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Mysteries and Ghost Ships at Sea

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Maritime history is replete with stories of ships drifting on the open seas with their crews mysteriously vanished.

Maritime history is replete with stories of ships drifting on the open seas with their crews mysteriously vanished.

Mary Celeste

“Worse things happen at sea” goes the usually futile attempt to cheer someone up after a misfortune, but sometimes worse things do actually happen at sea.

The Mary Celeste (sometimes incorrectly called the Marie Celeste) is probably the most famous ghost ship.

On the afternoon of December 5, 1872, she was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. No one was aboard and it seemed the crew had abandoned a perfectly seaworthy vessel in a hurry.

All sorts of theories have been put forward from mutiny to alien abduction. But, the puzzle of the ghostly Mary Celeste has never been conclusively solved. There are many other mysterious ghost ship stories—read on.

The Mary Celeste.

The Mary Celeste.

SS Ourang Medan

The crew was dead, the vessel adrift; what happened?

In June 1947, distress calls were picked up by a vessel in the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia. In Morse code, the sender said “All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” Then, there was some garbled code followed by “I die.”

After that, silence.

When rescuers arrived and boarded the SS Ourang Medan they found a grisly scene. Corpses of the Dutch crew littered the deck. Each man’s eyes stared as though in terror and their arms reached out as if fending off an unseen attacker. Below decks were more bodies with faces contorted by horror and agony. Even the ship’s dog had died with a snarling muzzle.

The vessel appeared to be in a seaworthy condition and, apart from the fear-stricken grimaces of the victims, there seemed to be no evidence of violence or foul play.

The captain of the rescue ship, Silver Star, decided to tow the Ourang Medan to a harbour. They were scarcely under way before the crew of the Silver Star noticed smoke coming from the crippled vessel. They just managed to cut the tow line before the Ourang Medan exploded and sank.

Now, here’s the problem—the SS Ourang Medan does not appear in any ships’ registries; it may never have existed.

A plausible theory is that the vessel was carrying contraband chemicals, explosives, or nerve agents left over from World War II Japanese experiments. If that’s true, the smugglers obviously did not want to be discovered. Perhaps they were using an unregistered ghost ship, and chemicals leaked from their cargo to kill them all. We’ll never know.

Carroll A. Deering

In late January 1921, the Carroll A. Deering (above) was sailing up the Eastern seaboard of the United States. She was seen by several other vessels and lightships. The crew was reported to be milling about on the deck and the vessel was steering an odd course.

In the early morning of January 31st, a Coast Guard officer spotted the five-masted schooner. Its sails were set and it had run aground on the shoals off Cape Hatteras. There was a heavy sea, the deck was awash, and the lifeboats were missing.

Because of bad weather, it was four days before anybody could get on board the wrecked ship. When they did they discovered a mystery. Navigational equipment, personal belongings, and the schooner’s anchors were missing; so was the crew.

By March 1921, the Carroll A. Deering was breaking up on the shoals and was towed away and sunk. An FBI investigation was inconclusive and neither the ship’s log nor its crew ever turned up.

Speculation runs the gamut with suggestions of the involvement of a mutinous crew, pirates, and rum-running gangsters. Of course, there is a body of opinion that the whole conundrum can be put down to paranormal activity.

MV Joyita

The unsinkable MV Joyita was a merchant ship found adrift and abandoned in the South Pacific in 1955. Built in 1933 as a luxury yacht, the Joyita (it means “little jewel” in Spanish) was not a big boat, just 47 tons. Her cedar hull was lined with cork to make her very buoyant and virtually unsinkable.

At 5 a.m. on October 3, 1955 the Joyita left Samoa’s Apia harbour. She was bound for the Tokelau Islands, about 270 miles to the north; a voyage that should take a little less than two days. She had 16 crew and nine passengers aboard. She also had a cargo of medical supplies, empty oil drums, timber, and food.

After being reported overdue on October 6th, a huge search and rescue operation started but there was no sign of the Joyita until she was found 600 miles to the west of her scheduled course on November 10th.

She was listing heavily to port and a boarding party discovered a lot of peculiar things. Nobody was aboard and four tons of cargo was missing. Life rafts were gone and the starboard engine was covered with mattresses. There was no logbook or navigational equipment on board and there were four pieces of blood-stained bandage on the deck.

Surely, there were enough clues for a nautical Sherlock Holmes type to unravel the riddle. But no. The official investigation determined that what happened to those on board was “inexplicable on the evidence submitted at the inquiry.”

The boat was found to be in a poor state of repair and that she had sprung a leak. But, why would the crew and passengers abandon a vessel that was unsinkable?

Inevitably, alien abductions have been posited and several newspapers blamed the disappearances on still-active Japanese forces who hadn’t heard the war had ended. Other theories range from insurance fraud to that old standby, mutiny.

MV Lyubov Orlova

The MV Lyubov Orlova was a 4,000-ton Soviet-built vessel that took wealthy Russian tourists on Arctic cruises (shown below in happier days). In 2010, authorities in St. John’s, Newfoundland seized her over unpaid harbour fees. Two years later, she was auctioned off and towed out of St. John’s harbour on her final journey to a breaker’s yard.

After only one day at sea, the towline snapped. Re-attached to another tug she was taken out into international waters where Canadian officials ordered her released in February 2013 to drift wherever the currents took her.

A month later, she was reported to be 700 miles west of the Irish Coast, the location given by an emergency beacon that normally only activates when in contact with water.

This leads to speculation that she was now sitting on the ocean floor, but not if the notorious British tabloids had their wishes granted. They said the beacon may have come from lifeboats washed overboard by a heavy sea and the ghost ship still wallowed in the waves.

The headline in The Daily Mail’s January 23, 2014 edition tells it all: “Could this Russian Ghost Ship Infested with CANNIBAL RATS Beach in Britain?” Yikes. For those who like their news lurid, this was a juicy item.

The idea was that rats aboard the ship had run out of food and had started eating each other, turning them into ferocious cannibals. If Lyubov Orlova beached herself on British or Irish shores, hundreds, if not thousands, of ravenous rodents would head for land, creating havoc.

Editors were salivating at the thought of this ghost ship arriving with its hungry crew, but, by now, it's pretty close to certain they became the proverbial drowned rats.

Bonus Factoids

  • The mythological Flying Dutchman was a sailing ship that was doomed to cross the oceans forever and never reach a port. The story dates from 17th-century folklore. Despite its fictional status, the vessel has been reportedly seen many times, glowing with a ghostly light. Seeing the ghost ship is believed to foretell disaster.
  • In July 1969, the Teignmouth Electron, a 40-ft catamaran, was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. Its owner, Donald Crowhurst, was a competitor in the Golden Globe round-the-world, single-handed, non-stop race. Crowhurst had vanished along with his logbook. You can read more about this here.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


Robert Sacchi on December 30, 2017:

Thank for the explanation and your frankness.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 30, 2017:

I think the attitude of the Canadian government was that the Lyubov Orlova was not its problem so they cut her adrift to become someone else's problem. Irresponsible. Like those who toss garbage out of their car windows on the highway but on a grand scale.

Robert Sacchi on December 30, 2017:

Thank you. This is a very good article about some ghost ships. The sea does hide many secrets. Why was the MV Lyubov Orlova set adrift? This seems to be a hazard to navigation?