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For as long as we have travelled by sea, there have been reports of ghost ships sailing crew-less and haunted around the world. Some of the most famous legends include the Mary Celeste, the Flying Dutchman and The Octavius.


Nowadays, the scariest tales told in the media are of vessels smuggling people, weapons and contraband by turning off their tracking to move undetected on the seas. The potential threat these ships carry is arguably more unsettling and far reaching than the traditional ghost ship tales, but is it as simple as that?


And looking to the future, what will happen as vessels become autonomous and technology, rather than a human, is at the helm?


Image: shutterstock



A. Earnest Mills


When the schooner A. Earnest Mills sank following a collision, the crew watched the ship sink to the ocean floor. Four days later it was spotted floating on the surface. The crew were understandably perplexed.


However, the key to this mystery is not paranormal activity, but instead lies in the ships heavy cargo – salt. After the collision, the ship took on water and sank. As it did so, the salt it was carrying dissolved, the weight of the ship gradually decreased until the gravitational force was less than the buoyant force, and the ship returned to the surface like a ghostly spectre risen from the deep.



Frigorifique vs Rumney


A tale of ghostly revenge, or a simple crew error that left both vessels in disaster?


In 1884, the British steamer, Rumney, collided with the French ship Frigorifique. The Frigorifique began to fill with seawater, so the crew abandoned ship and boarded the British vessel. Once everyone was on board, the crew began to sail to the nearest port.


Suddenly, the Frigorifique slowly emerged out of the fog. Caught by surprise, the Rumney was unable to turn and avoid the Frigorifique, and the two vessels collided again. The French vessel then disappeared again in to the fog, having seemingly reappeared just to exact its revenge.


In reality, when the crew abandoned the Frigorifique, they left the engine running. This meant the vessel continued to travel in a circle and collided with the Rumney before eventually sinking.



European “ghost” ships


Click to read Understanding AIS whitepaperA quick search of “ghost ships” on google will bring up a host of media coverage in the last year on vessels in European waters “going dark” (turning off their AIS), stoking fears of criminal or terrorist activity. But the headlines simply show a lack of understanding about AIS and its limitations.


Understanding modern “ghost ships” and deriving a vessel’s intent is highly complex and relies on detailed industry and technical knowledge. In other words, we can’t assume that every vessel that turns off its AIS is up to something. While it can be an indication of illicit activity, there are several other reasons why an AIS signal may not be received.


“Going dark” does not necessarily mean the vessel has manually and deliberately switched off the on-vessel AIS transceiver. It can mean the vessel has moved beyond AIS detection range or has entered an area where the signal is difficult to detect. A vessel’s activity must be reviewed within the context of the commercial activity that they are engaged in. For example, has the vessel changed course unexpectedly? Is it acting differently to other vessels of a similar type? Are there indications that the vessel’s owning or operating companies have a history of prior illicit activity?


For more myth busting facts about AIS, check out this article we wrote on the subject.



Autonomous ships


Looking to the future, unmanned “ghost ships” could be a common sight all over the world.


Lloyd’s List recently reported that we could see huge unmanned 50,000 teu boxships in service within 50 years as a result of progress driven by digitalisation.


Further to this, Rolls-Royce has recently inked an agreement with Google to improve the ability of autonomous vessels to identify objects encountered at sea.


“Intelligent awareness systems will make vessels safer, easier and more efficient to operate by providing crew with an enhanced understanding of their vessel’s surroundings. This will be achieved by fusing data from a range of sensors with information from existing ship systems, such as automatic identification system and radar. Data from other sources, including global databases, will also have a role,” said Rolls-Royce in a recent statement.


With advancements like this, can we expect accidents like Frigorifique vs Rumney to be a thing of the past as a new era of “ghost ships” changes the game completely?




Explore the issues and risks around autonomous vessels

With the world’s first fully-autonomous container ship expected to sail in the next few years, driverless vessels are set to be a game changer in the industry, particularly in terms of companies meeting financial and environmental targets. Technological, legal and regulatory developments are gathering speed to make these unmanned ships a reality.

This collection of extracts combines recent articles to provide some background to these issues, summarise what the current law is, and explore the risks which need to be recognised and overcome.


  • Unmanned ships on the IMO work agenda, Shipping & Trade Law, June 2017, (2017) 17 STL 5 1
  • The integration of unmanned ships into the lex maritima, Lloyd's Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly, [2017] LMCLQ 303
  • Objective and subjective safety in unmanned shipping, Shipping & Trade Law, November 2016, (2016) 16 STL 9 4
Unmanned shipping cover thumbnail

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