Are ghost ships real? - Peter B. Campbell
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One of the earliest surviving accounts of a ghost ship comes from the Roman writer Suetonius, who recorded the strange case of a ship in 68 AD. A ship full of weapons from Alexandria, Egypt, arrived sailing into Dertosa, Spain, “without any person to steer it, or so much as a single sailor or passenger on board.” The crew had encountered a storm and thought the ship was going to sink, so they abandoned ship. However, when the ship did not sink, the wind and currents carried it onward. The ghost ship was taken as a sign from the gods supporting general Galba’s overthrow of Emperor Nero, but the real reason for its arrival was less than divine.
Ghost ships are not only a phenomenon from the past; there are a number of recent examples. At least a dozen ships with macabre crews of decomposed corpses have appeared in Japan over the last several years, which are likely ships caught fleeing North Korea. In 2013, a derelict cruise ship full of what the media called “cannibal rats” was spotted drifting off the British Isles. In 2016, a ship was found with the mummified remains of its captain. The ship had been damaged in a storm and the captain had died of a heart attack, but it kept floating for over a year.
There are a number of reasons that a crew would abandon ship, leaving a ship adrift and under the control of winds and currents. The most common reasons are pirates, storms, and flooding. Pirates would capture ships and kill the crew or take them prisoner, leaving the ship abandoned. During storms, crews may think their ship is in peril and prefer their chances in lifeboats. When a ship floods due to a hole or large waves, a crew may think it is sinking and abandon it. However, sometimes a ship can continue to float even with a hole and water in its hull. To learn more about buoyancy, check out this TED Ed lesson on Archimedes’ Principle.
Ocean currents are complex and it was difficult to map them until the US Hydrographic Office began using derelict ships as a proxy to chart their movement. You can watch an account of the mapping here. An interesting exercise is to take the Hydrographic Office’s coordinates for derelict ships and map them yourself to find the ocean currents. Craig Munsart has developed an exercise for students using this data, which can be found here.
Ghost ships capture the imagination, past and present, but there are natural explanations for these extraordinary tales.
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