The ocean is a mysterious place, it is equally wondrous and dangerous. There are so many unknowns out there on the endless horizon where the sea and sky meet. It is not surprising that it holds numerous stories of ghost ships. The stories of ships sailing the world’s oceans manned by ghost crews and destined to never dock. One of these greatest legends certainly belongs to the Octavius, ranked up with the Mary Celeste and the Carol Deering as well as other ships left derelict, and whose crews vanished or died under mysterious circumstances. Some people say that this is not a simple 18th century legend, Octavius is the kind of macabre artifact that inspire speculation, tales, and belief in the supernatural and/or the poor decisions of nautical navigators.
The story starts in 1761 when Octavius docked in the port of London to pick up cargo destined for China. The three-masted schooner set out to return to England. left the harbour with a full crew member, captain, even his wife and son. Around a year later, they arrived safely in China and unloaded their cargo. The British vessel returned to the sea as soon as the vessel was loaded with goods, but because the weather was unusually warm, the captain decided to take a detour through colder waters on the way home, namely: the Northwest Passage, the Arctic pathway north of Canada connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, a brutal route which at that time had not yet been uncharted. That was the last anyone had heard of the ship, its crew, or its cargo. Octavius was declared lost at sea.
13 years later On October 11, 1775, a whaling ship named the Herald saw the Octavius off the cost of Greenland. Upon receiving no response from the ship, some of the crew from Herald boarded to investigate. On approaching the ship, the crew saw that the ship tattered and weatherworn, sails shredded, floating aimlessly. Below the deck, they discovered all twenty-eight crewmen frozen to death. In the captain’s quarters, the captain sat at his desk still holding his pen as if he was frozen instantly, with his logbook which entry dated 1762 in front of him. The inkwell and other everyday items were still in their place on the desk. He was not alone. Near him was his wife, wrapped in blankets upon the bunk, huddled around their son, both dead. Herald’s crew reported that the whole crew had the same characteristic, and they were like models in a waxwork’s museum.
The investigating crew members were immediately troubled by these scenes, what had made the Captain and his crew die in the positions they were in? The spooked boarding party high-tailed it off the schooner, but not before grabbing the captain’s logbook. Because the book was frozen solid, parts of the middle broke away from its binding as they fled. What pages were left was enough for the captain of the Herald to piece together the crew’s probable fate.
Herald’s crew believed the ghost ship was cursed, so they left it to drift as it was. To this day, there have been no other sightings of the Octavius. The last recorded location of the ship with alive crew was over 4100 kilometers away from where the ship was found. As it is written in the logbook, it was roughly 250 miles north of modern-day Barrow, Alaska, as Sea Mariner says, the northmost point in the U.S., on the opposite site of the continent from Greenland. And the last entry was November 11, 1762—thirteen years earlier. It is speculated that Octavius had become trapped in the sea ice. At some point, the ice broke, and the ship continued on its journey successfully through the passage, but without her passengers.
Author David Meyer has tried to track down the story of the Octavius. In his blog, he considers the idea that the Octavius could be the same ship as the Gloriana, which was boarded in 1775 by the captain of the Try Again, John Warrens. He recorded that he found a frozen crew that had been dead for 13 years and the date of the discovery was spookily similar–November 11, 1762. Are these tales of the same vessel? In the Gloriana story, there is no mention of the Northwest Passage, which remains even today a place of mystery and magic but that adds just that little bit of spice to the tale of Octavius. Did the Octavius ship finally run aground and sink, or is the ship still sailing the high seas?
Octavius story was born almost 250 years ago and all traces of it, in reality, are lost over. Two and a half centuries is a long period, in which stories change and are embellished with other different details. According to one version, the Octavius got stuck into the ice for two and a half months, and it was not long before they ran out of supplies and froze to death. It took more than a century before another attempt to crossing the Northwest Passage was made with a ship, but this time successfully. Although the earth’s warming temperatures mean that the Northwest Passage is now free (albeit not easy) to sail through, this was not always the case. The search for the elusive passage claimed the lives of many ambitious sailors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; keen to find an alternate trade route to Asia, their ships would become lodged in Arctic ice, sealing their fate in the Great White North. And for hundreds of years, the Octavius story survived until became a legend, drifting, just like the ship itself and no one knows what really happened, but especially, what is the reason that can freeze a man half-way through his writing, still with the pen in hand?
Albeit the Octavius story being marine legends and sometimes lacking authenticity, the ship and its narrative is seemingly become one of the inspirations for the setting events in Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel, Le démon des glaces (“The Demon of Ice”), 1974. Set in 1889, a passenger ship named L’Anjou is passing through the Barents Sea when it has a fatal encounter with another called The Iceland Loafer, which has somehow become frozen atop a huge iceberg. When the crew of L´Anjou board the Loafer they find its frozen captain in their cabin, mysteriously pointing to a certain point on a naval map (where they actually are). Immediately afterwards, their ship, L´Anjou is blown up leaving them stranded on the ghost ship. The Octavius is also featured in a naval mission in the video game Assassin’s Creed III where the main character, Connor, is searching for clues to the whereabouts of Captain Kidd’s lost treasure.