Mysterious Ghost Ship

While searching for a Swedish spy plane shot down by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, an expedition team stumbles upon another Baltic Sea mystery: a long-forgotten shipwreck. A faint, intact outline hints its made of wood, possibly from the 17th century. But why did it go under, and what happened to the crew?

The Baltic Sea is a shallow sea with an average depth of 185 feet. But it’s the low salt content in the water that makes the Baltic famous. With a salinity of only .06-.15%, the Baltic is an unsuitable environment for the shipworm (Teredo Navalis) – making this sea legendary for preserving wooden wrecks. And the Ghost Ship appears to be one of the most intact wooden shipwrecks ever discovered.

A maritime crossroads for centuries, thousands of ships have sunk in the Baltic Sea. Some say as many as 100,000 ships. Nine countries border the Baltic Sea – Finland, Estonia, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, Russia and Germany. Ships more than a thousand years old have been found here – even one from the stone age, carved from a hollow tree trunk.

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But one of the most famous of the Baltic Sea shipwrecks is the warship Vasa, which sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage. Since she was raised from the Baltic in 1961, Vasa has become one of the Sweden’s most spectacular tourist attractions. While Vasa is larger than the Ghost Ship and displays gun ports, they have striking similarities. Could the Ghost wreck be a merchant ship of the same period? And what could we learn about the commercial side of 17th century Baltic seafaring?

But no merchant ship from this period has ever been found intact. Replicas around the world are inspired from 17th century artwork. Back then, the Dutch merchant fleet was the largest in the world, numbering around 2,500 ships, when England had just about 180. The Dutch even revolutionized shipbuilding, innovating the first production-line factories in the world.

While the Ghost Ship resembles the common Dutch trading ship of this period – known as a fluyt – it’s difficult to tell for sure. And identifying the age and origin of the Ghost Ship is proving to be quite the challenge. The wreck is lying at a depth of 130 feet below – too cold and too dangerous for diving in the Baltic Sea.

But researchers are determined to measure every detail of the Ghost Ship, with an accuracy of 1 centimeter/half an inch. They’re going to sample the wood, study the planks, analyze the sculptural elements and – ultimately – survey the damage.

How old is the Ghost Ship? What made it sink? In a time before the steering wheel, how was it operated? And did the crew ultimately survive the wreckage?

Find out on Return of the Ghost Ship, Wednesday, April 6th at 9 PM et/pt on the National Geographic Channel!