Reports that a 45m squid-fishing boat ripped from its moorings in the Japanese port of Hachinohe by last year's tsunami has been spotted drifting, rusty and abandoned, off the west coast of Canada — more than 7,500 km away — saw news media around the world reach unhesitatingly for the words “Mary Celeste”.

In fact, the Flying Dutchman is the original ghost ship, doomed never to make port and sail the seas forever. But despite being celebrated in verse and prose since the 1700s, as well as inspiring a Wagner opera and the Pirates of the Caribbean, she was only ever a legend.

The brigantine Mary Celeste really was found abandoned, heading for the Strait of Gibraltar in 1872. She was missing her crew but otherwise intact, carrying six months of supplies and still, remarkably, under sail. The last entry in the ship's log was written 11 days prior to her discovery.

More recently, in 2006, coastguards investigating the case of the schooner Bel Amica, discovered drifting off the coast of Sardinia, found half—eaten Egyptian meals, French maps of North African seas and a flag of Luxembourg — but not a living soul on board.

And four years ago when the Taiwanese fishing boat Tai Ching 21 was found drifting near Kiribati, a search of 54,000 sq km of the Pacific Ocean found no trace of its captain or 28—strong crew.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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