They float through the spine-chilling pages of many a sea-faring yarn – the ghost ships which sail eternally to haunt the living seas. But once, in the English Channel, a real ghost ship sailed. The story started with a collision in thick fog.
The two ships which collided were the French steamer Frigorifique built 1869. A ketch rigged steamer of 715 tons, carrying wine from Bordeaux to Rouen and the British 522 ton collier Rumney, built 1879, sailing from Cardiff with 920 tons of coal bound for Rochefort. They collided off Ile de Seine during a thick, foggy morning on 19th March, 1884.
The Rumney was steering S.E. by S. on slow engines with her steam whistle sounding at regular intervals. When the lookout heard a noise on the port bow, immediately the captain reversed engines to full astern, where the Frigorifique, moving at considerable speed (later denied by the Frigorifique) on a westerly course, was seen crossing the bows of the Rumney, moving from port to starboard. The wheels of both ships were put over hard a starboard but the collision could not be avoided, the stem of the Rumney coming in contact with the other vessels starboard quarter, cutting half way across her deck. In the collision, the helm of the Frigorifique was forced and jammed hard a port, the helmsman being thrown completely over the wheel. As the two vessels remained stuck together for a time and the Frigorifique seemed to be taking on water, the French crew of 22 hands immediately abandoned their ship and jumped aboard the Rumney and then the Frigorifique, who’s engines were still going ahead, slipped away and disappeared into the fog.
With the survivors on board, the Rumney sailed on. Suddenly, the Frenchmen cried out in fear. For next a great ship loomed silently out of the fog, narrowly missing the Rumney. It was the French ship which they assumed had sunk.
And twenty minutes later, the ‘ghost ship’ again loomed out of the fog, once more bearing down on the British ship. This time there was no escape. With a deafening crash the Frigorifique’s bows smashed into the starboard quarter of the collier. Within seconds, the Rumney was sinking, sending her 15 men running to the ships lifeboat and punt while the French crew went for the pinnace. The French ship had its revenge. The two crews in the boats gave chase and succeeded in boarding the runaway ship, and her engines were stopped, but shortly afterwards it was discovered she was also sinking, however both crews were saved and assisted ashore by some fishermen.
As the fog lifted, and the survivors of both ships saw the French ship clearly across the sea, the sinister mystery was explained. The Frigorifique had not sunk after that first collision. With her boilers still operating and her rudder jammed by the collision, the abandoned ship had continued to steam in a full circle, twice crossing the path of the collier. Only then, following her revenge, her deadly haunting was finished, did she finally sink.