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Ghost Ships: Truth, Legend, and RPG Inspiration

The Alta had been lost at sea for more than a year when it finally ran aground at Ballycotton, a fishing village in County Cork, Ireland, overlooking the Celtic Sea.

The steel of the hulking 250-foot long Alta was surprisingly intact when it was found beached at an unstable angle along a dangerous and inaccessible stretch of coastline. No living souls were present to witness the event. This is fitting, because no living souls were aboard the ship either.

The Alta had been sailing from Greece to Haiti in September 2018 when it became disabled nearly 1,400 miles southeast of Bermuda. The Alta signaled the US Coast Guard when it was clear that repairs weren’t possible and the Coast Guard responded by sending the cutter Confidence to ferry the crew of 10 to Puerto Rico.

As the abandoned ship was being towed to Guyana, it was reportedly hijacked and its fate was unknown except for a brief encounter when a Royal Navy ice patrol ship, HMS Protector, spotted it in the mid-Atlantic in August 2019.

Spotted only once in 18 months, The Alta somehow drifted up from Africa and past Spain to Ireland, where it finally washed ashore.

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, but I do have a fascination with The Alta, a ship typically referred to as a ghost ship. Ghost ships – real ones like The Alta, as well as mythical ones – are a part of the fascinating lore of oceans.

The beached Alta.

MYTH: The Flying Dutchman, supposedly doomed never to make port, is a legend dating from the 1700s. The reports of the corpse of Johnny Depp’s career being aboard are unconfirmed.

REAL: Another ship washed ashore on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, this time a wooden houseboat. Made in 2016 with driftwood and fitted with solar panels, the houseboat was made by Rick Small, a Canadian environmentalist who had no idea how it ended up crossing the Atlantic unmanned.

MYTH: According to British legend, the Lady Lovibond schooner was purposefully shipwrecked in 1748 by a lovesick first mate. It’s said to reappear every 50 years, giving off an eerie white glow.

REAL: The schooner Bel Amica was found derelict near Sardinia, Italy in August 2006. The owner later claimed to have rushed home to address an emergency, but the Italian press suggested that he may have been avoiding taxation of luxury vessels. The only items aboard the ghost ship were half eaten Egyptian meals, French maps of North African seas, and a flag of Luxembourg.

MYTH: Following the wreck of the SS Valencia in 1906 off the coast of Vancouver Island, reports of mysterious lifeboats began to surface. First, a lifeboat with eight skeletons in a nearby sea cave, then lifeboats being rowed by skeletons of the Valencia’s crew. Just as mysterious, one of the lifeboats from the Valencia was found adrift nearly three decades later in 1933.

In fact, 1,628 ghost ships existed in the North Atlantic from 1887 to 1893 alone, one sailing for 38 years in the Arctic. Even today, close to 2,000 seafarers go missing each year. As proof, 104 wooden ghost ships from North Korea washed up on the west coast of Japan in 2017, some with corpses on board, the rare few with survivors.

So are ghost ships real or myths? Well, it’s a little of both really. Scientists point to St. Elmo’s Fire – a weather phenomena that isn’t fire at all, but sparking plasma – as a common event that could produce convincing ship-like shapes over water, tricking sailors’ eyes.

During electrical storms, it can form around charged objects, like the mast of a ship, and create a continuous blue glow. On the other hand, it could be fata morgana, a type of mirage that appears on the ocean’s horizon and makes objects like distant ships appear to float ghost-like.

Regardless, ghost ships are cool, even if most of the legends are explainable by tricks of the eyes. The oceans are much wilder and larger than we can *ahem* fathom. Yet the human drive for advancement compels us to continue trying to conquer them. The push for efficiencies in global shipping has accelerated research on autonomous drone ships. It’s only a matter of time before we have ghost robot ships. Shiver me timbers!

I suggest we lean into it, rather than try to explain it. If you aren’t writing a ghost ship into your D&D game, then I don’t know what you are even doing with your life.

You could start with the D&D hardback Ghosts of Saltmarsh for inspiration, but you’d be a fool of a Took if you didn’t *ahem* dive even deeper than that. Fact can be stranger than fiction: think about skeleton lifeboats, love-stricken first mates, and The Alta. But whatever you do, don’t abandon ship.


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