Sailing to the Ghost Fleet
The term Ghost Fleet applies to three genres, maybe more.
The first Ghost Fleet is well known to those living in Tidewater Virginia as the Ghost Fleet of US Navy and Merchant Marine ships anchored in the James River off Ft. Eustis. After World War II and for years afterward, the fleet once had more than 400 boats of all sizes and shapes extending from the Elizabeth River at Norfolk all the way up past Hog Island, opposite Kingsmill.
Sadly, no photographic image of that immense —if shabby — armada can be found. The fleet has shrunk over the years until the point that what was left were boats so contaminated after decades that they were considered toxic. Many were towed away for scrap, as far as Great Britain. Other similar fleets were located after the war in the Gulf of Mexico and along the West Coast.
An eerie and more obscure Ghost Fleet are sailboats abandoned at sea that seem to roam the world on their own. Columnist Bill Schanen picks up the theme in the June issue of Sailing Magazine:
“For sheer spookiness, nothing tops the discovery of a self-saling Jeanneau 44-footer in January and February. Yes, it was discovered twice, first by crew of a boat in the Clipper Round the World Yacht race nearly 500 miles west of Guam, then by fishermen off the coast of the Philippines. In both cases, the discoverers were appalled to find the mummified body of a man slumped in the rather lifelike position of a sleep-deprived navigator at the nav desk.
“It turned out the dead man was a German who had been cruising alone for many years and, according to an autopsy, had died of a heart attack. Early reports said he had not been heard from 2009, which triggered speculation that the boat had been sailing around the Pacific with no living sailor on board for the past seven years.”
Schanen cites similar ghost boats:
- A $2.5 million 55-foot catamaran was dismasted in a gale off North Carolina and wound up cruising the North Atlantic once it was abandoned.
- A 42-foot catamaran was abandoned 300 miles off the coast of Virginia and hasn’t been seen since.
- Another big catamaran was found off the coast of South Africa a year after three people set out for Thailand. “The crew are presumed dead. The boat lives on.”
- A 48-foot sloop was abandoned north of Bermuda and was seen weeks later 800 miles south of Bermuda.
The problem of derelict boats is worldwide. In the United States some states charge fees to boat owners to help defray the costs of removal. Maryland imposes a 5% surtax on boat sales to help. Florida once spent $1.55 million to remove derelict boats from all over the state.
At boatyards all over the world, beyond the Chesapeake Bay, thousands of sailboats are abandoned to the weeds. The two pictured below are from York River Yacht Haven. They have been there longer than I have, 20 years. Removal requires tracking down the owner to charge him for bringing in crews to break up the boat and dispose of it. If the owner cannot be found, the cost falls to the yard.
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