originally abandoned during an Alaskan blizzard in 1931, the Baychimo made a name for itself by apparently being unsinkable. Already many decades old by the time it was cast adrift, the former cargo ship continued to haunt the waters around Newfoundland until 1969 – when it was last seen caught in pack ice by a group of Inuit. During this period, dozens of sightings were reported, to the point that the SS Baychimo took on the sort of reputation usually reserved for tourist attractions. Today, it’s thought that the Baychimo now resides on the ocean floor; although an ongoing Alaska government attempt to locate the ghost ship’s wreck has been entirely unsuccessful.

HMS Eurydice

HMS Eurydice-ghost-ship (Image: Loyola University Chicago)

Naval disasters don’t come much more tragic than the fate of the HMS Eurydice. On March 24, 1878 the ship was caught in a blizzard off the coast of the Isle of Wight in the UK. Within minutes she capsized, taking 317 people down with her. Not long after, visitors to the island started to report seeing a strange ‘phantom ship’ that disappeared exactly where the Eurydice had sunk.

What’s really creepy about the ghostly Eurydice is just how many people have seen it. In 1930, a British submarine was forced to take evasive action when a ship appeared directly above them. Nearly 70 years later, Prince Edward sighted the ship during a TV interview – watching as it faded slowly away in the mist. Since then, many more people claim to have seen the Eurydice haunting the spot that marks the ghost ship’s watery grave.

Kaz II

kaz-ii-ghost-yacht (Image: low res screenshot via YouTube; ghost catamaran Kaz II)

In 2007, Australian authorities encountered their very own Mary Celeste. Kaz II was a catamaran found drifting near the Great Barrier Reef. Like Mary Celeste, she was in good condition. Like the Celeste, there were no signs of violence. And, like the Celeste, she was completely empty.

There was food on the table, washing up in the sink and even a video camera last used roughly 90 minutes before the crew disappeared. When authorities played back the tape, they saw three late middle aged men larking around on deck in the sunshine. The seas were flat, the weather good and all three were later revealed to be competent sailors. There was nothing to indicate impending disaster. And yet, they were gone.

Theories for what caused the abandonment of Kaz II have ranged from a freak wave to a tragic accident. There’s even speculation that pirates or drug runners deliberately boarded and forced the crew to abandon what was mysteriously set to become a ghost ship. Whatever the truth, Kaz II remains a disturbing modern mystery.

The Lady Lovibond

ghost-ship-3 (Image: Ivan Aivazovsky; Lady Lovibond, more ghost story than ghost ship)

The tale of the Lady Lovibond has all the ingredients for a classic ghost story: tortured love, jealous rage and a possible smidgen of truth somewhere at its core. According to the tale, the Lovibond was wrecked on Goodwin Sands in the English Channel in 1748 when the first mate deliberately crashed it after the captain’s wife spurned his advances. Since then, an eerie, glowing ghost ship is said to have appeared at the site of the accident every fifty years.

Some sources claim the apparition was reliably seen in 1798, 1848, 1898 and 1948. However, the 250th anniversary passed in 1998 without a single sighting, meaning the urban legend may well have run its course. We’ll have to wait until 2048 to find out for sure.

MV Joyita

MV-Joyita-wreck-ghost-ship (Image: Wikipedia; the mystery of the ghost ship MV Joyita)

MV Joyita is like the anti-Celeste: a hideously damaged vessel found adrift in the Pacific with its crew missing and signs of bloodshed having taken place. Reported missing in October 1955, it was discovered five weeks later half-submerged, with blood-soaked bandages littering the deck and all its supplies gone. Yet what caused its crew to vanish remains a mystery.

See, Joyita was unsinkable. Equipped with a cork lined hull and carrying a cargo of empty fuel drums, it could stay partially afloat under almost any circumstances. Had the ship run into trouble, the crew would have known their best bet was to stay on the buoyant craft. So what caused them to abandon it? Theories have ranged from a pirate attack to a mutiny to the vessel being targeted by an errant Soviet submarine. As with so many ghost ships on this list, it’s doubtful we’ll ever know for sure.

Burning Ships

burning-ships-ghost-phantom-vessels (Image: National Maritime Museum)

Phantom ships consumed with flames or burning in the far distance have been reported from all corners of the world since time immemorial. Usually reported after a ship has perished in fire or explosion, they are said to return late at night, still glowing with the flames that sank them.

In Canada, both the Northumberland Strait and the coast of Nova Scotia are said to be haunted by burning ghost ships. Rhode Island has its own spectral flaming vessel and in Alabama an old river ship is still said to haunt the byways of Tombigbee River. Look further afield and you’ll find many more reports of these burning boats.

So what are they? Folklore, fiction or the apparitions of boats that foundered many years ago? We’ll leave it to you to decide where the origins of these ghost ships and other phantom vessels lie.

The Flying Dutchman, the Archetypal Ghost Ship

flying-dutchman-ghost-ship (Image: Albert Pinkham Ryder; Flying Dutchman, the archetypal ghost ship)

No other ghost ship is quite as famous as the Flying Dutchman. Crewed by the souls of the damned and doomed to wander the seven seas for all eternity, unable to make port, it’s the archetypal campfire story of the sea.

Reports of the Flying Dutchman have been around since the 18th century, with some believing its origins lie even further back than that. Each time the tale is similar, yet different: a phantom ship that seems to cut through the air, bringing portents of death, destruction and misery in its wake. Some versions have it that the crew will call out to passing vessels, asking them to take messages home to now-dead loved ones. Others have it that the devil himself is aboard, stalking the gangplanks.

It’s said that King George V once saw the ghostly Flying Dutchman, during an 1880 sea voyage. He’s not the only one: across the centuries hundreds of people have told tales of encounters with this famous ghost ship. Could it be that a phantom vessel crewed by the long-dead really is stalking our oceans?

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About the author: Morris M




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