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A Phantom Ship Ghosts Its Way Through A Storm. Illustration: Ian Burt

A Phantom Ship Ghosts Its Way Through A Storm. Illustration: Ian Burt

Do Phantom Ships Have Skeleton Crews?

Ghost ships have been the subject of mythology and fiction, but they are also a factual phenomenon. The term refers to a ship that has no living crew, and no expectation of receiving one. Most real ghost ships are vessels that have been mothballed or abandoned because they are no longer seaworthy. Such derelict boats usually are old, weatherbeaten, and dark, and like abandoned buildings they inspire feelings of eeriness in people who see them.

However, over the past several hundred years there have been a number of strange reports of abandoned ships found floating on the ocean, purportedly with no clear explanation for the absence of their crews. One of the most famous such cases is that of the merchant ship SV Sea Bird, said to have run aground on the Rhode Island coast in the mid 1700s. According to some accounts, although there was no one aboard and the SV Sea Bird‘s life boat was missing, the sails were set and there was water boiling on a stove in the galley, indications that the vessel’s mysterious abandonment had occurred recently, and within sight of shore. A dog and a cat reportedly were on the ship.

Crewless ships that are nonetheless eternally underway appear in the legends of seafarers around the world. Sometimes these phantom vessels repeatedly navigate a particular coast, usually at night or during storms, and sometimes they periodically pass other ships on the open ocean.

One ghost ship that has been mentioned in both legend and literature is the Flying Dutchman, a spectral, eerily glowing Dutch warship that began making itself seen to sailors on the high seas in the the late 1700s. Supposedly returned as a wraith after being lost in a storm off the southern tip of Africa, the Flying Dutchman was mentioned in the writings of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and other English-language authors.

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