Phantom Ship must have been a frightening sight... (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2004)
Here comes the Flying
Dutchman, comes fast through the hissing spray, And proceeding
by the tempest he heads for Table Bay. With bird-like speed he's
borne along before the howling blast, But he never can cast anchor
there, for the Bay, alas, he's passed.
- Traditional English Ballad
One night near Cape John, Nova Scotia, drivers along
the coastal road were startled to see a strange vision on the
seaward horizon. One witness said, "It was a vessel, outlined
with a fiery glow. I wouldn't say it was actually flames I saw...
But the whole vessel was aglow and it was moving fast." The
apparition lasted for two hours and was seen by dozens of people
along the road.
Was there really a burning ship out there? No, it
was a phantom ship. Stories of many different phantom ships cover
the pages of history. Some are purely folklore, others are documented
The burning ship of the Northumberland Strait has
often been seen off the coast of Nova Scotia or Prince Edward
Island in Canada. Often it appears as a three-masted sailing ship
on fire. Another witness observed, "One October night I was returning
from visiting a neighbor; while walking along I was looking out
over the Northumberland Strait where I saw a ship burning. It
was a clear night and I could make out the outline of the ship
quite distinguishably. I watched it for about twenty minutes and
then it disappeared. I had heard so much about the phantom ship
that I decided that it must be it."
Supposedly over the years several attempts have
been made to reach the ship, but without success. One is detailed
by Sterling Ramsay in his book Folklore of Prince Edward Island.
Late one evening, approaching dusk, a ship [was]sighted
in the harbor which appeared to be in peril. Some distance out
in the channel was what appeared to be a huge three-massed sailing
vessel ablaze from bow to stern. A group of men boarded a small
boat and rowed toward the flaming ship, in hopes of rescuing as
many of her crew as was possible. While they still were some distance
from the craft, it disappeared into the mist and appeared to vanish
The burning ship Northumberland Strait is probably
an optical illusion of unknown mechanism. Mirages are common along
these waters, and often atmospheric conditions will make the coast
of Nova Scotia look impossibly close to the shores of Prince Edward
Island. At other times, the coastline is nearly invisible in the
Mirages may be part of the story behind the most
famous phantom ship of all, The Flying Dutchman.
The name Flying Dutchman actually refers to the captain
of the vessel, not the ship. Legend has it that around the mid-17th
century a Dutch vessel was trying to round the Cape of Good Hope
at the tip of Africa. The seas there are notoriously treacherous
and storms can make conditions even worse. The captain was distracted
(or anxious to get home) and tried to round the Cape during bad
weather. Despite the desperate conditions, the captain would not
turn back, cursing to the heavens that he would round the Cape
"even if it took all of eternity." In other versions
of the tale, the captain plays dice with the devil with the understanding
that if he wins, he will be transported around the Cape. He, of
course, loses, and is sentenced to spend the rest of eternity
trying to sail those waters.
The Flying Dutchman has supposedly
been seen by sailors in those waters for hundreds of years. Its
appearance is considered a harbinger of doom. The most likely
explanation for any Flying Dutchman sightings is that it
is probably a mirage. A distant ship is magnified by atmospheric
conditions to appear closer, perhaps even appearing in the sky
or upside down. Such an apparition, without scientific explanation,
would undoubtedly be labeled a ghost ship by any sailor who might
The Mary Celeste
Mary Celeste was a two masted brig.
While The Flying Dutchman and the
Northumberland Strait burning ship might be a combination of legend
and optical illusion, some phantom ships were quite real. Such
is the case of the Mary Celeste, a sailing brig of the
19th century. The ship sailed from New York on November 7th, 1872,
bound for Genoa, Italy, carrying 1701 barrels of alcohol. The
captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, was considered to be a very
able commander. With him sailed his wife and two-year-old daughter.
The crew consisted of first mate, Albert Richardson, and six other
On November 15th, another ship, the Dei Gratia,
left New York following the same path as the Mary Celeste.
The Dei Gratia's captain, a man named Morehouse, was acquainted
with Captain Briggs and had dined with him before Briggs' ship
had departed. Morehouse was very concerned when on December 5th
he saw the Mary Celeste drifting aimlessly between the
Azores Islands and the Portuguese coast. Morehouse attempted to
signal the brig, but there was no response. Pulling alongside
the ship, he sent a boarding party on board. The party found the
ship and most of the cargo intact, but the captain, his family,
and crew were gone.
Legend has it that the ship was in perfect order
with the table set for dinner and mugs of steaming coffee sitting
around the cabin. The testimony of the boarding crew, however,
documents that while the ship was sailable, it had apparently
suffered the effects of being left adrift in heavy weather for
several days. Deck hatches were open, and in between the decks
of the ship there was standing water. In the galley, the stove
was knocked out of position. When the cargo was later unloaded,
it was found that nine barrels were empty. As one Dei Gratia
crew member put it, "The whole ship was a thoroughly wet
mess. The Captain's bed was not fit to sleep in and had to be
The boarding crew dried out the ship and sailed
it into the Bay of Gibraltar on December 13th. There, a Vice-Admiralty
Court of inquiry was convened to determine what to do with the
ship. Testimony shows that the boarding party was of the opinion
that the crew had left the Mary Celeste in a great hurry.
At least one small boat was missing as well as navigational instruments.
The ship's log was left on board, however, with the last entry
dated November 25th.
It was not easy to find an explanation for what
had happened. Piracy seemed out of the question as the cargo was
almost completely intact. Also, there was no sign of violence
on board and a mutiny was unlikely on such a short trip with a
small crew. It was the opinion of the court that something had
apparently scared the crew and they had taken to the boat to save
their lives. What had scared them off their ship was unknown.
Once in the small boat it isn't hard to imagine that the heavy
weather might have sunk the fragile craft, leaving the Mary
Celeste to sail on alone.
Theories and Theories
Over the years, many theories have been formulated
as to what happened on the Mary Celeste. Newspapers at
the time insinuated there might have been a scheme between Morehouse
and Briggs to defraud the owners of the abandoned ship, but there
is no real evidence for this idea and seems extremely unlikely
given that Briggs was a part owner of the Celeste. One
writer suggested that some of the crew got at the cargo, got drunk,
and attacked the captain and his family. This also seems unlikely
as the alcohol carried was not at all palatable. Another writer
suggested a waterspout (a tornado over the ocean) hit the ship,
sweeping the crew and passengers into the water. One intriguing
theory forwarded by Captain Dave Williams is that the Mary
Celeste was the victim of a "seaquake."
A seaquake is an earthquake that occurs under the
ocean. Depending on the type of quake, it can cause a ship on
the surface to shutter violently. Williams proposed that the Mary
Celeste was hit by a seaquake which knocked the stove out of its
place and loosened the stays on the nine barrels of alcohol, spilling
their contents thoughout the hold and into the bilge. As the fumes
from the alcohol drifted about the vessel and into the galley
where the loosened stove was spitting sparks, the captain and
crew would have feared a violent explosion. The most reasonable
course would have been to immediately launch the ship's lifeboat,
tie it to the ship, and trail behind the vessel until the danger
of explosion had passed. If for some reason that rope had parted,
or in haste never been tied, the tiny life boat with the crew
might never have caught up with the mother ship. In the strong
winds and bad weather, they died at sea.
The mysterious abandonment of the Mary Celeste might
have remained a minor footnote in nautical history had it not
been for Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes
and author of such books as The Lost World. Conan Doyle
penned a fictional short story based on the incident changing
the name of the ship and entitling his work the Marie Celeste.
Many of the details attributed to the real incident actually come
from Conan Doyles' fictional story or the two movies made based
on that story.
Not all phantom ships are sailing ships. According
to Philip and Nancy Seff, authors of Petrified Lightning,
in 1931 the freighter Baychinco became a ghost ship of
the Arctic Sea. The Baychinco was sailing near Point Barrlow,
Alaska, when it became stuck in encroaching ice with the approach
of winter. In this situation there was little for the crew to
do but wait for the ice to break up so they could sail onward.
While waiting, a raging storm came, and the captain, fearing that
the ice's movements would crush the ship's hull like an eggshell,
ordered the crew down onto the surrounding pack until the storm
When the storm finally cleared, the crew was horrified
to see that the ship was gone. There was no sign that it had broken
up, leaving the captain to conclude that it had been broken free
and was now drifting crewless among the Arctic ice packs.
He was right. The phantom ship was spotted a number
of times, but despite attempts to recover the vessel with its
valuable cargo, no ship has been able to make contact. It was
last spotted in 1964 and as far as anyone knows, is still haunting
the cold waters of the far north.
Petrified Lightning by Philip Seff, Phd
and Nancy R. Seff, M.Ed, Contemporary Books, 1996.
History and Folklore of West Prince http://collections.ic.gc.ca/westpei/Phantom_ship.htm
Was the Mary Celeste Abandoned During a Seaquake? by Captain
Dave Williams, www.deafwhale.com/maryceleste/
Ghostly Encounters of the Northumberland Kind, 'The Island
Magazine'. Spring/Summer 1978:4 By: William B. Hamilton
2004 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.