Spirits & Salty Water

Concept art for the Flying Dutchman from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's ChestI assume you’re familiar with the Flying Dutchman, but have you ever heard the legend of the S.S. Ourang Medan?

In June, 1947, supposedly a distress signal was received by two American vessels, from a Dutch cargo-ship.

A radio operator aboard the troubled vessel reported the deaths of the ship’s captain as well as all of its officers, and possibly the entire crew, before sending out further garbled messages and finally declaring himself in dying condition with the words “I die”. – wikipedia

Anywhere we find loneliness, or a long disconnect from humanity, we seem to attribute the supernatural, or the bizarre. Tales of ghost ships stretch through history, (there’s even a handy list on wikipedia,) but they aren’t the only sea-story in which the barrier between reality and folklore grows thin.

A Fata Morgana is an unusual and very complex form of mirage, [which] is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. It is an Italian phrase derived from the vulgar Latin for “fairy” and the Arthurian sorcerer Morgan le Fay, from a belief that the mirage, often seen in the Strait of Messina, were fairy castles in the air or false land designed to lure sailors to their death created by her witchcraft. – wikipedia

Carl Banks Oil Painting.The legend of the Flying Dutchman may have originated with sailors observing the reflection of an actual ship on the horizon, as projected onto the sky. The Ourang Medan, on the other hand, existed at sea level.

When the Silver Star crew located and boarded the apparently undamaged Ourang Medan in a rescue attempt, the ship was found littered with corpses (including the carcass of a dog) in what appeared to be terrified postures, with no survivors and no visible signs of injuries on the dead bodies. – wikipedia

In an odd way, these types of legends are a little like hearing a ghost transport truck story out of one of the Ice Road Truckers – actually, I suppose Pee Wee’s Big Adventure covered that exact angle.


In the case of the Ourang Medan, however, the truth of the matter is tough to know: as the ship was purportedly being hauled to port, it exploded and sank. While some skeptics doubt the ship ever even existed, another possible theory has been put forth:

Bainton and others hypothesize that the Ourang Medan might have been involved in smuggling operations of chemical substances such as a combination of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin or even wartime stocks of nerve agents. According to these theories, sea water would have entered the ship’s hold, reacting with the cargo to release toxic gases, which then caused the crew to succumb to asphyxia and/or poisoning. Later, the sea water would have reacted with the nitroglycerin, causing the reported fire and explosion. – wikipedia

The Dutch merchantman Ottoland had almost completed her journey from New Brunswick, Canada when she hit a mine in the North Sea on 5th October 1940. - http://ww2today.com/5th-october-1940-yetanother-merchant-ship-sunk