Most eerie accounts of ships lost or found abandoned, without a shadow of life aboard, fuel nightmares and horror tales. Take the Mary Celeste, for instance, whose missing crew left all possessions and jumped out of her in a hurry, on a clear night in 1872.
The Lyubov Orlova cruiser, though, belongs to another category of fright: the life left behind is not human but feral. Rodents with sharp teeth run around breeding and eating each other. As they carry on their blood bath, the ship drifts towards the North Atlantic.
The Russian-made vessel is only the latest to be cast adrift, but unlike memorable cases in the past, the fate of her last crew is well known: unpaid by the owners, they all left her at a Canadian harbor, where she remained until she broke lose during a storm.
Penniless and prosaic, or lucky as some would put it, the fate of the Lyubov Orlova crew diverges from accounts of many a ghost ship, found empty, or lost forever and possibly sunk. At least they lived to hopefully find new employment, or another line of business.
Those who manned other legendary ships, however, were never to be seen again. Besides the Mary Celeste, there’s the Caroll A. Derring, with its 1921 swashbuckling tale of pirates and the Bermuda Triangle, and the Zebrina, found empty in 1917, with likely hints that the war had come on board.
But just before we lose perspective, the worst possible nightmarish scenarios notwithstanding, nothing at sea can be more terrifying than a shipwreck, both for its potential for unredeeming loss and ability to strike fear into the hearts of sailing souls. Neither has any ship disappeared with a large crew so far. Knock on wood.
And no nautical tragedy encapsulates a higher confluence of fears associated with high seas than the wreck of the Essex in 1820, with its horrific tale of a giant whale hitting it twice, and survivors resorting to cannibalism. The episode inspired at least one masterpiece, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published 30 years later.
THE BLOOD OF EARTH
Giving its primordial existence, though, the vastness of the bodies of water that interconnect and divide our receding lands do instil an inordinate amount of irrational fears and spikes in our fright bones, in diametrically ways that terra firma represents hope and redemption when it’s finally within reach.
Thalassophobia is, in fact, one of the arguably most primeval fears for humans, more intense than even the fear of heights. For our inadequate bodies, not made to soar above the clouds or breathe underwater, can still better avoid the former, whereas to drown, one just needs to misstep to be gone.
And yet, life wouldn’t be possible on Earth without water, which is another one of those cliches we’ve been trying to avoid since the beginning of this post, but now we simply couldn’t help it. So more than the need to fly, which we do in imagination and in fact, the need for the oceans is a vital one.
There’s no way around it. Anyone can spend a lifetime without ever venturing across the sea, but no one survives for more than a few hours without what it offers. Try that for a change, you ambitious Icarus. At one point or another, we all wind up at the bottom.
We all know what ultimately happened to most of those countless sailors who one day came face to face with the ominous decision of jumping into the great blue yonder. And many a sailor has surely considered at least once having a burial at sea, even without some theatrical pomp and circumstance.
THE DRY SHIPYARD
And perhaps that’s what haunts us about those missing crews: that they somehow are all resting at the bottom, watching us from below. One of the most dignified decisions of maritime history was not to rescue those who went down with the Titanic. And not to reveal her exact location either.
Thus anyone who cruises the ocean knows that somewhere, deep down under, whole families sit slowly decaying, the only witnesses we know of that great tragedy of 1912. Even though that, in practical terms, few if any of us would reach the bottom intact, unlike them, protected by a mass of twisted steel, their collective coffin.
More likely, we’d be food for the creatures of the deep right as we’d sink and take our last breath beneath the waves. Mercilessly, we wouldn’t notice it, of course. So it’s just as well. We would also miss seeing some of those vessels, waiting to greet us at their realm of sand and bubbles. And crushing pressure.
For divers who visited them, there are few sights like a graveyard of ships, and the way that they gather barnacles and coral, creating ghostly reefs full of marine life. They too sit silently but not quite still in the gentle web and flow of the great depths. Somehow they acquire an ever longer existence by just standing quiet.
That’s why Mo’ynaq in Uzbekistan is so disconcerting. In that patch of arid desert lies a number of rotting ships, remnants of a port city (more)
* Lost at Sea
* Sinking In
that existed for a thousand years, until the 1980s. That’s when a combination of extremely bad government choices and the environment doomed it for good.
It now stands a hundred miles from the Aral Sea and its rusty monuments are the only proof that it was once a thriving trade port, that fed a community of fishermen, then Soviet Union citizens. As the harbor and the water receded, what’s left is a post-apocalyptic glance of what happens when we suck the ocean dry.
SOMETHING IN THE WATER
One of the most notorious legends of ghost ships is, of course, the Flying Dutchman, ever prevented to call a port, ever manned by a set of spectral beings, cruising the Earth from pole to pole. It’s one of the most enduring nautical myths, dated from the 1700s.
Even if the tale is very likely anchored in ancient sailor superstitions, enhanced by the fantastic storytelling prowess of old navigators, it correctly taps into the period’s atavisms: amidst the unknown, a frightful rudderless vessel, erupting unannounced and departing in a spray of foggy mist.
Two hundred years later, another Dutch ship, the S.S. Ourang Medan, went down off the coast of Indonesia, and took to the depths the mystery of how come its entire crew died in strange circumstances. Even more mysterious is the fact that many doubt that the ship has even existed.
The first report about it dated from 1952, and it’s a convoluted story passed along from the last survivor, ‘right before exhaling his last breath,’ to a priest and then to a writer, and you can be sure that some enhancement may have been added at more than one juncture of the story.
If the ship really existed, it seems that her crew was engaged in avoiding detection, probably due to its cargo, said to be of sulphuric acid, fumes of which ultimately poisoned everyone aboard, until there was no witnesses left. We told you it’s convoluted. Ripley probably had a ball with it.
As for the Lyubov Orlova, since it’s a big ship, it may take a while until the elements gain the upper hand and it breaks apart, carrying to the depths its beastly cargo. Or not; there’s a chance it may get stuck near land and rats, being industrious as they’re known to be, will take it from there.
Just pray they don’t land near your place. Or that you don’t somehow get dropped on board, while she’s still battering the high seas. But chances for that to happen are slimmer than even the likelihood the Flying Dutchman existed. Or that the Mary Celeste, steered by Bela Lugosi himself as in the movie, comes back to life to get you.
(*) Originally published on Jan. 31, 2014.