Gather 'round for a tale ye olde salty dogs!
The story of the ghostly and frozen sailing ship Octavius is an old yarn that contains much detail, yet some believe is only a legend. Whatever the
truth, the story is worth retelling on this Halloween month.
It seems that the crew of the whaling ship Herald came upon the derelict Octavius, drifting with tattered sails still raised, off the west coast of
Greenland on October 11, 1775.
When they boarded the ship the crew of the whaler was shocked to find its entire crew frozen to death. Some appeared to have died quickly in the midst
of performing their routine chores. The captain, for example, was found in his cabin, seated at his desk with a pen in his hand. He was writing in his
log when he died.
The last entry in the log book revealed that the Octavius had been adrift in this frozen state, high in the frozen arctic and with its ghost crew for
The crew of the Herald was so abashed by what they found the sailors fled with only the Octavius log book in hand. It was said that the pages were so
frozen that they slipped from the book bindings and only the first and last parts of the book were found intact when the book reached the Herald.
There was enough information in the surviving log to reveal that the Octavius left England on a long trip to the orient in 1762 and was returning home
when disaster struck. It was thought that rather than take the long and perilous journey around the horn of South America, the captain made the fatal
mistake of choosing to try to sail the legendary Northwest Passage. On its way the ship was captured in the ice and the crew froze to death.
That the derelict ship was found adrift off Greenland 13 years later means that the Octavius miraculously completed its strange journey without a
working crew. If it really happened, the ship obviously broke free from the ice during summer months and continued drifting farther and farther east
until eventually breaking free into the North Atlantic.
If the story is true, the Octavius was the first ship to ever successfully sail through the Northwest Passage! Though dead passengers do not count I
believe for the record books.
One of the reasons the story remains on the list of tall tales among the old salts is that after this odd encounter, the Octavius drifted off after
that, never to be seen again. Source
So that's the legend but that is not the end of the thread. I stumbled upon an author's site by the name of David Meyer. I never have heard of him but
found his interest in the Octavius very cool.
A Possible Origin for the Octavius Ghost Ship?
Back in 1775, John Warrens was captain of the Try Again. One day, he came across a ghost ship named the
Gloriana. He boarded it and discovered a frozen crew. The log-book indicated the ship had spent the last 13 years as a floating coffin. So, we’ve
got a similar story about a crew being frozen for 13 years. The date in the log-book, November 11, 1762, is the same as in the Octavius story. And
we’ve also got the captain taking the log-book as proof while leaving the rest of the ship behind.
I’ve spent the last few days tracking down the truth behind the legend. Yesterday, I was able to push the story back 1905, thanks to an entry in
The Blue Adventure Book: A collection of Stirring Scenes and Moving Accidents from the World of Adventure. It tells a very similar story to that of
the Octavius. Here’s more from me:
An Earlier Source for the Octavius Ghost Ship?
In the Gloriana tale, there’s no mention
of the Northwest Passage. That, along with the Octavius moniker, appears to be a later addition. But otherwise, the stories are very similar. So, how
much of the Gloriana ghost ship tale is accurate? Was it originally a work of fiction? If not, was it embellished over the years? Well, the Blue
Adventure Book version was written in the first person. But no source is given. So, it could be a word-for-word copy of the original story or it could
be a fictionalized entry.
Warrens’ curiosity was so much excited, that he immediately leaped into the boat with several seamen, and rowed towards her. On approaching, he
observed that her hull was miserably weatherbeaten, and not a soul appeared upon the deck, which was covered with snow to a considerable depth. He
hailed her crew several times, but no answer was returned. Previous to stepping on board, an open port hole near the main chains caught his eye, and
on looking into it, he perceived a man reclining back in a chair, with writing materials on a small table before him, but the feebleness of the light
made every thing very indistinct.
After some digging, I managed to track down a much earlier source for this ghost ship story. There was a flurry of articles written about it in
late 1828 and early 1829. The earliest version I’ve found so far was published on December 13, 1828 in a Philadelphia-based newspaper named The
Ariel: A Literary and Critical Gazette. The article is entitled The Dangers of Sailing in High Latitudes. Here’s a taste:
The party, therefore, went upon deck, and having removed the hatchway, which they found closed, they descended to the cabin. They first came to the
apartment which Captain Warrens had viewed through the port hole. A tremour seized him as he entered it. Its inmate retained his former position, and
seemed to be insensible of strangers. He was found to be a corpse, and a green damp mould had covered his cheeks and forehead, and veiled his eye
balls. He held a pen in his hand, and a log book before him, the last sentence in whose unfinished page thus, “11th Nov. 1762; We have been enclosed
in the ice seventy days. The fire went out yesterday, and our master has been trying ever since to kindle it again but without success. His wife died
this morning. There is no relief -”
Note that the time in the ice is seventy days here as opposed to seventeen days in the Blue Adventure
Book version. Also, this version has Captain Warrens discovering the name of the ship (which is never given) after some detective work. The Blue
Adventure Book version makes it clear that the name Gloriana is etched “in tall faded letters above her blistered stern.” But the stories are
still almost identical in content. On a side note, this ghost ship story seems to get revived every few decades. It made another appearance around
1847, with similar articles being written as far apart as the Republican Advocate (Batavia, New York) and the South Australian Register.
here’s where I stand. I’ve traced the Octavius ghost ship story back to 1828. That’s 77 years closer than I was yesterday. However, I’m still
53 years short of a primary source. If anyone has any pre-1828 information on this story, let me know. You might just help me solve a centuries-old
ghost ship legend.
So that is the story of the olde Octavius, legend or truth, the story is intriguing.
Who knows, maybe one day Octavius will be found...
edit on 10/2/2013 by mcx1942 because: edit