“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion” – Noam Chomsky
In 1821, the H.M.S. Leven, a 20-gun sixth-rate Cyrus-class post ship of the British Royal Navy, and her companion the H.M.S. Barracouta, a 10-gun Cherokee-class brig-sloop, set sail on a five-year expedition to map the coast of Africa, Arabia, and Madagascar in greater detail, commanded by Captain (eventually Vice Admiral) William Fitzwilliam Owen. They returned with over 300 new, detailed charts covering 30,000 miles of coastline, half the original crew dead from tropical diseases, and one extraordinarily odd tale for fans of phantom ships.
Now, the Norwegian vardøger (a sort of spirit predecessor or “first-comer”) and the Finnish etiäinen (an image that goes ahead of a person), are proud folkloric critters in a slightly less menacing tradition related to the doppelgänger, usually resulting in people thinking they’ve seen the actual person before the person physically arrives. Typically, this involves an individual, but in the case of the H.M.S. Barracouta, it was an entire ship.
In 1821, Captain Owen, on his flagship the H.M.S. Leven was rounding the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, planning on putting in at Port Danger on Simon’s Bay in the Western Cape, when in the stormy seas, the Leven got separated from the Barracouta. These things happen to small squadrons on the briny. As the Leven neared Port Danger, Captain Owen recorded a strange occurrence.
In the evening of the 6th April, when off Port Danger, the Barracouta was seen about two miles to leeward. Struck with the singularity of her being so soon after us, we at first concluded that it could not be she; but the peculiarity of her rigging and other circumstances convinced us that we were not mistaken. Nay, so distinctly was she seen that many well-known faces could be observed on deck, looking towards our ship. After keeping thus for some time, we became surprised that she made no effort to join us, but on the contrary stood away. But being so near to the port to which we were both destined, Captain Owen did not attach much importance to this proceeding, and we accordingly continued our course. At sunset it was observed that she hove to and sent a boat away, apparently for the purpose of picking up a man overboard. During the night we could not perceive any light or other indication of her locality. The next morning, we anchored in Simon’s Bay, where for a whole week we were in anxious expectation of her arrival; but it afterwards appeared that at this very period the Barracouta must have been above 300 miles from us, and no other vessel of the same class was ever seen about the Cape (Lockhart, 1924, p51-52).
A week later, the H.M.S. Barracouta actually did arrive. The knee-jerk explanation was to say that the entire crew of the Leven saw the refraction of the Barracouta on clouds or a fog bank, including the minutest details of their friends and acquaintances’ faces from 300 miles away. That’s some pretty fancy fog.
The first thing to do was to compare notes and explain the mystery. It was found that at the time of the warship’s being seen near Port Danger she was at least three hundred miles away. There is no room for doubt as to the details of the story. People do not imagine with such unanimity as to admit of any explanation other than reflection or refraction in a cloud or fog bank (Knight, 1910, p311).
All of this was reported in due course to the Royal Navy authorities, who generally looked askance at reports of phantom ships, and officially concluded that it must have been a “refracted image in a fog bank, so all you sailors go back to work”, which if it was truly the case would seem to suggest we should be seeing a lot more phantom ships than we actually do. Let’s also not forget that the Cape of Good Hope is suspiciously where a Dutch man-o-war went down with all souls, giving rise to the archetypal phantom ship, The Flying Dutchman.
“Reflection” or “Refraction” have traditionally been a popular explanation for phantom ships, so much so that we’ve given it a name – Fata Morgana. Fata Morgana are indeed an optical phenomenon (there are lots of pictures to prove it) occurring when light bends as it passes through layers of air with different temperatures (a steep thermal inversion, where air is temporarily cooler near the surface than higher in the atmosphere) and an atmospheric duct has formed. This is a very specific set of conditions with some very specific optical consequences. A distant object can appear close by. So far, so good as an explanation for phantom ships. The tricky part is that the optical effect is a combination of upside down and right side up images stacked on top of each other and heavily distorted, generally so as to be unrecognizable.
Scientistic skepticism has this troublesome tendency to take an empirically verifiable phenomena, and precisely because it is verifiable, then apply it to anomalistic instances as an explanation, despite the fact that it is rather inadequate and inconsistent with the reports of the anomaly, as in the case of the H.M.S. Barracouta, which was seen as if two miles away (when it was actually 300 miles away), and the features of which were not inverted, details of which were clearly discernible, and recognizable to a ship full of eyewitnesses. I suppose the old maxim that when the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems are nails applies, or as inventor Jacque Fresco said, “Whatever happens in the world is real, what one thinks should have happened is projection. We suffer more from our fictitious illusion and expectations of reality”.
Bassett, Fletcher S., 1849-1893. Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and of Sailors in All Lands and at All Times. Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1885.
Knight, Herbert. “Phantom Ships”. Treasury v15. London: G. J. Palmer and sons, 1910.
Lockhart, John Gilbert, 1891-. Mysteries of the Sea: A Book of Strange Tales. London: P. Allan & Co, 1924.
Owen, W.F.W., 1774-1857, and Heaton Bowstead Robinson. Narrative of Voyages to Explore the Shores of Africa, Arabia And Madagascar: Performed in H.M. Ships Leven And Barracouta Under the Direction of Captain W. F. W. Owen, R.N. London: R. Bentley, 1833.
Makanna, Or, The Land of the Savage. 2nd ed. London: Printed for Whittaker and Co., 1834.
I don’t trust the accounts from anyone sailing on a SHIP WHAT’S NAME IS SPELLED WRONG.
Unless the crew of the H.M.S. Leven was composed entirely of inexperienced sailors, I expect that many of them would have been familiar with the Fata Morgana phenomenon and perfectly capable of recognizing a mirage. No mention is made of a spyglass, but I assume that’s what the crew of the Leven used to view the Barracouta. I would be surprised if a magnified image failed to reveal whether or not what they were witnessing was a temperature inversion effect.