Lost at Sea

Goss, Michael and Behe, George. Lost at Sea: Ghost Ships and Other Mysteries. Prometheus Books, 1994..

Vanishing ships always generate a great deal of speculation. As there are no survivors it is often difficult to refute the wilder theories. In discussing the disappearance of the Blue Anchor Line steamer Waratah off the coast of South Africa in 1909, the authors mention the confused seas which can sometimes develop off the Cape of Good Hope, creating enormous, steep waves capable of overwhelming quite large vessels. Depending on how such waves strike the ship, she may drop into "a hole in the ocean".

This phrase reminded me of the time I was asleep in my bunk on board an ocean weather ship in the North Atlantic in the early hours of the morning some time in 1961. I was suddenly awakened by a sensation which was just like falling into a hole. The ship had been sailing into a heavy swell, but being a small vessel, was simply riding up and down the long waves. Apparently the officer on watch and the seaman at the helm were horrified to see a wall of water suddenly towering over them. The great wave crashed over the bows, causing considerable damage. Fearing for the integrity of the ship the master decided to make for Reykjavik, the nearest port, so that her hull could be inspected on the slipway there. We were lucky that time, but others have been less fortunate.

In the case of the Waratah there were allegations that she was unseaworthy, but the authors are less concerned with technicalities than with the folklore of the sea and the alleged psychic experiences of people connected with maritime disasters.

Some passengers and crew members refused to sail in the Waratah on her last voyage, but the authors were unable to establish whether this was because of visions or premonitions, or simply because the allegedly unusual motion of the ship indicated to them that she was unstable and thus likely to founder in a storm.

The book begins with a survey of stories of phantom ships. There is a detailed discussion of the legend of a ship called Lady Luvibond which is said to have been deliberately wrecked on the Goodwin Sands in 1748 by the mate, who was ` consumed with jealousy because the captain had just married the woman he loved. He is said to smashed the helmsman's skull with a belaying pin and steered the ship on to the Goodwins, where she was broken up by the waves, and there were no survivors. Every fifty years, a phantom ship is seen being wrecked at the same spot. A most unlikely tale, especially as nobody could have known what happened on board when there no survivors, and the authors show that the story is probably quite modern and developed, probably from some obscure work of fiction, into a local legend.

A section deals with submarine disasters, real and imaginary, and ends with the story of the highly successful 'Top Secret' experiments in telepathic communication on the US submarine Nautilus which took place in 1959 - or did they? The authors trace this one to Pauwels and Bergie's geewhiz book The Dawn of Magic. Others wrote articles based on this yarn and there are apparently some people who actually believe it.

The last section of the book gives brief accounts of a number of sea disasters and the alleged psychic experiences associated with them and ends with stories of hauntings on board the Queen Mary at her berth in Long Beach, California.

The treatment of the subject matter in this book ensures that it will be of interest to those interested in folklore, psychology and parapsychology, ships and the sea. One moan, though; at the end of the book there seems to be something missing - an index. Lost at sea, perhaps? -- Reviewed by John Harney, from Magonia 53, August 1995.

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