Ghost Ships

Hallowe'en is a few days away, the leaves are falling fast from the trees, and the gales of November are winding up here on the shore of Lake Michigan. On nights like this, the waxing moon glows in a halo of clouds, and the waves seem to sigh mournfully, as if lamenting the summer that is gone. This weather puts us in the mood for a good ghost story, of which the history of boating has no lack. Help yourself to some hot cider (or a pot of grog, if the fancy takes you) and gather round.

Among the many eerie tales of the sea are those about spectral ships like the Flying Dutchman. Made famous to modern audiences by SpongeBob SquarePants and the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Dutchman is a ghostly ship doomed to forever sail the seas. Some ghost ships, like England’s Lady Lovibond, are said to be apparitions of ships that have sunk or had other tragedies befall them. Built in the days before electric navigation lights, these ghostly vessels seemed to glow with a mysterious, fearsome energy. While a living ship might be occasionally visited with St. Elmo's fire, an electrical glow taken as a sign of saintly favor, the strange lights of ghost ships had nothing holy about them.

Since at least the 1600s, many ships have sunk on our own Great Lakes. The experts at Michigan’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum estimate that at least 6,000 ships have been lost in the cold depths; others put the number at over 25,000. Perhaps the most famous of all Great Lakes wrecks is that of the Edmund Fitzgerald, an iron ore freighter torn apart and sunk in Canadian waters during a terrible storm on November 10, 1975. Immortalized in a haunting ballad by Gordon Lightfoot, the storm-twisted and battered “Fitz” took all twenty-nine crewmen with her to the floor of Lake Superior. The crew’s families marked every anniversary by ringing the bell at Detroit’s Mariners’ Church for each man, just as the song says, until 2006. That year, the Canadian government granted the Edmund Fitzgerald gravesite status, legally protecting the wreck from further exploration. The Mariners’ Church now holds the Great Lakes Memorial Service every November, and the bell is rung in memory of all the lives lost on the Great Lakes.


Though no one has reported an encounter with the ghost of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Great Lakes do have their share of nautical apparitions. Not far from where the Fitz met her demise, one ghostly ship has even been caught on film. Could the Flying Dutchman have found his way down the St. Lawrence Seaway?



A ghost ship isn’t always a phantom. More properly called “derelicts,” ghost ships like Mary Celeste and Governor Parr sailed the oceans without their crews, sometimes for years, before sinking or being towed ashore.

S/V Governor Parr, 1918 S/V Governor Parr, 1918

Governor Parr, 1925 Governor Parr, 1925

The Mary Celeste is a particularly creepy example. Built in 1860 as the Amazon, her first captain died on the brigantine’s maiden voyage. Bad luck dogged the ship ever after, but seemed to intensify after the ship’s renaming in 1868. Perhaps the new owners did not observe the proper rituals for a vessel’s renaming. Whatever the source of her ill luck, the Mary Celeste would soon pass into seafaring legend in a most unfortunate fashion.

Mary Celeste began her last voyage on November 5, 1872. Bound for Genoa, Italy, she left New York under the command of Captain Benjamin Briggs. With him were his wife, his two-year-old daughter, and a hand-picked crew of seven men. The ship never reached its destination. Found adrift near the Azores on December 4 and boarded by the crew of S/V Dei Gratia, the last log entry had been made nine days earlier. Along with navigation instruments and most of the Mary Celeste’s papers, the ship’s boat was gone. All signs pointed to an orderly evacuation by the crew, the captain, and his family - but why? Upon its discovery, Mary Celeste had only minor damage; valuable personal possessions remained on the ship; and its flammable cargo of denatured alcohol was undisturbed. Several theories arose during the lengthy salvage hearing, including piracy, mutiny, and an insurance fraud scheme. Others since have speculated about rogue waves, waterspouts, giant squid, and alien abduction. To this day, no one knows what befell the people on the Mary Celeste, and no trace of them has ever been found.

After her salvage in 1873, rumors of the ship’s curse caused investors to shun Mary Celeste. When new owners took possession and she once again entered service as a trade vessel, she consistently lost money on every voyage. After losing yet another captain to a premature death, Mary Celeste’s last captain deliberately ran her aground on a Haitian reef in 1884 in an attempted insurance scam. The brigantine, damaged beyond repair, finally succumbed to the ravages of the sea. No one has ever found Mary Celeste’s final resting place, though many have searched for the ship’s remains.

Captain Briggs’ son Arthur, left behind with his grandmother to attend school, grew up, married, and has descendants living today in Massachusetts. He alone seems to have escaped the curse of the Mary Celeste.

What about you? What strange things have you seen from your boat? Tell us on FacebookTwitter, or Google+.

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