Phantom Ships

The Schooner Carroll A Deering, as seen from the Cape Lookout lightship on January 28, 1921. (US Coast Guard).
The Schooner Carroll A Deering, as seen from the
Cape Lookout lightship on January 28, 1921. (US Coast Guard).

The term phantom ship is used in several different ways. Firstly, it a fictional concept for a haunted vessel, such as The Flying Dutchman. The same term is also used to describe derelict ships found adrift with their entire crew either missing or dead, such as the Mary Celeste or the Baychimo. It is also sometimes used to refer to ships which have been decommissioned but not yet scrapped, such as the Clemenceau (R 98).1


Folklore, legends, and mythology

  • Undated: The Caleuche is a ghost ship which, according to local folklore and Chilota mythology, sails the seas around ChiloĆ© Island, Chile, at night. It appears as a beautiful sailing ship with the sounds of a party onboard, but quickly disappears again. Some believe the Caleuche provides aid to ships in distress; others say that once yearly, its drowned crew return to their families to help provide for them.
  • 1748: The Lady Lovibond is said to have been deliberately wrecked on Goodwin Sands on February 13 and to reappear off the Kent coast every fifty years.
  • 1795 onwards: The Flying Dutchman, a ship manned by a captain condemned to eternally sail the seas, has long been main legend of ghost ships among mariners and has inspired several works.

Historically Attested

  • 1872: The Mary Celeste, perhaps the most historically famous derelict, was found abandoned between Portugal (mainland) and Portugal's Azores archipelago. It was devoid of all crew, but largely intact and under sail, heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar. While Arthur Conan Doyle's story "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" based on this ship added some strange phenomena to the tale (such as that the tea found in the mess hall was still hot), the fact remained that the last log entry was 11 days prior to the discovery of the ship.2
  • 1921: The Carroll A Deering, a five-masted cargo schooner, was found stranded on a beach on Diamond Shoals, North Carolina. The ship's final voyage had been the subject of much debate and controversy (see main article), and was investigated by six Departments of the US government, largely because it was one of dozens of ships that sank or went missing within a relatively short period of time. While paranormal explanations have been advanced, the theories of mutiny or piracy are considered much more likely.
  • 1931: The Baychimo was abandoned in the Arctic Ocean when it became trapped in pack ice and was thought doomed to sink, but remained afloat and was sighted numerous times over the next 38 years without ever being salvaged.
  • 1933: A lifeboat from the 1906 wreck of the passenger steamship SS Valencia off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island was found floating in the area in remarkably good condition 27 years after the sinking. Sailors have also reported seeing the ship itself in the area in the years following the sinking, often as an apparition that followed down the coast.3
  • 2003: The High Aim 6 was found drifting in Australian waters, 80 nautical miles (150 km; 92 mi) east of Rowley Shoals, with its crew missing.
  • 2006: The tanker Jian Seng was found off the coast of Weipa, Queensland Australia in March. Its origin or owner could not be determined and it was scuttled in April.
  • 2006: In August the "Bel Amica" (which is one "L" short of the modern Italian spelling of "Good Friend") was discovered off the coast of Sardinia.4 The Coast Guard crew that discovered the ship found half eaten Egyptian meals, French maps of North African seas, and a flag of Luxembourg on board.
  • 2007: A 12-metre catamaran, the Kaz II, was discovered unmanned off the coast of Queensland, northeast Australia in April.5 The yacht, which had left Airlie Beach on Sunday April 15, was spotted about 80 nautical miles (150 km) off Townsville, near the outer Great Barrier Reef on the following Wednesday. When boarded on Friday, the engine was running, a laptop was running, the radio and GPS were working and a meal was set to eat, but the three-man crew were not on board. All the sails were up but one was badly shredded, while three life jackets and survival equipment, including an emergency beacon, were found on board. A search for the crew was abandoned on as it was considered unlikely that anyone could have survived for that period of time.
  • 2008: A 50 ton fishing vessel grounds itself on a reef near Kuta Beach in Bali. "The scorched shell of the Tai Ching 21 was found near Kiribati on November 9 with no sign of the crew members. The crew are from Taiwan, China, Indonesia and the Philippines, but news reports were unclear if the boat was Korean or Taiwanese."6


  • 1775: The Octavius, an English trading ship returning from China, was supposedly found drifting off the coast of Greenland. The captain's log showed that the ship had attempted the Northwest Passage, which had never been successfully traversed. The ship and the bodies of her frozen crew apparently completed the passage after drifting amongst the pack ice for 13 years.
  • 1840: The schooner Jenny was supposedly discovered after spending 17 years frozen in an ice-barrier of the Drake Passage. Found by Captain Brighton of the whaler Hope, it had been locked in the ice since 1823, the last port of call having been Lima, Peru. The bodies of the seven people aboard, including one woman and a dog, preserved by the Antarctic cold, were buried at sea by the crew of the Hope, and Brighton passed the account on to the Admiralty in London. The Jenny is commemorated by the Jenny Buttress, a feature on King George Island near Melville Peak, named by the UK Antarctic Place-Names Committee in 1960.
  • 1907: The Russian freighter Ivan Vassili is purported to have picked up a spirit in Zanzibar, which led to the suicides of nine crew members, including two captains. The ship was ultimately burned to eradicate the ghost.7
  • 1947: The Ourang Medan is said to have been found adrift off Indonesia with all of its crew dead. The boarding party found the entire crew "frozen, teeth baring, gaping at the sun." Before the ship could be towed to a home port, it exploded and sank.


  • 1980: Death Ship is about a lost Nazi German torture and concentration camp ship that is still being crewed by the evil spirits of the dead crew. It now roams the seas for new victims, picking up survivors to abuse and kill after it sinks their ships.
  • 1980: The Fog depicts the ghost ship Elizabeth Dane passing by a fishing boat just before the dead crew of the Dane kills the three fishermen on board the fishing boat.
  • 1997: Event Horizon is a spaceship which disappeared while testing an experimental propulsion system, then returned intact seven years later but with no crew, life support offline, and data recordings scrambled. The investigating team soon encounters an evil presence that the ship brought back with it.
  • 2001: The Triangle has the tagline: "60 years ago, the Queen of Scots vanished in the Bermuda Triangle. Now four friends have found the unthinkable… or has it found them?"
  • 2002: Ghost Ship is about the Antonia Graza, an Italian ocean liner lost at sea 40 years earlier, and now boarded by a salvage crew who soon encounter the ghostly apparitions of murdered passengers.
  • 2003: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and its sequels Dead Man's Chest (2006) and At World's End (2007) feature the ghost ships Black Pearl and Flying Dutchman.
  • 2007: Sunshine concerns a spacecraft, the Icarus II, sent to "re-ignite" the dying sun with a massive bomb some years after the Icarus I failed to complete a similar mission and was lost. As the new crew approach their destination, they discover the original ship and board it to investigate.


  • 1798: A "skeleton ship" crewed by two spectres features in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  • 1897: The Demeter, whose captain's corpse was tied to the helm, is featured in Bram Stoker's Dracula.
  • 1913: The Abel Fosdyk Papers, an apocryphal explanation of the fate of the Mary Celeste, were presented as a true account by A Howard Linford of Magdalen College, Oxford, the headmaster of Peterborough Lodge, Hampstead's largest prep school. The story appeared under the title Abel Fosdyk's Story in the monthly fiction magazine Strand Magazine, which had invited its contributors and readers to suggest possible solutions to the mystery of the Mary Celeste.
  • 1937: "Three Skeleton Key", a short story by George Toudouze about a ghost ship infested with sea rats, was originally written for Esquire magazine. It was adapted for the dramatic radio program Escape in 1949 by James Poe and was also broadcast on the Suspence radio drama series in the 1950s.8
  • 1965: The Ampoliros, the "Flying Dutchman" of space, is mentioned in Frank Herbert's Dune.

Video games

  • In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which uses as scenario a vast ocean, a ghost ship can be seen at night at various locations depending on the phase of the moon. A map with the ship destinations was made by a sailor, who died in the moment he finished following the ship in its entire cyclic trip. The player needs to find the map in order to enter the Ghost Ship; otherwise, it will vanish when the player gets too close. In Wind Waker's sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, a similar Ghost Ship is used as a dungeon, a plot device, and a boss battle.
  • In the Monkey Island game series, the main character, Guybrush Threepwood, repeatedly encounters the ghost pirate captain LeChuck and his Ghost Ship crewed by the undead. In the first game, The Secret of Monkey Island, it becomes known that LeChuck boarded the ship and killed the crew himself. In the third game, The Curse of Monkey Island, LeChuck's Ghost Ship is called Death Starfish (although the name of the ship is never actually mentioned in the game), and Guybrush encounters the Flying Welshman (a pun on the Flying Dutchman).

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