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News You Can Use – Ghost Fleet
By David Bachelor, PhD
According to a legend from the 17th century, the Flying Dutchman is a ghost ship doomed to sail the oceans forever. The ship’s curse was to never come into port. This phantom vessel is a mainstay of maritime lore. The Flying Dutchman has a lot of competition lately. Ghost ships and ghost fleets are making headlines around the world. The difference is that these vessels can and do pull into port.
On August 18th the Wall Street Journal had the headline, “The Ghost Fleet Helping Russia Evade Sanctions and Pursue Its War in Ukraine.” The article chronicled the rise of unregistered (and presumably uninspected and uninsured) vessels that are operating outside international guidelines. A shipping industry spokesman commented, “Concern No. 1 is they’re old ships. There’s a reason they don’t keep sailing forever, because then it gets to a point where structural fatigue just becomes too much of an issue.” It is feared these vessels will be abandoned when they malfunction. With no sailors on board, their illicit cargo will eventually leak into the sea.
The military newsletter The Defense Post on August 22nd had the headline, “Leidos to Operate, Sustain US Navy Medium Unmanned Vessels.” The article was about the creation of a fleet of robotic unmanned surface vessels (USV). A U.S. Navy spokesman explained, “The US Navy USVs are part of Ghost Fleet Overlord, a prototyping program launched in 2018 to integrate multi-mission crewless ships into the fleet.” The use of “ghost” to describe this fleet might be a misnomer since it has not yet been determined if robots have souls.
The Daily Mail carried an article about another type of ghost fleet in its August 28th article, “America’s Largest GHOST Fleet: More than 200 Sunken Ships that Lie on the Bed of the Potomac.” Although some of the ships in this “fleet” date to the American Revolution, most of the ships were built as part of the U.S. Emergency Fleet during World War I. “Their construction at more than 40 shipyards in 17 states was part of the national wartime effort that fueled the economic development of waterfront communities and maritime services industries.” Some of these vessels never made a single journey. In 1925 the emergency ships still afloat were brought to their present location where they were burned and scuttled. Now this ghost fleet serves the nation as “. . . an ecological paradise for birds, beavers, turtles and fish.”
The Bible mentions several fleets in the history of Israel. King Solomon had a trading fleet that put to sea for three years at a time. Each time the fleet returned, it was laden with precious metals and exotic animals (1 King 10:22). The fleet of the city-state of Tyre is mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel. Tyre used their fleet for commerce and human trafficking (Eze 27:12-13). There was even a fleet that shared a similar fate to the U.S. Emergency Fleet. Attempting to copy his ancestor King Solomon, King Jehoshaphat tried his hand at the sea: “Now Jehoshaphat built a fleet of trading ships to go to Ophir for gold, but they never set sail—they were wrecked at Ezion Geber (1 Ki 22:48). The Bible does not say how long Jehoshaphat’s “ghost fleet” could be seen at Ezion Geber, but the hulks must have been visible long enough that no other king of Israel tried to build a fleet.
The ghostly aspects of ships and the sea are linked in our imagination as this week’s disparate “ghost fleets” illustrate. Yet no sailor wants to be crew on the Flying Dutchman or any other cursed ship. For this reason, sailors (in the words of the Navy Hymn) petition God, “O hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.”