The technique for avoiding a ghost ship is pretty straightforward. Stay on land. This is not always an option, particularly if you’re working as a fisherman, serving in the navy, opting for a career in the merchant marine, deciding the pirate life is for you, or living on islands such as the Chiloé Archipelago. The Chiloé Archipelago consists of a few islands separated from mainland Chile by the two kilometer wide Chacao Channel in the north, the Sea of Chiloé in the east and Gulf of Corcovado to the southeast, administered as the Chilean province of Chiloé. Archaeologists believe the archipelago may have been occupied as early as 12,000 B.C. The earliest ethnically identifiable occupation was by the seafaring Chono people, but by about 1400 A.D. the primary inhabitants were the Huiliche, a southern indigenous tribe of Chile. Between 1567-1810 A.D. , the islands were a Spanish Colony, and persisted as a Spanish royalist stronghold from about 1810-1826 A.D. while the Spanish colonial administration struggled to hold onto its colonies in South America. After 1826, the islands of the Chiloé Archipelago were part of the Chilean Republic.

Photo by Julie Gentry.
Photo by Julie Gentry.

Charles Darwin mentioned Chiloé in his journal detailing the voyage of the HMS Beagle, commenting, “February 4th—Sailed from Chiloe. During the last week I made several short excursions. One was to examine a great bed of now-existing shells, elevated 350 feet above the level of the sea: from among these shells large forest-trees were growing. Another ride was to P. Huechucucuy. I had with me a guide who knew the country far too well; for he would pertinaciously tell me endless Indian names for every little point, rivulet, and creek. In the same manner as in Tierra del Fuego, the Indian language appears singularly well adapted for attaching names to the most trivial features of the land. I believe everyone was glad to say farewell to Chiloe; yet if we could forget the gloom and ceaseless rain of winter, Chiloe might pass for a charming island. There is also something very attractive in the simplicity and humble politeness of the poor inhabitants” (Darwin, 1864, p39). This highlights two facts: (1) Chiloé, with physical isolation, ceaseless winter gloom and rain, and an ancient seafaring tradition seems an ideal environment to breed nasty nautical ghosts, and (2) Darwin may have been brilliant, but he was also a bit of a jerk. While opinions vary as to the quality of Darwin’s personality, one thing is certain, the Chiloé Archipelago is home to a fascinating, semi-sentient ghost ship, crewed by witches and the spirits of the drowned, called El Caleuche (from the Mapudungun word “kalewtun” meaning “Shapeshifter”, as some legends say it can change into a marine animal at will in order to disguise itself).

There are numerous other water-monsters, some marine, some amphibians, their most various forms being naturally found among the Chiletes of the southern archipelago. El Caleuche, the witch-boat, is interesting for the fact that here, in the far Pacific south, it represents what might almost be called an outcropping of the similar conceptions found among the Eskimo and the pelagic tribes of the Northwest Coast. The witch-boat is seen at night, illuminated, and it carries fishermen down to the treasure-houses at the bottom of the sea (Gray, Moore & MacChulloch, 1916, p328).

El Caleuche is reputed to be a bright white, three-masted sailing ship that always sounds like an enormous party is underway onboard, appearing and disappearing quickly, and able to navigate underwater (similar to the Flying Dutchman myth). If you are drowning off the Chiloé Archipelago, you are brought to El Caleuche by three mythological Chilote figures—the sirena chilota sisters (mermaids) and Pincoya, a feminine water spirit associated with the Chilotan Seas. The party is often joined by the Brujo de Chiloé (“Warlock of Chiloé”), which are essentially powerful male witches of Chilote folklore. Additionally, rumor has it that fisherman and sailors are kidnapped as slaves and transformed into Invunche, hairy monsters with legs twisted over its shoulders and a forked tongue associated with the Brujo de Chiloé. Essentially, El Caleuche is a party boat for the drowned and their witch buddies.

Every Chilote knows, too, the ship Caleuche, which Subercaseaux suggests may be a heritage from Dutch pirates who, along with fair hair and blue eyes, left the legend of the Flying Dutchman. Gabriela Mistral, quoted also in Panorama y Color de Chile, sees no connection with the Flying Dutchman. She writes: The Caleuche is a pirate ship — a noble outlaw of the seas, which . . . runs miles and miles under it, so well hidden that for weeks and months all trace of it is lost, and it seems to have . . . left the sea of the Chilotes for some other. . . But suddenly on the loneliest of those southern nights the Caleuche emerges . . . and runs a long course in full view, navigating at full steam, almost flying, without permitting herself to be overtaken by any whaleboat or poor fishing launch which might try to follow her. The fleeing thing, in the sight of fear-crazed fishermen, is a phosphorescent mass . . . whose deck swarms with sea devils and a tribe of witches very like them. . . .Let its pursuers approach their illuminated prey and before they glimpse or catch the secret, the burning palace of the Caleuche simply stops, goes out like a great firebrand, and leaves a dead hulk, dark cinders which drift with the waves and mock those who had already pictured their victory. . . .The Caleuche cannot be exactly described because it resembles nothing except — the Caleuche. Pushed to define it, one can only stammer negations. It is not a whale although it appears so in its knack of overturning fishing boats, and it is not a ship although it is so called for no other reason than that it always navigates. Nor are the Caleuche’s demon masters described. But the crew, those captured careless dreamers, are creatures with their heads on backward and their left legs so twisted that they hop awkwardly on one foot. Few return to land; those who do never lose that backward look or that habit of hopping. And their memories are forever lost, lest the Caleuche’s secret should be known to mortals. It seems a happier fate to stay aboard, where life is a perpetual kermis. As the Caleuche is eternal, so are her masters and crew. Always young, they sleep by day and play by night. But in the nicest possible way. It is not related that they ever captured maidens at play or clam-gathering on the beaches. The Caleuche is more than a legend of the past. Even now she occasionally carries bewitched fishermen down to the treasure houses at the bottom of the sea. Mistral says: Fishermen benighted at sea behold her if they keep watch; those who sleep relaxed on shore lose her; lighthouse-keepers watching the sea see her sometimes or often, according to whether they are dull or given to miracles. … In fact, most Chilotes have seen the Caleuche at one time or another and those so fortunate carry all their lives the memory of the lighted ship like something from another life (Fergusson, 1943, p61-62).

While some have suggested that El Caleuche is an adaptation of European Flying Dutchman folklore, others attribute it to the actual disappearance of a Dutch Ship called “The Calanche”, Spanish ships that simply vanished in the Straits of Magellan, memories of the arrival and brief 1600 A.D. capture of islands in the Chiloé Archipelago by Dutch pirates led by Baltazar de Cordes, or convenient historical cover for local smuggling operations. Ancient Chilote legends are certainly woven into the mythology of El Caleuche, and who is to say that a ghostly ship is not out there stalking the Pacific Coast of Chile, particularly when sightings have continued into the modern era.

Even in our modern world of global positioning and advanced naval engineering, the sea remains a harsh mistress. The forces of nature that act upon a ship are monstrous and the potential dangers innumerable, and to face them in a tiny, wooden sailing ship borders on, well, crazy. Sailors have always been a breed apart. Foucault mentions ships as the epitome of the heterotopia, that is, a space of “otherness”, a parallel space where the physical and spiritual worlds collide. “The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development…but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates” (Foucault, 1984). A ghost ship thus represents the pinnacle of “otherness”, and while many ghost ships are seen as eternal punishments, or the endless wanderings of tortured souls, El Caleuche seems to be a relatively pleasant place to spend eternity for those unfortunate souls who drowned at sea, partying on the ocean (of course, not so pleasant for the kidnapped Invunche), even making appearances at New Year’s Eve parties and picking up other boat friends.

The Chilean coast has its pet ghost, the caleuche. This is a sight, indeed, for a crew to see—an old bluff-bowed square-rigger, luminous as though on fire, and manned by a crew of skeletons! It appears in gales but never in rain or snow (which may lead some who do not care for ghost stories to mutter something about “phosphorescence”). The caleuche does not always slay those who see it, however, and oddly enough the natives of Carelmapu tell of seeing it every New Year’s Eve. The procedure there, to raise the ghost, is a beach party—New Year’s Eve being in the summer season for Chile—with plenty of liquid good cheer. Some time after midnight, the caleuche is sure to appear—a result which we can reason out as we like from the procedure used to invoke its appearance. The most interesting point, however, about the caleuche is this: in recent years it seems to have gathered itself a companion—and no ghostly old-timer either! The new fellow spook is none other than the Danish cadet training ship, Kjobenhavn. We cannot say when the Kjobenhavn foundered, or even that she did. All we know is that while on a long training cruise she left Montevideo on December 14, 19, bound for Melbourne. A week later her wireless reported her 400 miles east of the Rio de la Plata. After that—nothing, until a month later the bleak little rocky island, Tristan da Cunha, halfway between South America and the Cape of Good Hope, reported glimpsing such a ship, down at the stern, mainmast gone, sails furled, except one lower topsail, circling the island in a storm. The black hull with broad white band seemed a good identification to the inhabitants. Was she derelict, having been abandoned by the crew—an abandonment made without once using the radio aboard? Every one is free to guess—and to guess also what caused a Chilean coaster to report seeing the Kjobenhavn a year later driving before a furious norther and followed by the caleuche! Let no one say, after this, that modern times develop no ghost stories! (Stevers, 1935, p31).

While not technically mythological monsters (more of a technological monster), ghost ships seem to be imbued with a personality independent of their phantasmagoric crews, no doubt owing to longstanding traditions of seafarers that ships each possess a character of its own, one that can be offended or placated with appropriate treatment. “Since ships are thought of as individuals, they too are susceptible to turning into ghosts, and the concept of the ghost ship manned by spirits still makes for one of the most fantastic and thrilling of sea stories. These stories are rarely told onboard, though, since they violate the taboo on speaking of the dead, but they can often be heard elaborately embellished over a pint in a port town pub. Such stories are a source of pride for sailors, since only the “saltiest” of deepwater sailors could ever experience the phenomenon of seeing a ghost ship” (Pittman, 2006, p216). A certain solace can be found in that the spirits of the drowned live on to eternally party aboard El Caleuche, for as Sir Terrence Rattigan said, “When you’re between any sort of devil and the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea sometimes looks very inviting”.


Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882. Journal of Researches Into the Natural History And Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World: Under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy. New York: Harper & Bros., 1864.

Fergusson, Erna, 1888-1964. Chile. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1943.

Foucault, Michel. “Des Espace Autres,” Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité . October, 1984.

Gray, Louis H. 1875-1955, George Foot Moore, and J. A. MacCulloch. The Mythology of All Races V.11 Latin America. Boston: Marshall Jones company, 1916.

Pittman, Louise A. “Appeasing Neptune: The Functions of Nautical Tradition”. Chrestomathy Vol. 5, 2006.

Stevers, MartinD.Sea Lanes; Man’s Conquest of the Ocean. New York: Minton, Balch & company, 1935.