Mark Twain once said, ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’, but he also said ‘truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to probability, and truth ain’t’. We can’t think of a better way to introduce these peculiar, and often troubling, tales from the high seas that might seem too crazy to be true.
We’ll begin with the most famous ghost ship of all time. The Mary Celeste set sail from New York City and was bound for Genoa, Italy on 7th November, 1872. Its captain, Benjamin Briggs, had invested his life savings in the vessel to make sure it was fit for purpose. On-board were his wife, two-year-old daughter, seven handpicked crew members and a cargo of denatured alcohol. Before it set sail, Briggs had dinner with Captain David Morehouse of the Dei Gratia, the same captain/vessel combo that found the Mary Celeste drifting off course and abandoned 29 days later.
Evidence suggested an orderly departure of the captain and crew by means of a missing lifeboat. Morehouse brought the Mary Celeste ashore and, after being suspected and cleared of foul play, sailed away with a portion of her salvage rights. Mystery solved? Not quite. Interestingly, in November 1884, the Mary Celeste was deliberately wrecked in Haiti by Captain Gilman C. Parker in an attempt to scam the insurance company. He failed and died in disgrace, penniless.
The story of the SS Baychimo is a little more profound. Built in Sweden in 1914, this cargo steamer was designed for travelling through Alaska’s icy waters. However, in 1931, she became trapped in ice and the crew abandoned ship intending to return once the weather had calmed, but the Baychimo broke free from its moorings and drifted off. It was eventually tracked down 72 miles away, but it was decided that the ship wasn’t sufficiently seaworthy. Some of her cargo was retrieved and before she was abandoned again. Over the next few decades, she was regularly sighted, bobbing silently over the waves, with nothing onboard except a pile of rotting pelts. She was last seen sailing in March 1962 and last sighted, trapped back in ice, seven years later.
The apocryphal tale of the Octavius (or Gloriana), an 18th-century schooner, is quite literally a chilling one. On her return journey to London from China in 1762, Octavius vanished. Thirteen years later she was sighted off the coast of Greenland by a whaling ship. The crew boarded and discovered Octavia’s crew frozen solid with their captain sitting upright at his desk, pen in hand. Beside him, warped in a blanket lay his wife and his young son. The final entry in his log put the Octavius at 250 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, a few months after it’d had departed.
After taking the logbook, the dismayed crew left the ship and her grim cargo, and it was never seen again. But the story doesn’t quite end there. The Captain of the Octavius had told the port authorities that, due to fair weather, he intended to sail the northwest passage, something that had never been accomplished previously. The final entry in the Captain’s logbook and the location of the discovered ship tells us he made it, but by then he and his crew would have already been dead.
‘All officers including captain dead, lying in chartroom and on bridge, probably whole crew dead… I die’. According to various reports, this distress call was made in June 1947 from the Ourang Medan and picked up by the Silver Star, the ship that located the undamaged ghost vessel. Once boarded, the Silver Star’s crew happened upon an appalling sight. Dead bodies everywhere, ‘teeth bared, with their upturned faces to the sun, staring, as if in fear…’. The Ourang Medan was towed to port before mysteriously catching fire, exploding, and sinking. But there was no record of the Ourang Medan’s existence in the first place, and if the Silver Star did attend to a rescue operation in the waters around this time, it was never officially logged.
So, what happened? Assuming the Ourang Medan wasn’t a flight of fancy created by Italian author Silvio Scherli, one theory prevails that would explain why so little is known about its fate. Was it possible that the crew of the Ourang Medan was poisoned by illegal chemicals and nerve agents that they were transporting on behalf of a government agency? Perhaps the truth lies buried somewhere beneath the waves.
Before we wish you fair winds and following seas, let’s attempt to provide a solution to a more recent addition to the ghost ship canon. A couple of decades after being built as a private yacht, MV Joyita, a sturdy little craft at a mere 69 feet long, was being used as a cargo vessel. In 1955, she left on her final voyage from Samoa to the Tokelau Islands to grab a cargo of Copra. The trip was supposed to take just two days, but five weeks later, Joyita was located 600 miles off course by a merchant ship in the South Pacific.
She was listing but afloat, her captain, sixteen crew, and nine passengers, which included a doctor, government official, and two children, had vanished. The cargo and lifeboats, along with navigation equipment, the logbook, and firearms were also missing. The radio was jammed on a distress frequency but transmitting a signal so weak it barely covered a mile. More intriguingly, a doctor’s bag was discovered open on the deck containing medical equipment and bloody bandages.
There were lots of other mysterious things too, the flying bridge was damaged, the deckhouse windows were broken and, because the electric clocks had stopped at 10:25, the switches for the cabin and navigation lights were on. Whatever had occurred had done so at night, a fact corroborated by the remaining fuel in the tanks. It’s plausible that in the night the Joyita began taking in water, a violent argument broke out, possibly involving firearms, between the captain, keen to press onwards and claim his cargo, and his first mate insisting they turn around.
It’s worth noting that both men had a history of coming to blows, but they also knew the cork-lines hull made the Joyita unsinkable. Therefore, it’s more likely a third party suggested grabbing as much of the cargo as they could and abandoning the ship, leaving on the lifeboats, which were forever lost at sea. As for the Joyita, she sailed for a further three years but was eventually scrapped after being deemed a ‘bad luck’ ship, her hulk disappeared over time and by late 1970, nothing of her remained.