Post by Graveyardbride on Aug 25, 2014 8:51:23 GMT -5
Maine’s Ship from the Fleet of the Dead
The mightiest ship is but a speck on the vast, primordial ocean. From the dimly-remembered seafaring days of canvas and oar to this prideful age of nuclear-powered steel behemoths, fragile humans have sallied forth on their frail vessels, braving the blue planet’s fair watery reaches, venturing out beyond that distant line where heaven meets the waves.
Many fleets under many flags have gone there, are there now. But there is among them one fleet – the most dreaded of all – that sails for all time, a cumulative fleet of all ages and lands: the fleet of the dead, the unfortunate ones who never made it back – never, that is, to our concrete dimensional realm. They are out there forever, sad and lost, hollow-eyed wraiths on rotted deck planks, their translucent sails traversing lonely seas. Occasionally, by virtue of some unfathomable metaphysical confluence, they cross paths with us. And the modern sailor who bears witness to a ship from the fleet of the dead feels a sudden disquieting chill, a flash of dread as ancient as the sea itself.
Such an encounter was fated for USS Langley in 1937. The US Navy’s first aircraft carrier was on a course for Coco Solo, Panama, when sailors aboard her beheld an unearthly vision in the pale glow of dawn: there, on the horizon, a sailing ship – fully rigged, all canvas unfurled and bulging with wind – speeding straight toward them. The news spread fast through the steel-hulled giant and crewmen scrambled on deck for a view. As the beautiful old vessel raced ever closer and the sun rose in the sky, the officers and men of Langley stared dumbfounded as the sailing ship dissolved into nothingness. Langley, they speculated, had just had a run-in with the fabled Flying Dutchman. The centuries-old phantom had been reappearing with some frequency in recent years; a whaling ship spotted her in 1911, as did a Royal Navy ship in 1923, as would German admiral Karl Dönitz in 1939. Langley’s encounter with the Dutchman came on the cusp of a period that would see a strange increase in spectral-ship sightings, an awakening of dormant wraiths as the seas roiled with global strife.
The destroyer USS Kennison soon thereafter experienced a pari of phantom-ship encounters while plying the waters off the California coast. Approaching San Francisco Harbor in November 1942, she nearly collided with a two-masted sailing ship – timbers rotting, sails ragged, crumbling deck deserted, helm unmanned. But Kennison’s radar screen was blank. The mystery ship was there ... but not there. More strangeness came the destroyer’s way in April 1943 as she was making for her home port of San Diego. A Liberty ship appeared off the starboard bow and then vanished without a trace, befuddling multiple witnesses and refusing to register on the perfectly functioning radar screen. “As a witness who saw one ship and heard the other ... I believe that the explanation for the shadow fleet that sails in the tradition of the Flying Dutchman lies in the area of psychic phenomena,” said Howard Brisbane of the Kennison. “Reports of these apparitions have been made by generations of responsible men.”
By why then? Why such a resurgence? The world in those dark days was in the throes of the largest, deadliest conflict in its long and bloody history. The Grim Reaper’s harvest during World War II was the most horrendous of all time. It was as if all the tragedy, all the carnage, all the death stirred up echoes of the waterlogged dead of old, summoning the spectral tide to rise. And while enigmatic Pacific wraiths crossed Kennison’s bow, on another ocean in the same war, another famed ghost ship made its first reappearance in years.
There lies a cold and rock-rimmed bank where the North American coast juts eastward from its predominantly north-south course, a bay that by virtue of its geography is the site of the closest American port city to Europe. As such, Casco Bay, Maine, found itself at the nexus of events as the Battle of the Atlantic raged, with the fate of Great Britain, the European continent, and the free world hanging in the balance. This wave-tossed New England district, so steeped in maritime lore, had become busier with more vital than ever before – the most important American seaport of World War II. From Portland Harbor to Harpswell Neck, from Cape Elizabeth to Cape Small, old Casco was in full martial mode, bristling with gun emplacements, bunkers, barracks, lookout towers and great deadly ships of steel – the combined sea might of the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the US Navy and the US Coast Guard. Here was a key embarkation point for the beleaguered convoys that were the very life’s blood of war-scarred Britain. A crucial oil pipeline from Montreal fed the Allied shipping that braved forth through chill northern seas where deadly German U-boat wolf packs prowled. And sometimes the wolves came in threateningly close, lurking among the hundreds of windswept islands in the offshore maze.
So it was that those who manned the coastal guns and scrutinized the water in August 1942 felt their nerves on the keenest edge, for just that June, one of the dreaded German U-boats had been sighted right out there in Casco Bay. A fog thick as chowder enveloped all in an eerie aura as the howling radar alarm suddenly jarred the afternoon stillness, heralding one of the most bizarre unexplained occurrences in the annals of World War II. Blipping its way ominously across the Navy radar screen, violating the defensive perimeter, some ocean-borne intruder was surging brazenly toward the innermost zone of restriction. Sirens screamed, men ran to battle stations, ships swarmed and guns zeroed in.
Two clandestine lovers were lying in an amorous entangle on the water’s edge at Punkin Nubb when they heard the sirens. An artillery shell exploded, raining rock shards, right along side them. The man’s first, fleeting guilty thought was of the woman’s husband, of jealous wrath, but he peered out into the fog and saw something remarkable. A Royal Navy vessel had charged forth, guns blazing, from Cumberland Cove and her US Navy allies were in on the chase as well, all of them converging on a floating trespasser. And then, out of the mist, the pair saw the offending vessel materialize. It wasn’t a U-boat. It wasn’t German at all. It wasn’t even of this era. It was a wooden sailing craft of yesteryear, coming right past Punkin Nubb with two modern navies in hot pursuit. As it came closer, they could see the ship’s name carved into the wood: Dash – Freeport. There she sailed, close by and plain as day – a ship that had sunk 127 years earlier.
Rarely was a vessel more aptly named, for Dash was truly one of the swiftest craft afloat during her heyday in the War of 1812, and one of the greatest of all the privateers to sail for America in that war. It was said of her, “She never suffered defeat, never attacked an enemy’s ship in vain, was never injured by a hostile shot and knew no equal in speed.”
Seward Porter’s shipyard, founded at Porter’s Landing in 1782, was the birthplace of the storied brig. When she was launched in 1813, Dash represented the apotheosis of the shipwright’s art. In designing her, the brothers Porter had pioneered a methodology hitherto unused along the Maine coast, for rather than fashioning her lines by naked-eye reckoning, the standard technique then in use, the Porters had built Dash from a ships-hull model – the first such known in Maine history (it survives to this day at the Freeport Historical Society). Her sleek design prefigured the clippers that would rise to prominence a generation hence. What she lacked in cargo space, she made up for in exceptional speed. Initially rigged as a topsail schooner, she was a merchantman designed to run the British blockade, which she did with resounding success.
Dash commenced her career with a smuggler’s run to San Domingo, unloading New England goods for a tidy profit and loading up with coffee for the return run. It was then that she ran afoul of a British man-of-war. A cannon barked the order to halt; sails unfurling, Dash raced away. The British warship could not match her speed and Dash came into Portland battered (a damaged foremast) but unbowed. The legend was born.
Off came the foremast and on went a stouter spar and square sails and the topsail schooner metamorphosed into a hermaphrodite brig – a vessel with a brazen abundance of canvas and a concomitantly greater aptitude for speed. Out she ventured again, to be chased again and to escape the British guns again – and to realize riches and renown again on her second voyage. The legend was growing with the elusive blockade-runner’s exploits.
But an even bolder destiny was Dash’s lot. “Fortune favors the bold,” Virgil said, and the ship’s owners realized there was more to be gained – both in booty and in service to the cause of independence – by setting sail as sanctioned sea robbers, pirates in the name of young America. So it was that on September 13, 1814, the owners received their letter of marque, a commission from President James Madison that officially sanctioned Dash to act as a privateer. The infant US Navy had but a handful of fighting ships to face the unparalleled might of the British sea force and the service of privateering vessels such as Dash was vital to the war’s outcome. Dash and her privateering sisters were in effect the auxiliary US Navy and they exemplified the courage, daring, intrepidity and rock-solid Yankee sea skill of the new nation The War of 1812 was history’s shining moment for American privateers and Dash was one of the most successful of them all.
Newly fitted out with two 18-pound cannons and a 32-pound pivot gun, she headed out for fighting and plunder. Her first prize was a British cruiser, which she hauled into port along with a profitable cargo. Soon she was chasing down and giving battle to HMS Lacedemonian. Not only did Dash capture the British warship, she also reclaimed an American ship the Royal Navy ship had earlier bested and captured. On her subsequent voyage, a British frigate and schooner attempted to gang up on Dash, but the wily Americans managed to separate the schooner from the frigate and then gave the outfoxed schooner a thorough thrashing.
Soon she was the scourge of the English sea-lanes, the terror that accompanied each British merchant ship’s forays on the main. Dash was the particular pride of the Casco coast; seagoing lads from Portland, Harpswell and Freeport vied for the honor of a billet aboard the audacious plunder ship. Twenty-four-year-old John Porter, bold young scion of the shipbuilding family that owned Dash, assumed the captaincy and wasted no time taking two prize ships his first week out. He liberated the American privateer Armistice from the clutches of the brig HMS Patolus and increased his capture yield by taking a pair of sloops and a brig. Three months at sea and half-a-dozen prizes: with brave Porter at the helm, Dash reached the height of her renown – or the nadir of her notoriety, depending on the colors under which one sailed.
Porter continued to venture forth, totaling fifteen captures during the autumn of 1814. And through it all, Dash never lost a man; nor did any of the crew suffer wounds or injury of any kind. Word ran among dockside villages that this truly this was a good-luck ship. Then 1814 turned into 1815 and a bleak January saw the deck of Dash aswarm with busy crewmen eager to set sail anew, greedy for more plunder and greater fame.
It was a tragedy of those bygone days that news traveled slowly; and it was tragic, too, that this famed ship with a spotless record of success would soon besmirch it with an unnecessary undertaking. For the sturdy sailors did not realize, as they outfitted Dash on that chilly Maine day in the middle of January 1815, that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on Christmas Eve of the previous year. The war was already over. Like Andrew Jackson and his fierce fighters to the south who won a brilliant, but ex post facto victory at the Battle of New Orleans, that selfsame January, Dash was embarking, unknowingly, on a moot adventure and it was fated to be her last.
Sails a’luffing, pacing up and down Portland Harbor, straining impatiently like a champion at the starting gage, Dash was cleared for sea with all crew in attendance – except for young Captain Porter. He was still at home in the embrace of sweet Lois, his wife of a few fleeting months. The newlyweds held each other as if they knew it was there last chance ever to do so. The sudden boom of the signal cannon interrupted the precious moment. Captain Porter ignored the insistent summons and still the two savored their togetherness. The signal cannon roared a second time and he knew he had to go.
His crew was in high spirits, for along with the promise of another gainful cruise, there was the more immediate thrill of a race with another privateer. The newly-built Champlain stood by in the harbor waiting to challenge the legendary Dash in an outward-bound race. The pair of them sped southward out of Portland Harbor. The upstart Champlain proved no match for the famously fast Dash, which by the next morning, had vastly outdistanced her impertinent challenger and Champlain’s crew watched Dash grow ever smaller in the distance.
And then the gale came, an almost supernatural blow bringing high winds and driving snow. And in the blinding sting of whiteness, those aboard Champlain lost sight of Dash and never saw her again. Nor did anyone else. Through ensuing days, weeks and months of anguish and eroding hopes, the families and friends of Dash’s sixty lost crewmen yearned for some sign of their fate. But the great Dash had vanished without a trace.
It was said that Lois Porter intuited the worst a couple nights after Dash departed. As the foul storm descended on the coast and the ill wind blew with all the harness of midwinter’s dark despair, Lois heard a crashing noise in an empty room. She went into the unoccupied portion of the house cautiously and there she found the source of the disturbance. The raging wind had worked its way within, dislodging a mantelpiece tile and shattering it on the floor. The destroyed tile had born a scriptural passage. Lois picked up the broken pieces, knowing as she did so that she would never see her beloved husband again and that Dash was never going to return to Casco Bay.
No one ever determined what befell the great privateer. She might have broken up on the dreaded Georges Shoals, toward which she was headed when the gale caught her in its teeth. It was a viable guess, but just that – a guess, a stab at a question that none among the living could answer. As one of Dash’s chroniclers noted: “Never a piece of wreckage reached the shore. No floating spar nor splintered boat ever appeared to offer its mute testimony.”
Dash had doubtless met her doom, but it soon became evident that she still hovered in this realm – that she still haunted the waves, trapped for eternity in a Möbius loop of unrequited homesickness. After several months had passed, she returned from oblivion for the first time, emerging in the fogbound gloaming. A local sea harvester named Simon Bibber was pulling in a good haul just off Punkin Nubb when a strange ship emerged from the grey-white swirl, shore-bound under full sail. And yet, there was no wind. When the mystery craft hove within thirty feet of the stunned fisherman, her nameplate was clearly visible: Dash – Freeport. Bibber looked on in shock as the lost ship passed, bound for her place of origin. He put muscle to oar and hastened to Freeport. But the prodigal ship was not there when he arrived. Bibber found old Mort Collins by the docks and told him of seeing Dash. Mort reacted with bemused skepticism. He regarded Bibber as a man deranged and so Bibber himself began to believe, until another Dash sighting occurred. This time it was Roscoe Moulton who bore witness to the ectoplasmic entity. He had been off Crab Island when “she flew past me like a whirlwind, and they warn’t a breath of air stirring, thick o’fog and flat-arse calm,” Moulton avowed. “I seen her!”
And so, too, did others as time passed. Numerous sightings occurred from Eagle Island to Pound o’ Tea. When the fog settled in and the wind was silent, she’d heave into view, sailing fast “no matter which way the wind was blowing or the tide flowing,” her forlorn crew gathered at the rail peering longingly for the home they could not reach. As more living souls attested to the recurring phenomenon, its existence, however inexplicable, became accepted as fact. The roster of believers in the unbelievable came to include all seventeen crewmen of the Schooner Betty Macomber, returning to port with a bounteous haul of cod when there came Dash, ghostly, close, careening past with all speed. One nineteenth-century chronicler of the strange reported: “be it calm or storm, in-come or ebb of tide, the ship holds her way until she almost touches shore.”
The intermittent spectral sightings entered the mainstream of New England lore and inspired the celebrated American poet John Greenleaf Whittier to pen “The Dead Ship of Harpswell”:
What flecks the outer gray beyond
The sundown’s golden trail?
The white flash of a sea-bird’s wing,
Or gleam of slanting sail?
Let young eyes watch from Neck and Point,
And sea-worn elders pray, –
The ghost of what was once a ship
Is sailing up the bay!
Many and varied were Dash sightings, yet one common thread goes to the essential melancholy of this particular otherworldly presence: the poor Dash can never quite make it all the way home. As soon as she is almost there, back seaward she must drift again. Some say she heads back out to sea stern-first.
For never comes the ship to port,
Howe’er the breeze may be;
Just when she nears the waiting shore
She drifts again to sea.
No tack of sail, nor turn of helm,
Nor sheer of veering side;
Stern-fore she drives to sea and night,
Against the wind and tide.
In the wake of some of the initial sightings, a theory about Dash’s appearance quickly came to predominate: her coming was a harbinger of death – whenever the ghostly sails reappeared, a family member (be it immediate family, extended family, or, as time passed, a descendant) of one of Dash’s doomed crew was going to die.
Some home amid yon birchen trees
Shall drape its door with woe;
And slowly where the Dead Ship sails,
The burial boat shall row!
Dash sightings became more sporadic as the decades wore on (although how many sightings have gone unreported lest the reporter be accused of insanity one can only conjecture), but they have never ceased entirely. A summer guest at Harpswell House in the 1880s was taking the air on the verandah when he suddenly spied her, a beautiful, but unsettling, image of billowing sails. He hailed others to come quickly and see and in the moment it took to do so, poof, Dash had disappeared yet again.
How ironic that this famed participant in a long-ago war in which the United States and Great Britain were grim foes should reappear during World War II, when the two nations were allies and friends: and that this ghost ship should run the gauntlet between their two navies. How interesting, how resonant of the past, that the ship that fired on the fast-moving ghost of Dash in 1942 was a Royal Navy ship, a descendant of that same mighty navy that fired on Dash during her existence on this physical plane. The ponderings such mystical oddities evoke are fodder for the student of karma and the philosopher; they must remain beyond the purview of this more earth-bound accounting of events. Suffice it to say that the local Lothario, who bore witness to Dash’s ghost and almost bore the brunt of a British artillery shell, loaded his lady love onto his boat and attempted to row away from the commotion with all deliberate speed. He was apprehended and interrogated by US Navy officials, who, rendered incredulous by the paranormal details of his statement, ultimately felt compelled to bury the whole inexplicable affair amid the war’s massive bureaucratic paperwork. Other area residents had backed his story rather than dispelling his ghost ship assertions and the Navy decided that shelving the whole insane incident was the best course of action. The modern world, in all its grim, grey, steel-hulled seriousness, had just had a brief glimpse into the abyss of the unknowable and had experienced the same unsettling pang that prompted the poet’s unanswerable question:
What weary doom of baffled quest,
Thou said sea-ghost, is thine?
For many years, stories have circulated that the Dead Ship of Harpswell is a harbinger of doom, foretelling the death of a close family member or friend. Harpswell resident Easter Toothaker is said to have seen the phantom ship before jumping overboard to his death and Polly Toothaker, the wife of Captain John Toothaker, saw the spectral ship just before her husband died. In the 1880s, a guest at the old Lookout Pointe House (now the Harpswell Inn) claimed to have seen a “full-rigged ship” sailing into the sound one foggy day, but when he called others to come see the unusual vessel, it had disappeared. On another occasion, the spectral ship was sighted as it was coming into Merriconeag and the witness said it appeared to be attempting to make its way into Potts Harbor “only to vanish in a cloud of fog when coming near the shore.”
Robert Coffin, the late Brunswick poet and novelist, used the story of the Dead Ship of Harpswell in his book John Daim. In the novel, the phantom ship was seen twice by Captain James Dawn, once prior the deaths of his wife and son; the second time, just before his own death.
During the final week of August 1915, Miriam Tenney Fox, her brother, Dudley, and their friends, Laura and Ingr’m, who were also brother and sister, took the boat out onto the bay one brilliant moonlit night. As they were singing and having a good time, dark clouds suddenly obscured the moon and it was black as pitch. All they could see were the faint lights on the distant Harpswell shore. After what she estimated to be around five minutes, the clouds passed and they found themselves perilously close to a huge, black square rigger, directly in its path – had the giant vessel been moving. There were no riding lights ... no signs of life at all. The fully-rigged ship appeared to be anchored, so motionless it was. No one said a word and barely breathed as Ingr’m turned the boat around and headed for shore as fast as its unreliable motor would carry them. Once they touched solid ground, the young people began questioning each other, asking questions to which they knew there were no answers: “What was it?” “Where did it come from?” “Why weren’t there any riding light?” They knew there were no square-riggers around Casco Bay – or if there were, they had never seen them. Then it dawned on them – they had seen the Dead Ship of Harpswell.
Most dismiss the Dead Ship as nothing more than legend, but even today, there are those who risk ridicule and report seeing the maritime apparition. In the early 1970s, a woman living on Bailey Island saw a ship sail silently into Merriconeag Sound early one foggy August morning. She excitedly called to her husband, but within seconds, the mysterious tall ship had disappeared into the mist. She said the vessel appeared to be a two-masted schooner with billowing sails, even though there was no wind and the seas were smooth as glass, moving at a fast clip toward Harpswell Sound.
Theodore Ratwell, M.D., a longtime South Harpswell physician, also saw the ship and knew others who had seen it. He did not believe the ship foretold death, but said all the sightings of which he was aware occurred on foggy days during the summer months – usually in August.
Sources: The Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy by Eric Mills; The Harpswell Historical Society; The Patroller, Naval Air Station, Brunswick, Maine; Miriam Tenney Fox, Maine Times, August 8, 1969; Ghost Stories & Haunted Places; and The Dash, Historic Database.
See also “The Ghost of Benton, Maine, Resurrected”: whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/467/ghost-benton-maine-resurrected
“Haunts of Maine’s Haynesville Road”: whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/2622/haunts-maines-haynesville-road
“The Ice-Shrouded Ghosts of Maine”: whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/3235/ice-shrouded-ghosts-maine
“Lydia Carver: Ghost Bride of Cape Elizabeth”: whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/4127/lydia-carver-ghost-bride-elizabeth
“Maine Murders, Gallows and Ghosts”: whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/6190/maine-murders-gallows-ghosts