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Tales of two ghost fleets, one benign, one a little scary

2016 June 1

The column was published more than five years ago, but I still get reader comments about the Full and By piece I wrote about the ghost fleet. The column is sort of a ghost itself, living forever on the Internet. 

Ghost fleet was my term for the sailboats that seem to live forever, the many thousands of them produced in the two or three decades following the dawn of the fiberglass era in the 1950s by builders now long out of business.

Unlike their wooden predecessors, these plastic boats endure with no end of their lives in sight. Some are utilitarian, showing their age but making sailing affordable and accessible for many. Others are preserved objects of sailing history and beauty. Reaction to the column made it clear these vintage production boats are dearly loved.

These days that characteristic of fiberglass being virtually indestructible is a factor in the existence of another kind of ghost fleet—the spooky kind. Abandoned yachts are sailing around on the oceans. Cars that drive themselves are predicted to be the next big techy wonder. The boats in this ghost fleet are already driving themselves.

For sheer spookiness, nothing tops the discovery of a self-sailing 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 since 2009, which triggered speculation that the boat had been sailing around the Pacific with no living sailor on board for the past seven years. Later it was reported that someone had heard from the man on Facebook last year. Either way, the boat sailed a long time on its own.

The Clipper race yacht had stood by the derelict until it made contact with the U.S. Coast Guard on Guam and was advised to continue racing. The Jeanneau, which had been dismasted but, obviously, was seaworthy enough to stay afloat, drifted on to a rendezvous with the Filipino fishermen, traveling hundreds of more miles in a month or so.

You might have heard about the problems of Rainmaker in January 2015. The $2.5 million catamaran, Gunboat 55 hull No. 1, was dismasted in a gale off Cape Hatteras. The crew of five was lifted off the boat by a Coast Guard helicopter. The boat was abandoned and left to cruise on the North Atlantic.

Months later, the two-hulled ghost ship was seen east of Bermuda by a container ship crew. More than a year after that, members of America’s Cup Oracle Team USA, out fishing on an R&R day, spotted Rainmaker six miles off Bermuda. The hull, beaten up, barnacle encrusted and floating low, was towed to Bermuda by a salvage firm. A spokesman commented, “A hazard at sea has now been removed.”

In January 2014 the 42-foot catamaran Be Good Too, an Aeroyacht Alpha 42, also a hull No. 1, was abandoned 300 miles off Virginia after its crew was rescued by a USCG helicopter. It has never been seen since, but it would be a mistake to assume it has sunk. It may well be sailing in the ghost ship fleet.

In January 2016, a capsized Leopard catamaran was found off the coast of South Africa. It had left Cape Town a year earlier with three people on board, bound for Phuket, Thailand. The crew are presumed dead. The boat lives on.

In February 2016, a Nautor Swan 48-footer was abandoned north of Bermuda. The Irish owner and his crew of three were rescued by a freighter and the boat was reported to have sunk. Some weeks later it was seen and photographed from a ship 800 miles southeast of Bermuda, with its carbon mast standing tall and the hull looking shipshape. The yacht, named Wolfhound, is now a sleek addition to the ghost fleet.

Some abandoned sailboats have left the ghost fleet under their own power. 

A 38-foot sailboat abandoned in the South Pacific last year fetched up on an Australian shore in February. 

In last year’s Singlehanded Transpac Race from San Francisco to Hawaii, a dangerously sick sailor was rescued from his boat. The boat sailed to Hawaii without him.

In the 2005 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers race, the owner of a Nicholson 32 suffered a mental breakdown and he and his two inexperienced crewmembers were removed from the boat. The boat spent a year in the oceangoing ghost fleet before making landfall in the Azores 1,200 miles from where it was abandoned.

You can count on it that this roster of the ghost fleet is not complete. Who knows how many abandoned vessels are sailing the seas blindly?

It’s something else to add to the worries of small-boat ocean voyagers, who already have to fear colliding with one of the reportedly numerous shipping containers lost overboard from freighters. Anyone who has seen the Robert Redford film “All is Lost” knows what bad outcomes that can have, including bad sailing movies.

It’s a sketchy proposition to cite the number of boats that survive after being abandoned in judgment of those mariners who decide to leave a vessel that is not sinking. You would have to be there in their moment of travail on the savage sea to do that fairly.

I will only offer the thought that once upon a time the expression “iron men and wooden ships” was in vogue as a paean to tough sailors. Now we have plastic ships. At least we know they’re tough. The ghost fleets attest to that.