Ocean Oddities: ghost ships haunt the seas


When most vehicles run out of gas, the journey is almost over. Once their engines stop, these machines will soon stop too. The ships are different. As long as a boat remains afloat, it can continue to move forward, even if there is no one on board. For ships abandoned at sea, currents and winds become captain and crew. With this endless kinetic energy to drive them and a vast, often empty ocean to roam in, ghost ships can eerily sail on and on endlessly.

One of these ghost ships has just completed its journey on the rocky shores of Ireland. The 2,400-ton, 250 ′ freight carrier MV Alta was en route from Greece to Haiti in early fall 2018. About 1,300 miles from destination, the vessel lost power. After three weeks of repair efforts and airdrops of supplies, the MV Alta was still dead in the water. When a hurricane threatened the helpless ship, it was time to abandon ship. The US Coast Guard rescued the 10 crew members and left the unmanned MV Alta to its fate.

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Before being led into the rocks by Storm Dennis in February 2020, the MV Alta was only seen once during her 18-month journey as a ghost ship. Video: YouTube / Maritime Reporter TV

For nearly a year, the abandoned MV Alta went undetected as it crept along with the currents. Then, in September last year, a British Royal Navy ice patrol vessel spotted the ghost ship drifting in the mid-North Atlantic. The following sighting was made five months later by a jogger after the ship ran aground under a seaside cliff on the south coast of Ireland. It is likely that the recent “bomb cyclone” Storm Dennis crashed into the ship against the rocky shore, ending the ghost ship’s odyssey. Now sinking, the fate of the MV Alta is once again in human hands.

Some ghost ships never give up on the ghost and fight instead. Like the Ryou-Un Maru.

The tsunami swept through ships and boats. Video: YouTube / CBS

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011 was the fifth strongest earthquake the world has ever recorded. The earthquake reorganized Japan, pushing the country’s main island, Honshu, eight feet further east. It’s the land equivalent of moving half of California in the ocean almost the length of a longboard. The volume of the displaced ocean was even greater, creating a terrible tsunami that decimated entire cities and sank dozens of ships. The tsunami too checked in a ship.

The Ryou-Un Maru was an old abandoned trawler destined to be dismantled for scrap soon. But the sea reserved a more suitable fate for the doomed fishing vessel and the tsunami was its reprieve. Like an apocalypse wave, miles of ocean swept inland in an onslaught of destruction. When the tsunami wave passed, the wave reversed course and ebbed toward the coast, taking its carnage into the ocean. Along the way, the wall of bubbling water tore Ryou-Un from its mooring. Upon exiting, the surf sent the ship out to sea and away from the scrapyard.

Saved by the tsunami, Ryou-Un Maru sets sail. Image: Wiki Commons / USCG.

Rescue teams spent weeks rounding up the flotilla of abandoned ships in the wake of the tsunami. Since there was no sign of the Ryou-Un, they thought the old bucket of rust had leaked. They were wrong.

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Instead of being stuck at the bottom of the sea, Ryou-Un sailed slowly but surely along the surface. Straddling the Kuroshio Current, the ship was on the northeast route of the North Pacific Gyre. The prevailing westerly winds were blowing aft of the ship, blowing against its rusty hull and superstructure as if it were a steel sail, which also helped propel Ryou-Un forward. .

The Kuroshio Current is part of the North Pacific whirlpool that rotates clockwise. Image: Image: NASA.

For over a year, the ghost ship Ryou-Un sailed unnoticed across the central North Pacific. Then, in March 2012, a Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft spotted Ryou-Un in Canadian waters. A spotting buoy was dropped on the vessel to ensure that it would no longer go unnoticed. The ghost ship was still heading east and only 180 miles from the end of a trans-Pacific voyage when it entered US coastal waters and was confronted by US Coast Guard Anacapa. After declaring the abandoned ship an environmental threat and a hazard to navigation, the USCG ruled that the ghost ship should be destroyed on site.

Sayonara Ryou-Un Maru. Video: YouTube / Gabriele Miracle

The one-sided battle was brief. After a few minutes and several bursts of high explosive shells from a 25mm chain cannon, the US Coast Guard had succeeded in doing what neither a massive tsunami nor a mighty ocean could do: sink the Ryou-Un Maru . The vessel’s last voyage was short, 6,000 feet to Davy Jones’ locker. Its days as a free-spirited ghost ship came to an abrupt end, the Ryou-Un Maru now rests on the seabed and provides a safe haven for the fish it uses to hunt.

Classic ghost ship stories don’t have a conclusive ending.

The best days of Lyubov Orlova in the USSR. Image: Wiki Commons /Jerzy strzelecki.

In 1976, the USSR ordered the Lyubov Orlova, a 4,250-ton, 295-inch cruise ship designed to comfortably and safely carry 110 comrades as it plied the icy waters of the Arctic and Antarctic . The well-built liner survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, but eventually the fate of the motherland fell on Lyubov Orlova as well. The shipowners ran out of rubles and the heavily indebted ship was seized in Newfoundland. Moored and neglected for more than two years in the port of St. John’s, Newfoundland, the once majestic cruise liner has decayed into a wreck, overrun by the port’s endemic rats. Rusty and ridden by rodents, Lyubov Orlova was sold for scrap.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to the junkyard. Just a day after the last trip to the dismantling dock in the Dominican Republic, the towing tug Lyubov Orlova lost control of the old cruise ship when their towline broke in rough seas. Several days of stormy weather passed before a new tow line could be attached. By this time Lyubov Orlova had reached international waters. It was then that the authorities in charge of recovery decided to implement a practice usually reserved for fishing: catch and release. Citing her lack of jurisdiction, the safety concerns associated with the rescue operation and the confidence that the prevailing currents would sweep the ship further offshore, orders were given to release the abandoned liner. At this point, the Lyubov Orlova was officially an abandoned ship and a ghost ship of the ocean.

Ghosts were not the only occupants of Lyubov Orlova. Video: YouTube / Obscura Matte

After being released, sightings of Lyubov Orlova were extremely rare. The last confirmed sighting of the wayward vessel was in late 2014, when it was spotted about 1,300 miles off the west coast of Ireland. Since then, there have been no verified reports of the long-lost liner.

Being invisible for six years probably means Lyubov Orlova is sleeping with the fish somewhere on the seabed. It’s a very large ocean though, and if the ship reaches distant waters that sea routes avoid, there’s a chance she’s still sailing. In this case, his rodent crew could also be alive. Isolated at sea and having nothing to eat but each other, only the strongest vermin would survive and reproduce. The ship would serve as its own Galapagos island, developing a new species of super rat. So if Lyubov Orlova ever reaches shore, you might not want to stick around to see what cargo the the ghost ship delivers.

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