The ghost ship Octavius: adrift at sea for 13 years

The world’s oceans are vast and can be lonely, uninviting places. Nevertheless, explorers have scoured the seas for centuries, uncovering all manners of oddities and mysteries.

Many such legends of the sea exist today. But, if they were compiled and written down, the pages would be littered with a unique, mysterious type of story – ghost ships. 

And almost none are as notorious as the ghost ship Octavius.

What are Ghost Ships?

Ghost ships, or phantom ships, are those found without living crew. Such a ghostly vessel could be entirely fictitious, a product of folklore or mythology like the Flying Dutchman, or they can be genuine occurrences.

Real ghost ships, unmoored and wandering the seas, crop up now and again, the crew having vanished – or worse, found deceased.

One such famous example, the Mary Celeste, was discovered deserted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. To this day, no one has any idea what happened to her crew.

However, some tales are more unnerving than the rest. They send a chill down your spine, conjure up questions and confusion, and haunt the minds of sailors at night.

None more so than the chilling story of the Octavius.

The Ghost Ship Octavius

The Octavius was an 18th-century ghost ship discovered off the coast of Greenland in 1775. Initially assumed to be empty upon being sighted, when boarded, a spine-shivering sight awaited.

Below the deck, they came across the entire crew, completely frozen. The captain sat rooted, almost stoically, at the table in front of him with a pen still in hand and his log laid out before him. 

Written there was the log’s last entry, dated November 11, 1762, and its last recorded position marked their location about 250 miles north of Alaska’s arctic coast.

The ghost ship had been adrift for thirteen years before its discovery, meandering aimlessly for hundreds of miles. And the complete picture is even more chilling.

The Herald’s Discovery

As the story goes, the Octavius was found on October 11, 1775, by the whaling ship Herald.

The whalers had been working in the frigid waters when they noticed a vessel drifting not far in the distance, its sails still flying. 

After signaling to the ship and getting no response, a boarding party was cobbled together.

The sailors leaped aboard the Octavius expecting to meet its crew, but to their surprise, they were met with an eerie silence and a barren deck.

Confused, the boarding party continued below. And what they saw would shake them to their core.

On Board a Ghost Ship

Every one of the 28 crew members was found frozen solid. In the captain’s quarters, a woman and young boy were discovered, also fully encased in ice, and among them, the captain seated at his desk, pen frozen between his fingers, his logbook open in front of him.

In a mad hurry, terrified by what lay in front of them, the men dashed off the ship, but not before ripping away what they could of the captain’s log.

Back on their whaling ship, they managed to piece together the tale of the Octavius from what remained. 

Its last marked position had been about 250 miles north of Utqiagvik, Alaska, a place today known as Point Barrow.

Lifeless and uninhabited, the ghost ship had somehow wandered hundreds of miles through the ice. Alone it drifted for thirteen years before finally being chanced upon by the Herald.

Octavius’ Departure and Disappearance

Before the unfortunate demise of its crew, the Octavius left England in 1761 on a journey to China. There they unloaded their cargo and planned to return home with new, exotic goods to sell in the British markets.

It was at this point their captain made a fatal mistake.

Aiming to seize the unseasonably warm temperatures, the captain set a course for the then-undiscovered and unproven Northwest Passage. A risky gamble, one can imagine dreams of fame and glory dancing through his mind.

However, the ship would never be seen again, eventually being declared lost to the sea.

The treacherous, icy passage had never been conquered (and wouldn’t be until 1906) for a good reason. Upon rounding the northernmost tip of Alaska and entering the narrow, frigid straights, the Octavius likely found itself trapped in the sea ice, never to escape.

Never to escape alive, that is. If the legend of the ghost ship Octavius is true, its crew would have posthumously traversed the Northwest Passage – the first ever to do so.

Yet, that does raise a key question.

Was the Ghost Ship Octavius Real?

The truth behind the Octavius is difficult to determine. One of the world’s strangest mysteries, the details seem to have been passed down for decades, but a primary source recounting the tale is still sorely lacking.

Furthermore, neither any additional information from official sources nor artifacts from the ship – like the captain’s log – have ever surfaced.

Then again, it’s possible that the story of the Octavius was truthful.

If a ship were found with its crew frozen near the rumored exit point of the fabled Northwest Passage, one can imagine how time could warp such a story into a myth of legendary proportion.

Where is the Octavius now?

After the Herald crew fled the ghost ship’s deck, the Octavius was never seen again. Believing it to be cursed, the whalers abandoned the vessel, watching it drift away at the ocean’s mercy.

Whether the wind took it or it inevitably sank beneath the waves, its true location – its final resting place – is uncertain. No vessel has ever been found, and it is likely none ever will be.

If Octavius and its frozen crew indeed did exist, it would seem they are destined to remain lost to us forever. But in the end, their legend lives on.


“Voyage of the Frozen.” The World’s Strangest Mysteries. New York: Gallery Books. 1987. p. 321.

Meyer, David. “Ghost Ship: The Mysterious Case of the Octavius?” DAVID MEYER, February 17, 2013,

Meyer, David. “Ghost Ship: Tracking Down the Octavius Legend?” DAVID MEYER, February 20, 2013,

1 thought on “The ghost ship Octavius: adrift at sea for 13 years”

  1. It is plausible. Compare to Fridtjof Nansen’s theories about drifting Arctic sea ice, and his experiences of the actual phenomenon; or compare to modern knowledge of how Arctic sea ice drifts.

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