Photo of the Day

Baychimo leaving Vancouver for the Arctic in July 1931. Note her distinctive, rear-mounted funnel. For her next voyage, she left Vancouver in July 1931 – gaily decorated as ever on those occasions.  By the end of that month, despite some weather and technical problems, she had reached the trading area on the north coast of Alaska.  But winter conditions closed in early that year and by early October, Baychimo was imprisoned by pack-ice near to the village of Wainwright, west of Point Barrow and about a mile and a half from the shoreline.

ABANDON SHIP!

The bizarre ghost ship story of the SS Baychimo that was seen sailing the seas unmanned for 38 YEARS… and could still be out there today

Abandoned to the waves she sailed on alone, but no wreckage has ever been found. A steel hulled cargo steamer from Sweden sailed the waters off the coast of Alaska alone and crew-less for thirty-eight years.

SS Baychimo was a steel-hulled 1,322-ton cargo steamer built in 1914 in Sweden and owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, used to trade provisions for pelts in Inuit settlements along the Victoria Island coast of the Northwest Territories of Canada. She became a notable ghost ship along the Alaska coast, being abandoned in 1931 and seen numerous times since then until her last sighting in 1969.

The seas of the world offer stories of mystery and wonder. One of the stories with high-strangeness is the occurrence of ghost ships throughout history, vessels drifting in the sea without any noticeable, living crew.
Spooky stories of ghost ships have spread through the lore of the sea for ages, and they have become a topic of most all discussions on truly odd goings on of the high seas.

Alaska has its own ghost ship. The ship is the SS Baychimo, which has become one of the greatest and most enduring modern day maritime mysteries.

Workers for the Hudson Bay Co. abandoned the S.S. Baychimo just offshore near Wainwright 85 years ago. Sea ice trapped the 230-foot cargo steamship during an early winter in October 1931. The captain and crew abandoned the ship, which carried furs from Canadian trappers and a variety of other cargo.

Following the ice-capture of the Baychimo, the captain and 14 men built a wooden hut on the sea ice to keep track of the ship. One month later, they weathered a great windstorm in that shelter. When they peered out after the storm, the Baychimo was gone.

The Hudson Bay men figured the ship had sunk. Most of them returned to Vancouver. But the Baychimo was not at the bottom of the Beaufort Sea.

A few weeks later, Inupiat hunters saw the Baychimo floating near Skull Cliff, south of Barrow. Six months later in March 1932, a trapper on an epic dogsled journey from Herschel Island to Nome saw the ship in the ice of the Beaufort Sea. He boarded it before continuing on his trip.

Coastal Natives were the last to mention seeing the ship in 1969 when a group saw the Baychimo in the ice between Icy Cape and Barrow. More than a century after it was built and 85 after it was abandoned, the Baychimo may still be floating somewhere north of Alaska.

Hudson’s Bay Co. officials and Bayeskimo crew during trials. Second officer Fred Berchem at centre; Harry Bolton, chief engineer, second from right.

Ships with no humans aboard have long ridden the seas, often floating with supernatural stories of being piloted by dead crews or becoming visible to sailors and then vanishing.

Ghost ships typically fall into two categories, those that are purportedly phantom ships powered by unknown supernatural forces or piloted by ghost crews, and those that are derelicts with crews that have vanished, often under mysterious and unexplainable circumstances. Usually, it is fairly easy to discern the two, yet there are cases where it cannot be readily determined if we are looking at a simple derelict or something more supernatural, and indeed more sinister in nature. One of the more bizarre ghost ship cases on record must surely be that of the SS Baychimo, which has actually transcended the designation as a mere ghost ship and gone on to become one of the greatest and most enduring modern day maritime mysteries.

The SS Baychimo was a steel-hulled 1,322 tonne, a steam-powered vessel that started its life in Sweden when it was constructed in 1914. Its career as an ocean-going cargo ship started under the name Ångermanelfven for a German shipping company, where it spent some time as a trading vessel operating between Hamburg and Sweden until World War I began.

Intended for the Baltische Reederei GmbH of Hamburg, it was used for trade between Hamburg and Sweden until 1914. The 230-foot long ship, powered by a coal burning triple expansion steam engine reached a top speed of 12 miles per hour.

In the aftermath of the war, the ship was transferred to Britain as war reparations for losses the Germans had cost British shipping, and it was rechristened the Baychimo. The Baychimo was acquired by The Hudson’s Bay Company and was based in Scotland, from where it was sent across the Atlantic to the north coast of Canada and carrying cargo such as furs and pelts between trading posts across the frigid, icy waters of the Arctic. The ship was mostly used to trade provisions for fur with Inuit settlements, but it also made voyages to Alaska and British Columbia carrying various cargo and passengers.

The Baychimo and its crew performed their duties well, braving rough, frigid seas, foul weather, and perilous ice floes to perform a total of nine successful journeys to and from Alaska and British Columbia across less than calm waters. On October 1, 1931, the ship’s luck would run out.

The Baychimo was on a routine transport run to Vancouver with a cargo of valuable furs, however, the crew had not accounted for the fact that winter had come earlier than usual that year. The ship and its crew were tossed about by icy blasts of wind and gripped by freezing temperatures, yet they pressed on, determined to deliver their precious cargo. Even as they pushed on through the ominous weather and menacingly choppy seas, a sudden blizzard descended upon the ship and brought with it chunks of pack ice that began to surround the Baychimo and its terrified crew. The ship became trapped by the circling ice floes, which closed in around it and gripped it in a cage of ice as the helpless crew looked on.

Baychimo’s crew, with salvaged materials, awaiting rescue.

The crew was ordered to abandon the ship by the captain due to it possibly sinking, and make their way on foot about a mile away to the town of Barrow through hazardous, shifting ice floes. They took shelter in Barrow for two days before returning to check on the status of their abandoned ship.

When they arrived, the vessel had broken free of the ice and was drifting desultorily in the area. The crew decided to wait until they could retrieve the ship, so they camped out on the ice in an area where they could keep an eye on it.
Unfortunately, the bad weather did not let up, and on October 8, the ship was mired in ice once again. This time, the ship remained lodged within the ice with no sign of being freed anytime soon.

On October 15, the blizzard had not let up, so The Hudson Bay Company sent a party to rescue the crew by plane.
Twenty-two of the crew were rescued, but the captain and 14 crew members refused to leave. The Hudson Bay Company provided them with provisions to wait out the entire winter, or until the ship was free from the icy prison.

Ski-planes preparing to rescue the 22 passengers and crew in October 1931. In the distance, at left, Baychimo, at right the makeshift accommodation, where the remaining crew were destined to spend the winter.

Although 22 of the crew were rescued, the captain and 14 crew members refused to abandon their ship and its cargo and opted to remain camped out on the ice despite the punishing storm. Receiving provisions from the company, they were prepared to stubbornly wait out the entire winter if that was what it took.

On November 24, a particularly vicious blizzard swept in and visibility in the swirling clouds of snow became nonexistent. The crew that had remained behind lost sight of the ship and when the storm lifted the following day, the Baychimo was nowhere to be seen. The vessel had simply vanished. Considering the severity of the storm that had hit them and the fact that there was no trace of the Baychimo in the vicinity, the captain and crew assumed that the ship had broken apart and sunk into the dark, frigid depths. The dejected crew decided to pack up their camp and head back to civilisation.

Imagine the crew’s surprise when a week later, a native Inuit seal hunter scoffed at the idea that the ship had sunk and told them that he had just seen it floating around a few days prior, not 45 miles from where it had been trapped in the ice.

The crew excitedly packed up their gear again and headed out to see if they could retrieve their lost ship. Luck was on their side, and they managed to track down the Baychimo exactly where the hunter had said it would be and they eagerly boarded. After an examination of the Baychimo’s condition, the captain decided that it had been too badly damaged by its ordeal in the ice, and was unlikely to remain seaworthy through the winter.

It was surmised that the vessel would soon break apart and sink, so the crew frantically salvaged some of the more valuable furs they had been transporting and had them airlifted by The Hudson Bay Company, after which the ship was abandoned and left to its inevitable fate.

The Baychimo was obviously tougher than its captain had given it credit for, because it did indeed survive the winter, and began its ascent into the annals of sea legend.

But that certainly wasn’t the end of the story.  The Baychimo wasn’t yet beaten.  The storm which had carried her away hadn’t sent her to the bottom of the sea.  In March 1932, a man travelling by dog-sled from Herschel to Nome saw her firmly embedded in an ice-floe and that was only the first in a long series of sightings.  In 1935 and again in 1939, some members of the crew of the tiny, ten tonne, schooner Trader boarded her.  They discovered navigational instruments and charts, kitchen equipment in the galley, curtains at the porthole windows and books in profusion, including the Times History of the Great War.  A veritable Marie Céleste!  There were many reports of sightings by Eskimos and ship’s captains during the Second World War, sightings include:

  • 1932 – spotted by a dog sledder on his way to Nome, Alaska
  • 1933 – boarded by some Inuit (Eskimos) who were trapped aboard by a storm for 10 days
  • 1934 – boarded by the crew of an exploring schooner, who had to let it go
  • 1939 – boarded by Captain Hugh Polson, who also had to abandon it because of ice build up
  • 1962 – seen adrift in the Beaufort Sea by Inuit
  • 1969 – found once again frozen in ice pack – the last sighting of the Baychimo

Bayeskimo flounders in Ungava Bay, her hull crushed.

People began to report seeing the ship cruising about the cold north Atlantic waters, totally intact and seemingly unmanned. The first such sighting came when a dog sledder heading for Nome, Alaska, spotted the ship adrift near shore, and the number of sightings took off from there. The path of the Baychimo was unpredictable and erratic, with the ship sometimes being seen near shore but at other times far out to sea, and it was sighted alternately in both open water and trapped within ice, in wildly disparate locations.

In addition to the sightings, there were those who tried to approach the ship only for it to seem to elude pursuit uncannily well for a vessel without a crew. On occasion, the Baychimo was reported to simply vanish from view before it could be reached. Those that did actually manage to catch up with the elusive ship had little success in their endeavors to actually board it.

Every attempt to board the derelict vessel was thwarted in some way, and every crew that tried were forced to let it go for one reason or another. Sometimes, the pursuers were simply not equipped to handle the task of salvaging the massive vessel, but other times failure came under more mysterious circumstances. It was reported that it was common for sudden and violent storms to move in without warning upon any move to board the ship, and it is said that quite a few people lost their lives trying.

One group of Inuit that once boarded the ghost ship in 1933 for shelter as it was caught in ice ended up being trapped within its walls for 10 days as a sudden, fierce storm raged outside. Other times when people managed to get on board, ice floes would appear out of the surrounding waters like sharks drawn to a whale carcass, and made any hope of salvage impossible. In addition, towlines connected to the Baychimo often snapped either due to rough seas, jagged ice, or even at times for no apparent reason at all, and all of this gave the distinct and eerie impression that the wayward Baychimo did not want to be boarded.

Due to the difficulties that all who tried had in their efforts to board or salvage the ship, the Baychimo over the years accrued a reputation as being a cursed vessel, a bad omen, and by 1939 there were many ships that would flee rather than approach upon sighting it.

In 1939, after another failed attempt to board it, the Baychimo disappeared into the cold expanse of the Arctic for the next 23 years. It was thought that the ship had finally run out of whatever power had kept it going all those years and finally sunk, but in March, 1962, a group of Inuits saw it drifting along near the coastline of the Beaufort Sea.

The ship had returned from wherever it had gone. The mysterious ship was subsequently sighted several more times up to 1969, when it was seen stuck in a pack of ice, as it was wont to do. It would be the last time anyone would see the ship. When a salvage party came to investigate the 1969 report of the Baychimo in ice, it had vanished by the time anyone arrived. No one has seen it since.

After this 1969 account, it was widely believed that this time, the sea had finally conquered the vessel and that it had sunk, but no trace of wreckage was ever found despite a few searches for it in the area where it was last seen.

In 2006, there was resurgence in interest in the mysterious fate of the Baychimo, and the government of Alaska announced its intentions to locate the vessel. So far, they have found nothing, not even so much as a scrap. It is as if the ship has just vanished without a trace from the face of the earth.

The fate of the Baychimo and her cargo, which is still in her hold untouched, remain unknown. What happened to this ship? Did the sea finally claim it? Was it salvaged without anyone knowing about it? Or is it still out there cutting through the Arctic waters of the far north, perhaps with some unfathomable intent of its own? Until it emerges from hiding to be sighted again, or someone finds the wreckage, the ultimate fate of this ghost ship of the Arctic will remain beyond our grasp.

Ten years ago, the Alaskan government launched a project to find the Baychimo searching both above and below the sea but at this time the “Ghost Ship of the Arctic” is still eluding capture.

Realistically, of course, Baychimo sank long ago to the bottom of the Arctic, but no-one knows where she lies.

In 2016, archaeologist Josh Reuther was looking through collections of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. He wanted to photograph items and use the slides for a class he was teaching. He pulled a drawer that contained an ulu, copper knife and other objects. He noticed a label next to them: “Taken from the Beychimo (sic).”

Reuther knew of the ghost ship but didn’t know his office was a few hundred feet from items salvaged from it. Those things include a blubber pounder made of musk ox horn (to render oil for lamps), a skin scraper and scissors fashioned from antler with steel blade inserts.

How did the artefacts get to the Baychimo? How did they get off the ghost ship and into the museum? Reuther called fellow archaeologist Jason Rogers, an expert on maritime history, to ask what the chances were the items could be from the ghost ship.

Rogers and Reuther did some detective work and found this: In 1930, Canadian filmmaker Richard Finnie spent a year in Canada’s western Arctic to make a movie of the life of “Copper Eskimos” who had little contact with outsiders. Finnie caught a few rides on the Baychimo, during which he left crates of gear and ethnological specimens. He flew back to Ottawa before the ship got trapped.

The SS Baychimo trapped in ice

Schooner Jenny was also trapped in ice with tragic consequences. Another ship which fell victim to the unforgiving ice around the poles was Schooner Jenny. After becoming trapped near the South Pole, the crew perished as they ran out of food. The spooky sailboat was discovered in 1840 by the crew of a whaling ship. Climbing on board they were met by a grisly sight. The remains of the Captain, still sitting at his desk, pen in hand. His last log entry:
“May 4, 1823. No food for 71 days. I am the only one left alive.”

In August 1933, the crew of the Trader, a ship based in Nome, heard of a Baychimo sighting as they were anchored off Wainwright. They sailed out to the Baychimo, tied lines to it, and tried to tug it free.

The Baychimo remained fused to the ice pack, but the crew took what they could, including Finnie’s artefacts.

One year later, a crew member of the Trader gave the 14 items to Otto Geist, the legendary Alaska collector and naturalist who was doing work on St. Lawrence Island. Both the Trader and Geist were at Savoonga at the same time. Upon his return to Fairbanks, Geist brought the artefacts to the museum.

And there they sat, for decades. The items saw the light for the first time in many years last year when Reuther opened the drawer. He and Rogers then unravelled a small mystery straight from the belly of Alaska’s ghost ship.

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