An abandoned ship washed up on the Irish coast this week. From the Flying Dutchman tale to North Korean ships washing up on the Japanese coast, "ghost ships" occupy space in both folklore and reality.
In April 2007, a helicopter crew spotted an unusual sight – a catamaran drifting aimlessly in the Great Barrier Reef, a hundred miles off the Queensland coast of Australia. Its sails were up, engine running and radio and GPS intact. A half-empty coffee cup, a newspaper and silverware were found aboard the 9.8-meter-long SV Kaz II, but its three-man crew had vanished.
The phenomenon of ghost ships, or ships that are found with their crew missing or deceased, is one that is embodied in both folklore and real life stories.
The Flying Dutchman, for example, a mythical ship that is said to be doomed to sail forever and is a supposed ominous sign for sailors who see it.
The lesser-known Lady Lovibond, a schooner that allegedly wrecked on the Kent coast in the UK in February 1748, is said to reappear as a ghost ship every 50 years. However, there are no records of the shipwreck or its alleged reappearance.
Most recently, an abandoned ship washed up on the rocky shores of Ireland after a year lost at sea, amid torrential rain and unruly weather spurred by Storm Dennis. But unlike the Kaz II in 2007, the ship's crew were already accounted for. The US Coast Guard rescued the MV Alta's 10-person crew after it broke down in 2018, about 1,380 miles (2,220 kilometers) southeast of the Atlantic archipelago Bermuda.
Despite recent stories about ghost ships, however, the phenomenon of abandoned ships is "not as common as it was in the more remote past when pirates would raid ships passengers would be taken away as slaves, and would be killed or thrown overboard," says David Abulafia, Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University and author of The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans.
In the case of cargo and freight companies, abandoning their ships, there could also be insurance incentives to abandon rather than recover the ships, he says.
"This was quite a big problem in the Indian Ocean when you had the Somali pirates raiding ships, and you almost had the sense that some shipping companies were glad to get rid of some of their old ships."
Ghost ships from North Korea
In recent years, Japan has seen a wave of so-called ghost ships washing up on shore, most of which are identified as coming from North Korea. Some of the ships wash up with dead crew members, while others have been found with survivors.
Unlike the Kaz II and the MV Alta, these boats are typically made of wood and equipped with only the basics – no modern GPS, communication or navigation systems. While some of those found alive are fishermen that have asked to return to North Korea, others have been suspected to be defectors.
Risks of ghost ships
"There is undoubtedly environmental danger," says Abulafia. Ghost ships can pose risks not just to the crew who abandon them, either forcibly or willingly, but also to other ships, people and the environment. Locating and subsequently harnessing ghost ships is extremely difficult and often impossible.
Unmanned ships also run the risk of colliding with offshore oil rigs and other ships, or leaking fuel and other chemicals into the sea.
"If a container ship is wandering around unmanned, it might get toppled and thousands of containers can fall to the bottom of the sea and could contaminate the seawater. It's extremely undesirable."