They have been central to the plot of several television shows and have played a role in feature films for decades. They often get portrayed just as the name implies. Hollywood likes to use the paranormal definition of the word ‘ghost.’ But ghost ships in the real world can be just as scary as they are in Hollywood.
In the maritime industry, when people talk about ‘ghost ships’ they don’t mean the Flying Dutchman or the SS Antonia Graza. No need to call the Ghostbusters either. They are talking about derelict vessels; ships that for one reason or another are floating around the high seas and coastlines of the world without anyone on board. They’ve been abandoned.
These can be anything from small yachts (like the Kaz II) to sailboats (like The Lunatic) to larger vessels (like the MV Joyita or MV Jian Seng) and even a cruise liner (like the MV Lyubov Orlova).
Why ships are abandoned at sea or otherwise is usually a mystery. No one leaves a note before abandoning ship, and clues rarely indicate what happened; just that something did. Regardless of why they were abandoned, in some parts of the United States and areas around the world, the existence of ghost ships has become problematic.
In the inland waterways and along the coastlines of some parts of the U.S., abandoned boats of all sizes have become a hazard to navigation and, in some cases, environmental hazards. According to some estimates, there are over 200 abandoned vessels on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
“Ground zero is the Delta and the Bay, but this is a statewide problem,” Mitch Goode of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) told a meeting of the Delta Protection Commission (via Capitol Weekly’s Chris Austin). “San Diego, Moss Landing, Morro Bay – everybody’s dealing with it.”
Alaska has dealt with the issue of abandoned vessels since before it became a state. According to recent estimates, there are at least 200 abandoned vessels in Alaskan coastal waters—and the problem is expected to grow exponentially in the years to come.
In Florida, over 2500 boats were deemed derelict and abandoned after Hurricane Irma. But the problem is not one that is strictly American. Last year, 104 ‘ghost’ ships washed up on the shores of Japan’s coastline. Many of them contained the corpses of their crews and/or passengers.
They are believed to be from North Korea since they are primarily found on the west coast of the country– which faces North Korea. In the first few weeks of 2018, nine such ships washed up on the Japanese coast; one as found to have nothing but seven corpses on board.
Turkey is wrestling with the issue as well. According to an article posted to the Hurriyet Daily News, there are 114 abandoned ships in Turkey’s territorial waters. Of those 114 ships, 81 have been deemed an environmental and public health hazards.
So what do we do about them?
Okay, so there are potentially hundreds of vessels on the high seas and on coastlines around the world that are under no one’s control. They could become hazards to navigation or even potential environmental and/or health hazards. So, why don’t we just dispose of them and/or clean them up and be done with them? As it turns out, in most municipalities, doing so is easier said than done.
Well—because you can’t just scrap someone else’s vessel or sink. What if the owners surface the day after you do so and want to know who destroyed their property? Depending on how much effort gets put into tracking them down, they could have grounds for legal action.
As a result, the process most municipalities have for dealing with these ‘ghost’ ships is painfully slow.
Turkish officials recently passed a special amendment to allow the government to deal with their ghost ship problem. But the process is still incredibly slow. While they need to do something immediately with 81 of the 114, they are in the process of dealing with just 30.
Similar issues dog state and federal agencies in the United States as well. Every effort must be made to find and contact the owner of the vessel first before anything can be done. But even when that process has been exhausted, the actual act of disposing of ‘ghost’ ships is expensive and time-consuming. To clean up the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would take an estimated $33 million.
Officials in Alaska are working on legislation that would make it easier to deal with such vessels. People that abandon boats in Florida can be fined up to $1000 along with the cost of removal. The state also has a program that helps municipalities defray such costs—when there’s funding for it.
Do measures like these mean we will have fewer tales in the future of random ghost ships washing up somewhere or being discovered ‘sailing’ the high seas? Not at all. A canoe that washed up during Hurricane Irma was over 300 years old!
So there is no telling what may still be out there.