10 Tales of Legendary Ghost Ships

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shaunl/iStock via Getty Images / shaunl/iStock via Getty Images

The sea can be a haunted place. Maritime lore is rife with stories about ghost ships, whether they’re at-sea apparitions that bewilder viewers before vanishing into thin air, or mysterious vessels found sailing the oceans with no one aboard.

The most famous ship in the latter category is likely the Mary Celeste, discovered adrift near the Azores in 1872 without a soul in sight. Its story has continued to fascinate, helped along in part by Arthur Conan Doyle's 1884 short story "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement."

But while explanations connected to ships like the Mary Celeste will be endlessly debated, ghostly ship apparitions belong to a different realm—one of the imagination. And while plausible scientific explanations have been put forth to explain these sighting and the legends around them—from optical illusions to rotting vegetation—it can sometimes be fun to consider these tales just for themselves, and their ability to captivate our imaginations.

1. Flying Dutchman

The story usually goes something like this: An anxious captain paces the deck of his massive ship as it struggles against a storm, vowing to pass the Cape of Good Hope whatever the cost. A mysterious voice hears his oath and, as punishment for his recklessness to the crew, condemns him to sail the seas around the cape for eternity, his glowing ship serving as a warning to other mariners of bad weather and the cost of hubris.

First noted in the late 18th century, the legend of Flying Dutchman is the most famous story of a phantom vessel in European and American lore. It has inspired the imaginations of Washington Irving, Richard Wagner, Sir Walter Scott, and many others. The earliest accounts describe the apparition in connection with the crew of a Dutch ship lost off the Cape of Good Hope in a storm or due to disease, perhaps as punishment for some kind of horrible crime. An 1821 account in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine introduced the name Captain Hendrick Vanderdecken, said to have sworn an oath vowing to pass the Cape in a storm even if it meant eternal damnation.

Sightings of the Flying Dutchman (the name can refer to both the ship and its captain) have continued into the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the future King George V described seeing a ship glowing with a “strange red light” off the coast of Australia in 1881. In March 1939, about a dozen people claimed to have seen the vessel off the coast of South Africa. During World War II, German Admiral Karl Dönitz said that members of the crew of one of his U-boats had seen the Dutchman while patrolling off Cape Town.

Some reports mention a crew of skeletons dancing in the rigging. Others warn that the ship has the ability to lure other vessels onto the rocks— supposedly the captain is jealous of other ships who might pass the cape, and will do everything in his power to prevent them, whether that means spoiling their food or ensuring their death in a storm.

2. Baron Falkenberg

Germany’s North Sea is haunted by the legend of the medieval Baron Falkenberg, whose story is said to begin when his long-lost brother returned home rich and planned to marry a village maiden that the baron himself had his eye on. At the wedding feast, the plentiful food and champagne temporarily soothed the baron’s soul. But not for long—according to one telling, the baron’s brother “touched him up in the wrong place," whereupon the baron picked up a champagne bottle and bashed his brother over the head. The groom fell down dead, and his bride ran screaming into the room. The baron tried to convince her of his love, but she declared she would rather die than accept him. The baron took her declaration literally and stabbed a knife into her heart. Then the baron fled to the beach, where he found a boat and a man who stood up and said "The captain has been expecting you." The baron got into the boat, which took him to a gray ship, and he hasn’t disembarked for 600 years.

Those who have seen the baron’s vessel say it’s always heading north, without helm or helmsmen, and that the masthead flickers with a blue flame—illuminating the sight of the baron on deck, playing dice with the devil for control of his soul.

To make the story even more meta, some historians say it may be connected to a Norse saga in which a Viking sea captain named Stotte stole a magic ring from the gods. As punishment, Stotte was transformed into a living skeleton covered in fire, and condemned to spend the rest of eternity affixed to the mast of a ghostly, black-hulled longship.

3. Yellow Jack

Another centuries-old ghost ship tale concerns a vessel laden with gold and spices that was once preparing to leave the Indies. Before departing, the ship took on an unsavory character known only as "Yellow Jack." Apparently, his reputation was so bad the ship was forbidden to enter any port she called upon, forcing the vessel to endlessly cruise the seas. Eventually, the crew went mad and murdered each other. Some say the ship is still sailing, crewed by the ghosts of the dead sailors, forever searching for a port she can enter.

The story may have historical origins connected to shipborne diseases: “yellow jack” is another name for yellow fever, which spread frequently on Atlantic vessels, and the "yellow jack" was historically the flag flown by a ship infected with the plague, cholera, or similar deadly contagion. It seems likely that the unsavory “Yellow Jack” was not so much a person as a pathogen.

4. The Caleuche

The waters around Chile's Chiloe Island are known for terrible storms, and for sightings of the Caleuche—a demon ship with luminescent white sides and blood-red sails. More than just your average ghost ship, the Caleuche is a sentient being who can glide across the surface of the water at impossible speeds or dive beneath it like a whale. Observers say that when it passes, you can hear the cackling of its demon crew, who hop around on one leg and have faces that spin backwards. The ship is also crewed by sailors both dead and alive, either dragged from the deep or stolen from passing ships. However, the Caleuche only has use for the officers it finds, and spills the others—driven half-insane—onto local beaches. In other versions of the tales about the ship, it is piloted by the souls of the drowned. Merchants who trade with the boat become suddenly wealthy, while those who see it supposedly wear crooked smiles forever.

5. Lady Lovibond

The Goodwin Sands, off the coast of Kent in southeast England, is famous for a number of shipwrecks, and for several ghost ship legends. The most notable concerns the Lady Lovibond, said to have been deliberately wrecked in the 18th century and to reappear as a phantom every 50 years on the anniversary of its destruction.

The story goes that a captain was celebrating his recent marriage with a voyage to Portugal in 1748, bringing his new wife, her mother, and various wedding guests aboard the ship. Unfortunately, the first mate had hoped to be the groom himself. While the wedding party drank toasts to the happy couple, the first mate felt his blood begin to boil. In a jealous rage, he grabbed a wooden pin and struck the helmsman, killing him. Then he drove the schooner directly onto the Goodwin Sands, wrecking the boat and killing everyone aboard.

Supposedly, the glowing ship has reappeared to reenact the crash in 1798, 1848, and 1948, when she reportedly gave off a strange green glow. Locals have even set out to rescue survivors, only to discover the sands are bare.

6. The Palatine Light

If you ever find yourself near Rhode Island's Block Island during the quiet week between Christmas and New Years, try gazing out into the water at night. Supposedly, you just might see an 18th century ship blazing against the darkness. The apparition is known as the Palatine, or the Palatine Light, and it’s one of America’s best-known ghost ship legends.

While there’s no record of any ship known as the Palatine wrecking in the area, folklorists believe the story might be based on the sad story of another ship. In 1738, the Princess Augusta ran aground on Block Island carrying a load of German Palatines seeking a new life of religious freedom in America. A deposition taken from the crew (though only rediscovered in 1925) recounted that a "fever and flux" had killed many of the passengers and crew, and the acting captain refused to let the starving, shivering passengers go ashore.

While little else is known for sure about the wreck, a story developed over the next century saying that the Block Islanders had lured the ship onto the shoals so they could salvage its contents, then murdered the remaining passengers and burned the ship to conceal their crime. That version of events was enshrined in John Greenleaf Whittier's 1867 poem "The Palatine," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and made the story famous.

However, Whittier's version was far different from the one that developed among the Block Islanders, who emphasized their kindness in saving the shipwrecked passengers and nursing them back to health. One historian, Samuel Livermore, blamed the more troubling version of events, and the story of the ghostly apparition, on a notorious local woman known as ''Dutch Kattern," a survivor who stayed on the island and became known as a witch. According to Livermore, Kattern “had her revenge on the ship that put her ashore by imagining it on fire, and telling others, probably, that the light on the sound was the wicked ship Palatine, cursed for leaving her on Block Island." Whether Kattern was responsible for the idea or not, locals continue to insist that many have seen the ship shining at night during that one week each year.

7. Ghost Ship of Northumberland Strait

Since the late 18th century, people have reported seeing a ghostly three-masted schooner on fire in Canada’s Northumberland Strait, the body of water that separates Prince Edward Island from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Sightings seem to occur most often in the fall; some are reported as lasting just a few minutes, while others say they've seen the illusion last as long as an hour. In some cases, would-be rescuers have tried to sail out to help those on board, only to watch the ship vanish as they come close. The story gained popularity after being immortalized in local singer-songwriter Lennie Gallant’s song, "Tales of the Phantom Ship." On Friday, June 13, 2014, Canada Post even launched a postage stamp depicting the ship as part of a "haunted Canada" line.

8. Gardiner's Bay Phantoms

On March 18, 1754, the New York Gazette published a letter written by a group of men from Plum Island, on Long Island's far eastern end, who had been fishing for menhaden in nearby Gardiner's Bay when they saw three ghostly ships. The ships were apparently so close the men could see the sailors walking about on deck. The trio of ships fought a gun battle among themselves for about 15 minutes before silently fading away. More than a century later, in 1882, the New York Sun ran a letter from a menhaden fisherman who also had a spectral tale to tell about Gardiner's Bay. Supposedly, the letter writer had been sleeping on deck when he was awoken by a distraught-looking first mate, who claimed that a giant schooner had appeared out of the darkness heading straight for their boat. Just as it looked like it was about to hit the boat, it dissolved. One theory offered for the sight, and published in Scientific American, argued that the oily menhaden had somehow produced a glow that mirrored the schooner itself.

9. Fireship of Chaleur Bay

According to the city of Bathurst, in New Brunswick, Canada, tens of thousands of people have seen the apparition of a ship that appears to be on fire cruising Chaleur Bay, located between New Brunswick and Quebec. The apparition usually appears at night, sometimes hovering for hours in a single spot and other times skimming across the waves. Viewing it by telescope brings out no details. Scientists have explained the sight, which continues to be seen today, as being caused by St. Elmo's Fire (an electricity phenomenon), inflammable gas released beneath the sea, or phosphorescent marine life. Locals have connected the story to various shipwrecks in the region, including the story of a Portuguese captain who abused local Indians. One woman on Heron Island, a Mrs. Pettigrew, even reported being approached by the specter of a burned sailor who came to her farm house for help. When she turned to rush inside, it brushed past her and she discovered the figure was legless.

10. SS Valencia

It's been called the worst disaster in the "Graveyard of the Pacific," a treacherous stretch of coastal water from Oregon to Vancouver Island. On January 22, 1906, the Valencia, a coastal passenger liner en route from San Francisco to Seattle via Victoria, snagged on a submerged reef on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. Would-be rescuers were thwarted by the jagged, uncharted rocks and a fierce storm, and many lifeboats capsized in the roiling waters. For 36 hours, scores of passengers clung to the deck or the rigging, enduring a series of strategic errors by rescuers and crew. Finally, a giant wave swept most of them out to sea. Only 37 of the 136 passengers survived, and all of the ship's women and children perished. An investigation into the disaster resulted in the creation of the Pachena Point Lighthouse and a life-saving trail for shipwrecked mariners, which later became the West Coast Trail.

Several strange occurrences have been reported in connection with the disaster. Some onboard another nearby ship reported seeing an image of the Valencia take shape in the exhaust cloud formed by the rescue ship City of Topeka, which managed to save some survivors. For years afterward, sailors on the west coast of Vancouver Island reported seeing a phantom Valencia foundering on the waves, its terrified passengers and crew still holding on for dear life. There were also reports of Indian fisherman discovering a lifeboat either crewed by skeletons and on the water, or filled with skeletons and mysteriously hidden inside a cave. But perhaps most incredible of all is the fact that the Valencia’s lifeboat No. 5 was found drifting in Barkley Sound in 1933, still in decent condition 27 years after the disaster. Part of the lifeboat later went on display at the Maritime Museum in Victoria, B.C.

This story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.