IGhost ships have been sailing the Seven Seas of our imaginations for centuries, but is there any truth in the legends?
The best place to begin this investigation is perhaps Canada: home of the “fire-ships” mystery.
in 1981 Kevin Mann Jnr, a school teacher, was correcting English exam papers, at a beach house overlooking Chaleur Bay, New Brunswick, Canada, when he glanced up and beheld the ‘James Craig Light’: a mysterious phenomeon with various names, and considered by local fishers as an omen of bad luck.
“About three or four miles out,” he told a journalist, “there was a fiery mass that seemed to bob in the water. Looking through my binoculars I was able to identify a structure with three spires that had the appearance of being entirely engulfed in red-orange flames. Instinctively I grabbed my camera and began clicking away.”
The images were thought to be a first, which is quite surprising, because the phantoms are well known along Canada’s east coasts.
A journalist investigating “burning ships” in 1951 discovered almost everybody in some coastal towns had seen one.
At Caraquet an octogenerian said, “I have seen the Fire Ship hundreds of times. It takes various forms. Usually it is a sailing vessel wrapped in flames. It has also been a shapeless ball of fire, a ship’s lantern, and once - in 1906 - it was a burning steamer.
“How do I explain the Fire Ship? There are those who say it is a mixture of imagination and phosphorus, or imagination and St. Elmo’s Fire. For myself, I can’t explain the unexplainable, but I have seen it - yes, hundreds of times.”
A middle-aged farmer at Bathurst said, “I saw the Fire Ship twice. It looked exactly like a three-masted, full-rigged vessel with sails blazing. There were tiny things squirming up through the flames - black things like men climbing the rigging.”
On Prince Edward Island, locals have been reporting “burning ships” and “sea guns” for over 200 years, perhaps longer. The sightings occur any time but are most common in September, October, November during a NE wind.
One witness said, “I was returning from visiting a neighbor; while walking I was looking out over Northumberland Strait where I saw a ship burning. It was clear night and I could make out the outline of the ship quite distinctly. I watched it for about twenty minutes and then it disappeared....”
In Nova Scotia, Canada, a “fire ship” off Cape John attracted a large crowd, so that “within an hour the road was black with cars that came to see for themselves”. One witness stated, “I wouldn’t say it was actually flames I saw. The whole vessel was a glow and it was moving fast. I watched it for an hour until it went out of sight into the strait. Two nights later the whole thing was repeated. the vessel sailed back in the opposite direction.”
In 1898, the local newspaper at Harbourville, Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, gave this vivid account:
“About eighteen years ago - the narrator [the local postmaster] said - between 8 and 9 o’clock on a November evening, he with several others saw a bright light a few miles southeast of Isle Au Haute. As the light increased he could plainly distinguish - as he supposed - a large square rigged vessel under full canvas on fire. The flames could be seen running up the shrouds and spreading until the whole ship was in flames. The blaze continued about a half hour when the fire and vessel suddenly disappeared without showing that any part had been consumed or that there were any persons on board. About a year afterward at the same time on a November evening he witnessed again a repetition of the same. Mr. Rawding advances no theory and can offer no solution as to the phenomenon which it certainly was, as no such thing as a vessel burning actually took place near the Island within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.”
“The Palatine ship” seen off Block Island, off Rhode Island, New England, USA, is probably the most famous of all.
In 1752 a Dutch vessel carrying Palatines (Lutherans fleeing religious persecution in Germany) ran into a storm near Rhode Island. During the tempest the captain died, and when the weather subsided, the crew mutinied, robbed the passengers, looted the ship, and deserted in the lifeboats. After a few days the vessel ran ground on Block Island, where ‘moon cussers’ also boarded and looted the ship. Then, after the refugees had been allowed off (one old lady refused to budge and perished) the vessel was set afire and adrift... and according to some the ship burns still.
In a 1999 letter published in the Willow Glen Resident, a Californian newspaper, a reader related this graphic description of a sighitng, as described by a female friend, who saw it when a child:
“A tall-masted schooner appeared out in the ocean, huge and powerful, sails billowing for all to see - and hear. Out of nowhere it had materialized about a half-mile offshore - close enough for the whole group to see every person on board and make out their clothing, even to hear their faint cries for help, for the ship was ablaze from stem to stern with weird, glowing flames. The women in their long dresses and the men in their stiff uniforms and crisp collars were screaming for help as they jumped overboard and plunged into the water.”
The ‘Great Lakes Triangle’ is also reputedly haunted. The list of ghost ships includes:
The Griffon a sailing ship used by the French explorer Robert Cavalier de la Salle (1643-87); said to appear around Washington Island, Lake Michigan
SS Western Reserve a steel bulk carrier; sank in 1892, said to appear off Deer Park, Michigan, Lake Superior.
SS W H Gilcher a sister ship, sank in 1892, said to haunt the Straits of Mackinac, Lake Michigan.
Across the Atlantic, the waters of the British Isles also said to be haunted.
At Porthcurno, near Land’s End, Cornwall, there’s a legend about - a land-roving ghost ship. Arthur H Norway in Highways and Byeways in Devon and Cornwall (1904) says that, “Out of the mist she always came, a black square-rigged ship, sailing right up the beach, taking the sand without a shake or quiver and pursuing her course as speedily over dry land as on the sea, till she vanished in a smoke wreath higher up the valley.”
On the Orkneys, north of Scotland, the Laird of Graemsay’s cargo boat, which sank in Pentland Firth in 1758, has traditionally appeared in spectral form. “On certain evenings in the long days of Orkney summer as the gloaming [twilight] fell,” one report says, “many islanders declared solemnly that at the landing-slip below the Laird’s grain store, they could clearly distinguish the ghostly figures of the Laird and his servants working busily with their boats.”
Britain’s most famous ghost ship is probably the Lady Loviband, a triple-masted schooner that departed England for Porto, Portugal, with a general cargo in 1748. The story goes the skipper, Simon Peel, brought his new wife along - not realising that she, and the helmsman, Rivers, had previously been lovers. While the newly-weds were below, Rivers steered the ship in a fit of jealousy onto Goodwin Sands, off SE Kent, and all on board perished.
Lady Loviband traditionally re-appears at Goodwin Sands on the 50th anniversary of the wreck, on February 13, and she was apparently last seen in 1898.
In 1998 Prince Edward and his film crew filmed a “ghost ship” while shooting a TV documentary on the Isle of Wight. “We were talking about a ghost ship on the Isle of Wight and how we could illustrate this three-masted schooner that just disappears,” he told the London Mirror. “Suddenly someone said ‘Look, there’s one now’, and sure enough out to sea there was a three-masted schooner. It was not arranged by us. It simply appeared.”
The prince told how he watched the mysterious schooner sail towards the coast; then disappear. A check of shipping records revealed no sailing ships were known to be in the area at the time.
Ireland’s most famous ghost ship is the Sea Horse, a British transport ship that was wrecked during a storm inTramore Bay, in 1816. Only 30 of the 393 people, who were mostly British soldiers returning from the Napoleonic War, plus 79 women and children, survived.
The Sea Horse has been seen regularly through the years: on 31st January the anniversary, and at other times immediately prior to a shipwreck or a drowning off the south-east coast of Ireland.
The most famous ghost ship is the “flying Dutchman”, which reputedly haunts the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
The term “Flying Dutchman” actually refers to the ghost ship’s mad captain, Hendrik Vanderdecken. According to the legend, the ghost ship was a Dutch East India Company vessel en route from Amsterdam to Batavia (Jakarta), or vice versa, in 1641 or 1680. While the ship was rounding the Cape she ran into a storm, and the captain roared, “I will round this cape even if I have to keep sailing until doomsday!” Thus dooming himself and the crew to that exact fate.
Over the years hundreds of people have apparently beheld the spectre: from land, by Cape lighthouse keepers, bathers and others; and at sea, by trained observers on naval and merchant ships, and by stunned riders on pleasure craft.
On January 26, 1923, the “flying Dutchman” was observed by the watch aboard a steamer en route from Australia to England via the Cape, and the fourth officer, N K Stone, wrote this:
“It was a very dark night, overcast, with no moon. We looked through binoculars and the ship’s telescope, and made out what appeared to be the hull of a sailing ship, luminous, with two distinct masts carrying bare yards, also luminous. No sails were visible, but there was a luminous haze between the masts. There were no navigation lights, and she appeared to be coming close to us and at the same speed as ourselves... when she was within about a half-mile of us she suddenly disappeared.
“There were four witnesses of this spectacle, the Second Officer, a cadet, the helmsman and myself. I shall never forget the Second Officer’s startled expression - ‘My God, Stone, it’s a ghost ship.’”
After WWII Admiral Doenitz, Commander of Germany’s U-boats, went on record with the comment that: “Certain of my U-boat crews claimed they saw the Flying Dutchman or some other so-called phantom ships on their tours of duty east of Suez.”
The sightings continue.
A “flying Dutchman” has also been sighted off Australia - by British royalty no less.
In 1881, Prince Albert, and Prince George of Wales visited our shores as midshipmen aboard HMS Bacchante. After a stop at Melbourne, the royal squadron travelled to Sydney and en route many on board sighted an apparition while off the NSW coast. The future King George V wrote this:
“July 11th - At 4 A.M. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow. The look-out man on the forecastle reported her as close on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did also the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle but on arriving there no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her, but whether it was Van Diemen [another Cape ghost ship] or the Flying Dutchman or who else remain unknown.
“The Tourmaline and Cleopatra, who were sailing on our starboard bow, flashed to ask whether we had seen the strange red light... At 10.45 A.M. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.”
Our best known phantom ship is probably the Yongala.
On March 23-24, 1911, the Yongala of 3,644 tons disappeared mysteriously with the loss of 120 lives near Cape Bowling Green, while steaming from Mackay to Townsville, Queensland. According to the book Australian Ghost Stories (1967) “there are those who claim that, a ghost ship, she still haunts the treacherous seas that have for so long held her secret.”
Across the Tasman most New Zealanders know the story of the Maori Ghost Canoe that apparently appeared as an omen prior to devastating 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera.
On May 31, 1886, a whaleboat carrying six European tourists, six Maori rowers, a Maori women guide and two other Maori women and a baby, departed Te Wairoa, a tourist stopover, for the world-famous White and Pink Terraces on Lake Rotomahana, near Rotorua, North Island. The boat was about half-way to Moura point when one of Maori women screamed, and pointed over the lake - at a “typho” or spectre. A passenger, George Sise, later said:
“Looking in the direction at which she pointed, we were startled by the appearance of a large canoe with high prow and stern, and manned by thirteen [people]... The canoe was fully a quarter of a mile away [about 400 metres] from us, but as the day was beautifully fine we could see and count those on board without any trouble. She appeared to be coming from Waitangi, and proceeding in the direction of Mount Tarawera. Our Maori rowers seemed at first to be struck dumb with astonishment, but recovering themselves they whistled and shouted to the strangers, but without result... We watched the quaint-looking craft until she swept around a jutting headland and disappeared.”
When the news got back to Te Wairoa a Maori elder prophetised a cataclysmic disaster - and 10 days later Mount Tarawera erupted: killing about 153 people and also obliterating the White and Pink Terraces. There have been other various apparent sightings of Maori phantom canoes usually following a death.
Robyn Jenkin in the book Mysterious New Zealand also tells the story of a “phantom launch” at Kaingaroa Harbour, in the isolated Chatham Islands, E of Christchurch:
“Fishermen told of strange lights that followed them into port,” he says. “Sometimes, in misty or thick weather, the launch would pass travelling at high speed and without apparently noticing them.
“It was first seen in 1931, and shortly afterwards disaster struck. A party of young men... set out from Kaingaroa harbour for the annual footbal match at Owenga... They were never seen again.... The steamer Tees brought many reports back to New Zealand of sightings of this mystery launch and some men claimed it had come so close to them that they could see the wheel turning, but saw no sign of life on board.”
So if ghost ships exist, what are they?
Experts have suggested mirages, or else electrical discharges, underwater gas ignitions from coal seams, marine phosphorescences, or even phosphorescent ink emitted by giant squids... but in a few cases, the mystery definitely does sail on.
About the Author:
Jon Wyatt is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor.
1. ‘Phantom ship recorded on film for the first time’ by Ian Sclanders first published in The Northern Light, January 14, 1981, found at www.virtuelle.ca/vaisseaufantome/presse/presse11.html
2. ‘The fiery Phantom that sails Bay Chaleur’ by Ian Sclanders first published Maclean’s magazine June 15, 1951, found at www.virtuelle.ca/vaisseaufantome/presse/presse11.html
3. ‘History and Folklore of West Prince’ website, found at http://collections.ic.gc.ca/westpei/Phantom_ship.htm
4. The Berwick Register, January 19, 1898, found at www.harbourville.ednet.ns.ca/shipfire.htm
5. Letter by Deborah Taylor-Hollis published in Willow Glen Resident newspaper, California, October 27, 1999, found at www.svcn.com/archives/wgresident/10.27.99/ghost-story-9943.html
6. ‘The phantom ship Griffin’, first published in The National Directory of Haunted Places by Dennis William Hauch, found at http://myexecpc.com/~ahoj/wfiles/files/gh_griffinship.html
7. ‘The Laird of Graemsay’ found at ‘Ghosts and Restless Spirits’ website at http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/ghosts/clestran.htm
8. Quote from Highways and Byeways in Devon and Cornwall (1904) by Arthur H Norway, found at http://porthcurno.org.uk/PKhandbook/PKhandbook.htm#origin
9. ‘Prince Edward Says He And Film Crew Saw A Ghost Ship’, found at http://www.rense.com/ghostship.htm
11. The Cruise of Her Majesty’s Ship ‘Bacchante’ 1879-1882, compiled from the private journals, letters and note-books of Prince Albert Victor and Prince George of Wales with additions by John N Dalton, London: MacMillan 1886, Vol. 1, p 551
12. Australian Ghost Stories edited by Frank Cusack, Melbourne: Heinemann 1967, p.97
13. Tarawera: The Volcanic Eruption of 10 June 1886 by R F Kean (selfpublished 1988) p.65
14. New Zealand Mysteries by Robyn Jenkin (Reed Books 1970) p. 124-125
Source: The Australasian Ufologist Magazine Vol. 6 No.6 Pgs 16-19 (Photos/Illustrations)