If houses are haunted by the spirits of the departed, why not ships? The real reason why you hear so little of haunted ships is that the sailor, unlike the landsman, keeps a very still tongue on such subjects. For one thing, he hates to have his stories received with scepticism; for another, if he happens to be the skipper or owner, he takes good care to be silent on such a subject because history is full of stories of the enormous difficulty of getting a crew for a vessel supposedly haunted.
Tales of the deep relating to spectral ships are among the most attractive of stories, and authors of all kinds have embellished them with many fanciful and picturesque details. Indeed, every maritime country has its phantom ship.
The coasts of Cornwall are second to none in the wildness, the variety, and originality of their sea superstitions. For nowhere else in Europe has the sea taken such a toll of dead and still takes.
All along the Cornish shores the phantom ship is thoroughly believed in, as also are tales of phantom lights dotting the rocks and shoreline. A hundred or so years ago a schooner-rigged vessel put out signals of distress to the west of St. Ives Bay. A cable sent out reached her, and one of the seamen attempted to grasp at her bulwarks in order to jump on board; but his hand engaged with nothing solid, and as he fell back into the boat the schooner and her sailing light disappeared in the darkness. Next morning a ship out of the port of London was wrecked within the same vicinity, and all on board her perished. The phantom lights are observed generally before a gale; the Cornish seamen call them “Jack Harry’s lights” — named after the first man to be fooled by them — and the ship seen resembles the one that is subsequently wrecked.
The sinister death ship is a superstition peculiar to Cornwall. With a hull as dark as night and stumpy bowsprit she comes in, with all her canvas set, against the wind and tide, and as she turns to steer to seaward again the doomed person dies. Most famous of the stories grouping round the death ship is that of a wrecker who lived at Tregeseal, enticing vessels with false lights and doing to death those who escaped the waves. When a poor soul lays dying, a black ship full rigged with all sail set would be seen coming in upon the land against the wind and tide; and as the man died she bore out to sea again in the blustering gale.
Weird tales are told of ghastly crimes on the ocean, and of grey spectres appearing on the deck. One ship, on its return to the Cornish coast, endured nine weeks buffeted by tempests until the seamen thought they were on a veritable Flying Dutchman. At sea, when a dozen or so men are cooped together for many months, they become morbid. There was the re-decking on this ship, where the blood-stains had sunk so deeply that new planks had to be put in. The hands were shown it. They were told how a man’s skull was smashed in with a handspike just behind the fore-hatch; how a boy had been tied to the mainmast and his throat cut. Nine weary weeks they were buffeted and tossed about on the high seas, battling with head winds. The lonely watch in the freezing cold was fraught with horrors to the superstitious seamen, for all sorts of queer happenings were recounted, and even the most trifling was accorded unusual significance. The howling storm seemed to carry terrors that belonged not to wind and weather; the whistling of the gale in the rigging fashioned itself into the agonised death cries of tortured human beings. Grey figures with horrible gashes across their throats were seen by the light of the moon, through tempest-driven clouds, whilst fitful lighting illuminated the wet decks. They sat on hatches, and turned white faces over their shadowy shoulders, and then disappeared. And, there, eyes that were wrought up to constantly seeing visions, saw them moving through the inky blackness.
Storm after storm , troubled by sleet and snow, struggling with frozen topsails and courses; then, at last, there chance came. The wind hauled round and gave the exhausted crew relief, as the braces were slacked away and the ship squared before it. The run up to the coast was quick; and soon the bay was entered. Yet, beyond the terror of the seas awaited something far more ghastly; for, once anchor had been dropped, the ship was struck by a cloud of dense grey, rushing towards them from the surrounding cliffs. “Oh! my God!” shrieked the unfortunate men as the mist engulfed the ship and its crew. Only one man lived to tell the tale, and though all that remained of his ship seemed nothing more than a vessel dashed upon the rocks, the reaping of the destructive forces of a severe gale, his testament tells only of ghost-haunted shores and grey visions at sea.
Cornish ghost ships appear sometimes crowded with soldiers and ablaze with lights, while on the bowsprit, stands an officer with a woman in his arms. Then the lights go out; terrible screams are heard, and the ship vanishes. Some spectral vessels are manned by skeletons and dogs. The former are lost sinners, while the dogs are demons set over them to watch and torment them. Sailors regard the meeting of this craft with fear and as a harbinger of great danger.
Porthcurno Cove, not far from the Logan Stone, has also a ship of doom. Some sailors and shoreline sea-gazers have seen mists rising off the marshes that slowly fade to reveal a black square-rigged craft which then suddenly vanishes. Upon whoever sees her ill luck and death are sure to fall.
The Wrecker of Priest Cove, in Cornwall, is regarded as a portent of misfortune. He is supposed to be the ghost of one who once lured ships to destruction by means of false lights. Fate has turned the tables; it is now he whose pallid face is seen, as he clings desperately to a floating spar which the tide sweeps out to sea.
Near St. Ives is a churchyard haunted by an apparition, the sight of which entails impending doom to seamen. In the 1860s, a vessel was wrecked on the coast here. The men who went off to the rescue found on board a woman with a child in her arms. She refused to give up her charge, and in drawing her by a rope from the wreck to the boat the child was lost in the raging seas. The woman died through shock and exposure and was buried in the local churchyard. Today her wraith is said to haunt the shoreline whether the day or the night is merciless or fine. And on whoever sees her, be he a seafaring man, disaster is sure to fall.
Another tale tells of a ghost that took up residence in a French prize, the Medee, captured in 1744 by the Dreadnought, which attached itself to the ship until she was wrecked near St Ives. It made its first appearance among the prisoners in the hold when the Mede was on its way to England in charge of a prize crew. The Frenchmen were greatly excited, and declared it was the ghost of their boatswain, who had been hanged for murdering his wife, who had followed him to sea. Before Spithead was reached the spectral boatswain showed himself to the English crew. Soon after her arrival at Spithead, the Medee was sold to a privateer captain no other than the famous “Fortunatus” Walker, but even he could not dispel the ill-luck brought by this ghost. While he was cruising in the Channel on the lookout for French prizes, the steadiest and soberest man among his crew came to him and said he had seen a ghost on board, which told him that the ship was doomed. The captain made light of the story but others saw the wraith of the wicked boatswain, and the whole crew in the end became panic-stricken. A great storm arose, and the ship began to leak. In the midst of the trouble the ghost appeared, and the men, badly frightened, attempted to seize, and escape in the boats. But Fortunatus Walker frustrated their design. At last the ship reached St Ives, but she was doomed, for a heavy sea drove her bodily on a reef and she broke up. All were saved except three men who had sworn to seeing and speaking to the ghost of the murderous French boatswain.
There are things beyond the limits of our lands that are, and will continue to be, far from explained. It these tales that impress upon our minds how unfathomable the ocean is; and though it graces us landsmen through tide and tale, we rarely are able to gain a true comprehension of it and the ghosts that travel between these watery and heavenly veils.