The legends of the sea are diverse and many. From tales of sirens to sea serpents, mythology and superstition have long been the favoured tale of the old sailor. However, perhaps the most popular of all, and most open to retelling and embellishment, is the tale of the ghost ship. While the Flying Dutchman may be the most famous of these yarns, that is not to say there haven’t been authentic stories of ships abandoned by their crew in mysterious circumstances. These real life events have served as inspiration for many ghostly tales of terror at sea. One such story is the account of the SS Ourang Medan, a ship that was apparently found adrift without a soul on board… if it ever existed at all.
As the most familiar tellings of the story go, it was either in February of 1948 or June of 1947 that a series of distress calls were sent from the Dutch merchant ship the Ourang Medan in the Far-East, the location of the vessel given as the Straits of Malacca which lay between Sumatra and Indonesia. The ship, whose name translates from Malay as “Man of Medan” was a cargo steamer of some 5,000 tonnes and said to be 40-years old at the time of the incident, having passed through a dozen owners prior.
The calls were a series of desperate SOS messages, the sender declaring that “We float. All officers including captain dead, lying in chartroom and on bridge, probably whole crew dead…”. Following the initial messages, the sender became incoherent, sending meaningless morse code until one final statement, “I die.”
Picked up by the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star, both ships rushed to the Ourang Medan’s aid. Upon boarding the apparently undamaged boat, they found the radio operator dead, his finger still on the morse key. His eyes were wide in terror. Further searching the ship, the rest of the crew were all found the same way, laying dead on their backs of apparent fright. Even the ship’s dog had not escaped whatever terrible fate had befallen the…