Ghost Ships Ahoy!

The media is continually awash with old legends revived for a new audience and modern legends that are in the process of creation.  This item by Jon Henley, from Guardian G2 (27 March 2012), resurrects a motif found in nautical folklore and tales of the Bermuda Triangle:

The Flying Dutchman (Credit: occultopedia.com)

“….Reports that a 150ft squid-fishing boat ripped from its moorings in the Japanese port of Hachinohe  by last year’s tsunami has been spotted drifting, rusty and abandoned, off the west coast of Canada – more than 4,700 miles away – saw news media around the world reach unhesitantly for the words ‘Mary Celeste’.

“In fact, the Flying Dutchman is the original ghost ship, doomed never to make port and sail the seas forever. But despite being celebrated in verse and prose since the 1700s, as well as inspiring a Wagner opera and the Pirates of the Caribbean, she was only ever  a legend.

“The brigantine Mary Celeste really was found abandoned, heading for the straight of Gibraltar in 1872. She was missing her crew but otherwise intact, carrying six months of supplies and still, remarkably, under sail. The last entry in the ship’s log was written 11 days prior to her discovery.

“More recently, in 2006, coastguards investigating the case of the schooner Bel Amica, discovered drifting off the coast of Sardinia, found half-eaten Egyptian meals, French maps of North African seas and a flag of Luxembourg – but not a living soul on board.

“And four years ago when the Taiwanese fishing boat Tai Ching 21 was found drifting near Kiribati, a search of 21,000 sq miles of the Pacific Ocean found no trace of its captain or 28-strong crew.”

One of the best known sightings of the legendary ‘Flying Dutchman’, referred to in Henley’s article, was made by a very credible witness: Prince George, who was later to become King George V, the grandfather of the present Queen.

King George V (credit: Wikipedia)

His experience occurred on 11 July 1881 when the prince was training alongside his brother as a young naval cadet on HMS Inconstant. The British fleet was in Hobson Bay off the south coast of Australia, en route from Melbourne to Sydney. Prince George recorded the incident in his personal diary or, in another version, in the ship’s log that Peter Haining, in his book Ghosts (1974) said ‘was preserved by the Admiralty in London.’   According to Haining’s version, the Prince recorded how at 4 A.M. that morning ‘….the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows…A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up. The lookout man on the forecastle reported her as close to the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her… Thirteen persons altogether saw her. The Tourmaline and Cleopatra, who were sailing on our starboard bow, flashed to ask whether we had seen the strange red light… At 10.45 A.M. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms...’

I looked for confirmation of this story in the primary sources. The best contemporary evidence is provided by John Dalton’s The Cruise of Her Majesty’s Ship The Bacchante 1879-1882 (Macmillan & Co, 1886). This contains a passage that reads:

“July 11th (1881). — At 4 A.M. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow. The look-out man on the forecastle reported her as close on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did also the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle ; but on arriving there no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her, but whether it was Van Diemen or the Flying Dutchman or who else must remain unknown. The Tourmaline and Cleopatra, who were sailing on our starboard bow, flashed to ask whether we had seen the strange red light. At 6.15 A.M. observed land (Mount Diana) to the north-east. At 10.45 A.M. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the fore topmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms. At 4.15 P.M. after quarters we hove to with the headyards aback, and he was buried in the sea. He was a smart royal yardman, and one of the most promising young hands in the ship, and every one feels quite sad at his loss. (At the next port we came to the Admiral also was smitten down).’

So Dalton’s account appears to confirm the essential details in Haining’s story. Just to be absolutely sure, on a recent visit to The National Archives, I ordered up the original logbooks for HMS Bacchante and HMS Inconstant (ADM 53/11664). As I leafed through the dusty pages the tension that always precedes a discovery grew as I neared the section covering July 1881. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no mention of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ under the relevant dates. But then my eye was attracted to a note scribbled in the margin  for the date 11 July 1881. It reads:

‘10.45…Henry Youle, [ordinary seaman] 20 years, killed by a fall from the mast aloft. Buried at sea.’

Strange things do happen at sea, folks….

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