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An introduction to these mysteries of the deep.
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Catch my drift?
Ghost ships, actual and imagined crewless vessels that roam the oceans, carry a boatload of symbolism.
The real ones are both modern miracles and curious rebels. Massive unmanned ships, like the 253-foot (77-meter) MV Alta—which was missing for more than a year before it ran aground in Ireland in February 2020—remind us that the oceans are wilder and larger than we can fathom. Ghost ships of folklore like the Flying Dutchman and other apparitions have haunted seafarers for centuries. Appearing suddenly on the high seas, stuck in some kind of undead state, they often warn against the dangers of greed, rivalry, or ego.
Now ship makers are fast-developing electric autonomous seabound drones to carry goods around the globe with fewer emissions than today’s cargo ships and without the need to put lives at risk—think of them as ghost ships, but without the romance. Let’s take a closer look while they’re still in the literal offing.
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By the digits
1,628: Derelict ships recorded in the North Atlantic from 1887 to 1893
18: Months the MV Alta drifted around the Atlantic before it ran ashore near Ballycotton, Ireland in Feb. 2020; during its roaming days, it was spotted only once
38: Minimum years the SS Baychimo sailed in the Arctic without a crew; spotted frequently for years and last seen in 1969 off Alaska, the 230-foot-long cargo steamer has never been found
104: Wooden North Korean ghost ships that washed up on the west coast of Japan in 2017, some with corpses on board, the rare few with survivors
1,500–2,000: Seafarers that go missing each year
$1 million: Estimated value of the Lyubov Orlova, an ocean liner that went AWOL in 2013, becoming elusive prey to coast guard boats seeking the hazard and bounty hunters hoping to salvage its parts
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Explain it like I’m 5!
Where did all the people go? In some cases, maritime records will offer easy answers. If a crew abandons ship or is rescued, it’s the ship owner’s responsibility to tow the boat ashore. But when no records exist, the theories can run from the plausible (murder, staged insurance hoaxes, mutinies gone sideways) to the fantastical (sea monsters, paranormal activity).
Remaining lost—circumnavigating the world in some cases—requires little effort. In the late 19th century, tracking derelict ships reported by marine merchants was how ocean scientists first captured the precise traits (pdf) of the major ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream.
Even today, a ship can easily become a restless spirit if its beacon goes out. Even satellite images are not that useful in the hunt for a lost boat. As the BBC’s Richard Fisher writes, “unless you know where to look, the resolution of the cameras over the ocean is too low to see a ship.”
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1790: The first reference to the famous (and fictional) ghost ship the Flying Dutchman appears in print.
1925: The Havana-bound Cotopaxi steamship sends out one last distress signal and disappears in the Bermuda Triangle. The wreck is discovered off the coast of Florida in 2020.
1931: The SS Baychimo is trapped in ice and abandoned by its crew. It will next be seen floating unmanned off the Alaska coast, with sightings continuing for 38 years.
2007: Three men set off from Australia with booze and a .44 rifle for a leisurely trip on the Kaz II catamaran. Their empty boat is found with its engine idling and an unfinished cup of coffee on the table three days later.
2012: The Japanese fishing vessel Ryou-Un Maru is sunk with cannon fire one year after it was set loose by the Tohoku tsunami and carried by currents to the Gulf of Alaska.
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In 1929, the A. Ernest Mills, a schooner carrying a cargo of salt, sank off the coast of North Carolina following a collision. Four days later, once its salt had melted, the boat regained its buoyancy and resurfaced—but was towed before it could ghost.
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Ship of ghouls
It might be easy to write off one person’s account of a ship that emerges from thin air and disappears, but what do we do with centuries of sightings by entire groups of people—including the future King George V in 1881? Or the hundreds of maritimers who have claimed to witness the Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait sail said Canadian passage?
Scientists point to a couple of common events that could produce convincing ship-like shapes over water. One is St. Elmo’s Fire, a weather phenomenon that isn’t fire at all, but sparking plasma. During electrical storms, it can form around charged objects, like the mast of a ship, and create a continuous blue glow that may last several minutes. Another is fata morgana, a type of mirage that appears on the ocean’s horizon, making objects like distant ships or buildings on a shoreline appear closer than they are, floating ghost-like, and even inverted.
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“There will be a lot of rats and they eat each other. If I get aboard I’ll have to lace everywhere with poison.”
—Marine missions specialist Pim de Rhoodes, referring to the ghost ship Lyubov Orlov
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Ghost Ship, a large-scale light-art installation by European artists Mihai Baba and Daiana Folea (also known as Biangle Studio), made its first appearance in the Amsterdam Light Festival in 2014. Site-specific variations have since bewitched onlookers in several port towns, including Bucharest, Berlin, Singapore, Philadelphia, and Munkebo, Denmark.
Baba tells Quartz that he was inspired to create these spooky mirages because “ghost ships defy expectations.”
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You’ve probably heard of the Flying Dutchman, thanks to the opera by Wagner, the ship in the Hollywood franchise The Pirates of the Caribbean, or the character from SpongeBob SquarePants. All are inspired by an 18th-century fable about a possibly mad or drunk Dutch captain who refused to reverse course during a storm near Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The ship sank. Legend says it rose again as a ghost ship doomed to sail for eternity.
The phrase “Flying Dutchman” is now applied to all kinds of people and things. Here’s an non-exhaustive list of people and ships that the phrase has been used to describe:
😷 A cruise ship turned away from five ports because of coronavirus fears
⚽️ Soccer player Virgil van Dijk
🏅 Olympic gymnast Epke Zonderland
⚖ Chae Chan Ping, a Chinese laborer whose ghost (and 1889 Supreme Court case) haunts American immigration law
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