1942, August 3: HMS Jubilee encounters a Phantom Ship

It's said that Nicholas Monsarrat [1910-1979], famous author with a flair for maritime stories, was inspired by a spooky encounter during World War II.

Nicholas Monsarrat
Nicholas Monsarrat [Larger version here]

        On August 3, 1942, the British minesweeper HMS Jubilee was on her way to the naval base at Simon's Town, South Africa. It was a quiet and still night with no wind, but a bright moon. At around 9:00 PM first officer Davies, on bridge duty, saw a vessel approaching on the starboard side, an old-fashioned schooner of a make he didn't recognize and sailing at around 20 knots with her sails full... despite the lack of active wind.

        The ship was carrying no colors (identifying flags), and no lights were showing. When this strange ship came within hailing distance, Davies asked the third officer, who was Nicholas Monsarrat, to signal the vessel. The unknown ship did not respond.

        The unknown ship soon passed the Jubilee on the starboard side; neither Davies nor Monsarrat could see a sign of anybody aboard the schooner. The ship continued on and away, under full sail with no wind.

        This strange encounter is now believed to have been inspirational for many of the maritime tales that Monsarrat was to later craft.

Problems, Problems

        The above tale has often been stated to be an example of a modern encounter with a famous and legendary phantom ship called the Flying Dutchman... but it's likely this claim has nothing to it.

        For those of you who don't know, Nicholas Monsarrat is an obvious pick for a claim of an encounter with a phantom ship for two reasons. First, he was famous for writing books about true and fictional maritime adventures; second, some of what he wrote included fictional encounters with phantom vessels... hence the claim of being 'inspired' by a real encounter.

        Unfortunately for this claim, the earliest source I've been able to find for the account above is 1993, in Margaret Williamson's book Haunted Corners: ...South Africa's Own Ghost Stories. All copies of the story I've seen other than Williamson's appear to be based on her 1993 book, which has a few problems.

        The main problem is that Nicholas Monsarrat didn't serve on the HMS Jubilee in 1942... mainly because it appears there was no HMS Jubilee in existence at the time! This fact was determined by a group of people who were interested in Monsarrat's naval history, but not aware of the proposed encounter with the phantom ship. Members of the group had heard that Monsarrat may have served on a vessel named Jubilee and so they did a search for the vessel in WWII naval lists; there was no record of the ship to be found.

        A separate group of people who were tracing ship histories for various veterans listed their information for Monsarrat and the ships he'd served on... and, again, the HMS Jubilee wasn't listed. The 1993 source for the story, which everyone appears to have copied, claimed that Monsarrat told the story of this encounter in an interview years after the event... but I can't find anything like that at all.

        For all of these reasons, I'm marking this account as 'Unreliable' as evidence of the paranormal.

Newer Variations to Watch For

        The likely fact that Monsarrat wasn't involved seems to have led to a new version of the story, the earliest of which I've seen was published in 2011. In this version we are told the HMS Jubilee had to rapidly change course to avoid hitting a phantom ship; the captain then reported the strange vessel was last seen sailing away under full sail, though there was no wind.

        So it seems a story of a near collision has been substituted for the claim of a famous author's involvement, to keep the account interesting. Of course, the HMS Jubilee still didn't exist... so that's still a problem.