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By Lynn Whitney
The sea can be a place of beauty and peace, enticing sailors with visions of blue skies, gentle waves and starry nights. But the reality of life at sea can be long lonely days and harsh weather that can cause even the bravest sailor to question his sanity. Long difficult passages, with close quarters have created many a legend. And sailors being the story-tellers that they are, have spun many a yarn about mysterious disappearances and ghostly ships.
Perhaps the most famous of ghost ships is the Flying Dutchman. Visible during stormy weather off the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutchman actually refers to the Captain, not the vessel. Legend has it that the ship is doomed to sail the oceans forever, never making port. Sightings often include reports of an eerie glow illuminating the Captain, grasping the wheel and cursing the Heavens for bringing the storm. In the rigging of his ship is his crew of skeletons, grinning miserably as he holds his course.
Was the origin of the Flying Dutchman a real event? Well, stories differ, but this is the one we like the best. During a frightful storm, the obsessed Dutch Captain struggled to round the Cape of Good Hope against winds that threatened to sink his ship with all aboard. His crew and passengers begged him to turn back , but in his arrogance, he refused to change course. As huge waves battered his ship and howling winds shredded the sails, the Captain challenged the fates and sailed on through the maelstrom. In fear for their lives, the desperate crew attempted to mutiny, but the enraged Captain killed the leader of the rebellion and threw him overboard. As his body hit the water, the clouds parted and a ghastly figure appeared on the deck. The apparition addressed the Captain, “You are a very stubborn man,” to which the Captain replied, “I never asked for a peaceful passage,” and attempted to shoot the specter. As he fired his pistol, it exploded in his hand. The figure spoke again, but this time cursed the Captain for his actions and condemned him to sail the seas for all eternity accompanied by his ghostly crew, bringing death to all who sight his ship, never making port and never having a moment’s peace.
And so the story goes, the Captain forever sails his phantom ship through clouds of a storm, a portent of doom to all unlucky enough to see him. It is also said that he sometimes attempts to draw alongside another ship to deliver letters from his crew, but if the letters are opened, the ship will founder. Woe to the poor souls who sight the Flying Dutchman.
A lesser known legend of a spectral ship, is the Palantine Light. This is the ghost of a ship that wrecked off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island in 1738. It haunts the waters around the Island, bursting into flames and sinking into the ocean. A sighting is usually an omen of bad weather, but the ship has also been known to appear on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s.
So, what is the sad tale of this doomed ship? The Princess Augusta was a British ship that sailed from Rotterdam in August of 1738 under Captain George Long. Along with his crew of 14, were 240 immigrants to the United States. These passengers were German Palatinates, heading for Philadelphia, then probably on to a German settlement in Virginia. Their origin accounts for the name of the apparition.
The ship’s voyage seemed to have been cursed from the beginning. Contaminated water killed 200 of the passengers and half the crew, including the Captain. First Mate Andrew Brook took command, but was quickly pushed off course during a storm. The wretched survivors spent the next three months in deplorable conditions, trying to reach their destination. On Dec. 27, during a heavy snowstorm, the ship was driven aground on the northern shore of Block Island. According to some accounts, Brook rowed ashore with his remaining crew, leaving behind his passengers. The Islanders helped the stranded passengers the next day, nursed the abused and starving survivors and buried the twenty that died. It is suggested that the ship was deemed unsalvageable, was pushed out to sea and set afire. Some say a lone woman, driven mad by her circumstances, refused to leave the ship and went down with her.
As so often happens, the disaster became a legend when it was immortalized by John Greenleaf Whittier in his poem, “The Palantine.” His version paints an unflattering portrait of the Islanders, plundering the ship after lighting false signals to draw the ship ashore, then setting it afire.
Whichever version you choose to believe, no evidence of the ship remains. Only its legend and the few who claim to have seen it.
It seems that phantom ships sail not only the seas, but rivers as well. The Steamboat Eliza Battle haunts the Tombigbee River in Alabama. A luxurious paddle steamer, she carried presidents and dignitaries as well as cargo. On March 1, 1858, she held 56 passengers, a crew of 45 and a full load of cotton. Around 2 AM, after a night of festivities, the crew realized that several bales of cotton were burning. The fire spread quickly, forcing the passengers to abandon ship and plunge into the icy water. Some managed to climb atop floating cotton bales, others clung to tree tops in the flooded river. Many succumbed to the extreme cold. The burning steamboat continued to float downstream until it finally ran aground near Kemp’s Landing and sank. Since then, the “Phantom Steamboat” has been sighted on many a cold and windy night, fully ablaze, a harbinger of disaster to come.
So, do I believe in ghosts and ghostly ships? Well, I’m not sure, but I am sure that I don’t want to see one! And of course, as is often quoted, “ Ghosts are like true love. Everyone talks about it, but no one has ever seen one.” Maybe ghost ships are like that. Sailors talk about them, but has anyone really seen one, or lived to tell about it?