Spectral HORROR | Season 2, Episode 32.
NoSleep Nightmares (Ep. 12) | "Unmanned" NoSleep by Chad Austin
I would like to thank Chad Austin (raandomfellow) for letting me use this story.
As you might have already guessed, the origin of the term ghost ship has very little to do with ghosts. It was used to refer to ships found at sea without crews. In the early ages of maritime travel, it wasn’t unheard of to find a derelict whose crew was washed out to sea by a savage storm or ravaged by the plague. In the mind of the superstitious mariner, this suggested all sorts of outrageous stories. Tales of sea faring monsters and sirens luring unfortunate sailors to their doom were all too prevalent, overshadowing the more likely causes of piracy and sickness.
I don’t doubt the spreading of such ridiculous tales was due in part by those who wished to scare others off the lucrative field of maritime salvage. Even a small ship could net a lucky crew a tidy sum, not including the boat’s cargo. Knowing this, how could these silly stories of haunted boats and their spectral crew sound like nothing more than a clumsy attempt to keep you from a fair reward?
I could never believe in those sorts of stories. I knew that those kinds were meant for children and not a rational person like a true sailor should be, but they did interest me. It was fascinating to hear what wicked tales some fanciful mind had cooked up and decide just what could have really happened. I never liked the retelling of such folktales for the spread of these stories only served to make crews more skittish. I loved to dissect them and understand what makes us such a superstitious lot. I thought I understood the mind of my fellow sailor, all the intricate little beliefs and fears that made us human. All it took was one simple story to make me realize my own arrogance.
I’m going to break one of my own rules by telling it to you, but try to understand. This is more for your benefit than mine. Take from it what you will but don’t think for a moment that I’m just trying to frighten you with silly ghost stories. It doesn’t matter whether or not the tale is real, just that you understand the underlying message.
There was once a young man who had grown up in poverty and wanted nothing more than to escape his hard life on land for a more adventurous one at sea. At the age of sixteen, he ran away and joined the crew of a tramp steamer out of New York. Of course, he had to lie about his age but the captain understood his situation. It was a harsh adjustment for the boy but he managed admirably. The shifting waves of the open ocean are far less hospitable to a man’s stomach than the solid ground of land.
As the newest crewmember, he had a great many things to prove and the best way to prove them was to take any and every job asked of him. Unfortunately, these jobs were always the least desirable ones. Often tedious and sometimes dangerous, the boy willingly accepted any challenge offered him. I don’t mean to say he didn’t enjoy his work. Being worked to the bone afforded him little time to himself and nightwatch on the deck gave him ample time for that. He’d often find himself lost in thought as he paced about the deck staring out over the inking black waters. There was never anything to see upon the lapping waves but darkness and it made him feel as if nothing existed beyond what he could see in the ship’s running lights.
It was on one such night that the boy found it. He actually heard it before he saw it. The sound mingled with the crash of waves against the hull, giving it a strangely musical tone. It was like the stretching of metal upon metal but conducted by an orchestra. A strange and lonely yearning call. Or so thought the fanciful mind of a boy not yet a man. In the direction of the sound he could see the faint lights in the distance. Though it hadn’t been foggy that night, the water particles in the air made the light look gaseous and unnatural. As you can imagine, the boy’s fancy was excited by the sight. Though he didn’t believe in ghosts or monsters at sea, he was by no means curious.
As his ship neared the light, the boy saw that he wasn’t looking at his first spirit but the running lights of a boat slightly larger than his own. Rocking perilously at the mercy of the waves, he couldn’t see a single soul on deck. Its surface was covered in rust and the detritus left from waves above the deckline. As it bobbed up and down upon the unforgiving sea, the boy realized the creaking hull of the derelict was causing the strange musical notes. From just a single sight of the thing, he knew something was very wrong.
His call for alarm had drawn the attention of not only the crew still awake but half those sleeping. Within a minute’s time, over twenty men, including the captain and first mate, stood staring at the lifeless ship bob upon the waves. Amidst the flurry of excited discussion, the boy caught words like “survivors” and “salvage” but he could not tear his eyes away from the thing. It moved almost hypnotically on the ocean and the creaking musical notes began to develop a hauntingly ominous quality. He thought it was almost pleading. When the boy mentioned it to the other men, no one paid it any attention.
It didn’t take long to pull the ship up beside the derelict and lash the two together with rope and whatever boarding hooks they could find. The abandoned ship seemed undamaged for the most part and had no trouble floating. Being the one who had first spotted the vessel, the boy’s captain eagerly volunteered him for the first party to board it. He was understandably nervous about setting foot on the ship but his duty was clear. Ten men armed with flashlights flooded the empty deck in search of survivors. The boy stuck to the protective side of his captain, though outwardly he tried to put on a tough face.
As much as he hoped to find anyone alive, the searching party found no one. Oh, they found plenty of signs of life but not one living soul. Clothes left thrown on bunks as if they had been changed and tossed aside in a hurry, food left half eaten in the galley to collect mold. He’d even spotted a few mouse traps and droppings but not one furry little stowaway could be located. The boatswain suspected the crew had abandoned ship due to fear of disease or piracy but they found no lifeboats missing. Other theories floated about the crew as they searched but the boy noticed no one seemed worried about the state of the ship. Or of the mounting intensity of the musical creaking.
After finding nothing in the crew quarters and officially deciding that their expedition was no longer a rescue but salvage, they moved greedily to the hold. Though it was damp, the cargo seemed mostly intact. The boy didn’t know what most of it was but the captain seemed quite excited by their find. The rest of the searchers seemed pleased and completely obvious to the booming metallic scraping that echoed in his ear since he’d stepped onto the damned ship. It had never been this loud. There was no doubt in his mind that the musical creaking came from here. The belly of the ship. The boy had to slap his hands to his ears to shut it out.
“Why can’t you hear it?!” he bellowed as he sunk to the floor. “Don’t you see it’s not safe here?!”
But no one listened to him. They were all old veterans of the sea. They did not fear the old tales. Nor did they fear the rantings of a child pretending to be a man. He yelled and grew violent in his attempt to make the sailors leave. When they tried to lay hands on him, the boy threw savage punches at his assailants. It took five men to wrestle him to the ground and drag him back to their ship. Once there, the boy was thrown into a cell. The captain left him with a sad look on his face, placing the keys to his prison quite visibly on a table in plain view.
There he stayed for the next two days in a blinding agony with that musical screeching deafening him. On the dawn of the third day, the boy awoke to find the sound faded from what he assumed was distance. Had the crew listened to him and abandoned the derelict after all? As the day dragged on, the musical calling continued to fade until he was left with the silence of his own ship.
Silence. No hum of motors or clomping footsteps. No voices. No one had come to give his meals. His stomach twisted painfully as the implications ran through his mind. He had to get out.
The flimsy frame of his cell’s bed came apart easily, offering up a straight metal pole long enough to hook the table legs. Within minutes, he’d pulled it close enough to grab his cell’s keys off its surface and throw open his cage. However, the joy of freedom was overshadowed by his growing sense of dread. There was nothing but the echoing sound of groaning metal to greet him.
The boy found his ship in a state much like he’d expected. No signs of a struggle but not a single sailor on board but himself. Just like the derelict, food had been left partially consumed and clothing left on floors and bunks as if forgotten. What little he knew of the operation of the ship he could tell the engines and boiler had been left to idle and eventually die from lack of attention. It was as if his entire crew had dropped everything they were doing and left without a word. Forty seven men had disappeared and left no trace.
The worst of it all was that the derelict he’d been so irrationally frightened of had gone. In the yellowing evening light, he could see for miles in all directions but there was nothing he could see. Just more ocean. The boy felt oppressively alone in his empty ship on a cold, uncaring sea. Where had they all gone? Did they take the derelict? But why did they leave him here alone? Was his offense enough that his captain would doom him to death at sea? The boy struggled to find a rational explanation for everything but rationality was in short supply. Everytime he tried to think, that creaking musical beckoning would play in his head and cloud his mind.
As you can imagine, attempting to run a steamer that required a crew of at least twenty by yourself would be an impossible task but he tried. It was more or less just to pass the time until his possible rescue and keep his mind from wandering to less productive thoughts. The radio did not reach far enough to affect a rescue and he had no idea how to tell where he was anyway. All he could do was to tend to the ship and hope, but really… it wouldn’t matter in the end.
As the days came and went, the waves crashing against the hull began to give him nightmares. It was the music of the sea. The incessant drumming of the waves, the piping groan of the hull in protest, and the sad lonely song of the wind. It all sounded so familiar to him and as he realized why, the song had begun to invade his waking world. The lonely beckoning song of the derelict but this time heard from the beginning.... and coming from his ship.
It wasn’t fear that made him turn off the ship’s running lights and destroy its beacon. It wasn’t fear that drove him to pile as much food and fresh water as he could comfortably fit into his cell, lock himself in, and throw the keys over the deck. It was resignation.
So now you understand why I can’t open this door and why I couldn’t tell your captain what happened to the rest of my crew. If I seem calm, it’s only because I know there’s no helping what will become of me. You’ve heard the song, I know you have. I can see it in your eyes. You’ve all heard her lonely call, whether they realize it or not. But I can tell you will understand.
If you truly want to know what happened to my fellows, then by all means stay. I suspect I shall join them soon. I have no doubt you’ll never hear word from the derelict or my crew again, and anyone who stays on this vessel will likely disappear as well. Laugh if you like, call this a silly ghost story. It doesn’t matter in the end. But if you want to avoid my fate then you and your mates need to leave this damned ship.
You’re probably wondering what brought this curse upon our heads. I did. Was it something in the hold of that devil derelict? Was it something in the air? Or was it really a ghost, ravenous for the souls of the living? Like I said, I don’t know myself but I have my suspicions. I’m sure you do as well. The superstitions of the past aren’t lost on me now and I wonder if the old belief that a boat without a crew cries out in pain. In loneliness.
You can hear it now, too, can’t you? The song? It’s the call of the one true siren. A ship with no crew is no ship at all.
Spectral HORROR is a series on YouTube which narrates true and fictional scary stories.
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