A ‘ghost ship’ is a ship at sea with no living crew aboard. Some are found adrift. Others are still under sail or steaming along under power, but with no sailors to tend to the sails or engine. Many different kinds of incidents can kill off a crew but leave the ship intact or force a crew to abandon a seaworthy vessel. Discovering a ghost ship, exploring it, and determining what happened can be a lot of fun at the table.
Consider the three-masted schooner Twenty One Friends. She collided with another vessel off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in 1885, and the crew abandoned ship. Remarkably, the Twenty One Friends remained afloat! She drifted off into the Atlantic, and finally ran aground in Ireland two years later, her hold still full of lumber. She was refloated and remained in service until 1914.
Or consider the five-masted schooner Carroll A. Deering, which ran aground off Cape Hatteras in 1921 without a soul aboard. She was sailing from Barbados to Norfolk. The ship had been stripped of its log, navigation equipment, lifeboats, and crew’s personal effects.
The exact cause of the disappearance of the Carroll A. Deering’s crew remains a mystery, but there are several decent possibilities. One was that she ran afoul of pirates – unusual in those waters, but not unheard of. Another was mutiny. The captain and first mate were known to have despised each other. A mutiny gone wrong could have left the ship too undermaned to make it the rest of the way to Norfolk. The crew could have given the dead a proper burial at sea, then fled in the lifeboats. And one last, unusual bit of speculation suggests that communists in New York City were calling on their comrades to seize American ships and sail them to Russia. No hard evidence linking this claim to the Deering has ever turned up.
Ghost ships may be a valuable find for adventurers. Salvage law is uncompromising: if you found it or rescued it, it’s yours (or you’re owed something of equivalent value). The ship may be carrying something wondrous and strange – perhaps an item that serves as a plot hook for your next adventure. And even if the ship is carrying something less sexy, like granite or coal, a hold full of it is still worth a lot of money – as is the ship itself.
So what incident created your ghost ship? What clues will your PCs uncover?
If the crew is dead:
Non-infectious disease. James Lind discovered in 1747 that eating citrus cures the fatal disease known as scurvy (caused by lack of vitamin C), but his results were ignored for decades. Even after they were implemented, they were misunderstood and the knowledge was lost. I am absolutely not making this up – it’s a crazy story. If this was the crew’s fate, the PCs will find elaborate descriptions of their suffering in the ship’s log and the personal journals of the officers. The corpses or skeletons of the crew might also bear some sign of the disease.
Mutiny gone wrong. A controversial mutiny, where the mutineers and loyalists were of equal strength. Both knew it was certain death to surrender, so all fought to the end. When the bloodshed was over, there were too few survivors to man the ship. PCs will probably find the ship’s boats and navigation equipment missing. The survivors would have taken them in a desperate attempt to reach land. If the loyalists were the victors, they would have taken the ship’s log with them. If the mutineers were the victors, they likely would have left it behind, with no entry describing what had happened. You may find corpses, unless the survivors gave them a proper burial at sea. Even so, there should be signs of violence: blood stains, bullet holes, broken furniture, etc.
Ship becalmed. The doldrums – the area of the Atlantic and Pacific between five degrees north and five degrees south latitude – are notoriously windless. Ships becalmed in the doldrums may be trapped for weeks. If the ship were already running low on provisions (perhaps due to bad planning or spoilage), the crew may risk starvation. This may even be the case if the winds return, but the crew starves before they reach land. You might even have a ship full of fresh, skeleton-thin corpses run aground just outside a harbor – dead days or hours from salvation. The ship’s log will certainly describe the events in detail, up to the point where the officers are too weak to update it. A more convincing sign will be the condition of the corpses and the absence of food.
If the ship is abandoned:
A trap! A derelict vessel discovered in a major sea lane may have been left there by pirates. The scoundrels are lurking belowdecks, waiting for a ship full of good samaritans to come aboard.
Infectious disease. If the disease in question is known to be contagious, the surviving crew may have fled their own ship, leaving their sick comrades to die. They may have taken the ship’s log with them, along with the boats, navigation equipment, and plenty of supplies. In other words, the ship will have all the signs of having been intentionally abandoned – except there's corpses everywhere. Many will probably be on the weather decks, dying men trying to get a breath of fresh air.
Something supernatural. It’s a little obvious, but a curse, haint, or monster lurking in the hold might have driven off the crew – and the PCs might have to fight it to recover the ship’s cargo!
And, finally, what if the ship is about to become a ghost ship?
It was not unheard-of in the 17th century for a ship to come upon another whose crew was too debilitated by disease to sail. How do the PCs react? If they save the other crew, they can claim the other ship as salvage, but the PCs have to take pains to keep their own ship from catching the disease. Clearly, if your setting includes cure disease spells or medpacks, you’ll need to make the disease resistant to those. Otherwise, it’s not much of an obstacle.
Be careful, though. ‘You catch a disease’ is seldom an interesting consequence in an RPG. It just makes you worse at things and risks killing you without at least giving you a cool story to tell. Therefore, the consequence of the party’s ship catching plague from another ship may be that your PCs’ crew catch the disease and their drifting ship washes up someplace dangerous with the PCs as the only people who caught the disease and survived.