Ghost Story 3
Five Days from San Francisco
Starting in the 1960s, Colin Parsons began collecting newspaper stories about encounters with ghosts. He went on to contact people who experienced or witnessed unusual occurrences. He interviewed them and, when possible, tried to confirm their story.
One of his investigations concerned Eric and Peter, two young men who became sailors in the 1950s. They wanted to see the world before they settled down so they worked on various ships.
They sailed to exotic places like Port Said and Bangkok, but the experience they remembered most was the time that they found themselves in San Francisco, broke and without jobs. They came across the captain of a tramp steamer who needed two sailors to complete his crew. The ship was bound for the Philippines carrying a dangerous cargo. But that didn’t both Eric and Peter; after all, they had always wanted to see the Philippines.
Five days out from San Francisco, they were awakened in the middle of the night.
“All hands! All hands on deck!”
They rushed to the deck only to find the ship ablaze. There weren't enough crewmembers to fight the fire. They were told to put on life jackets and jump into the sea. Frightened and confused, Eric and Peter hit the water and began to swim as far from the ship as possible, until they heard it explode. Then the sea was silent. The ship was gone. There was no sign of anyone else. The two men feared that they would die.
At dawn, they found themselves in the middle of a cold and gray ocean. They were thirsty and hungry and felt they had no chance of surviving. They were so exhausted that they couldn't even swim. They simply floated along, expecting to lose consciousness at any moment.
Peter thought he heard a splash. He was sure he was hallucinating. He heard another splash, followed quickly by another. Oars were striking the water nearby. Someone was rowing a boat towards them. He pulled each of them aboard a small boat. Eric and Peter looked at their rescuer.
A large man, he wore a navy blue sweater and spoke in a Scottish accent.
“My name's Ross,” he said. He explained that his own ship had sunk and he had been rowing ever since.
“Do you have anything to eat or drink?” Eric asked. His mouth was parched, and he was weak from hunger and exhaustion.
Ross shook his head, then added, “But there are other ways.” Then he leaned over the side of the boat, reached into the ocean, and grabbed a fish with his bare hands. He seemed dissatisfied with its small size, so he threw it back. Then he caught one fish after another, tossing each back into the ocean, until he found one that was an acceptable size. He tore the wiggling fish in half, and handed it to Eric and Peter.
“Suck the water from it,” he advised them. “Then chew the flesh.”
To pass the time, they asked Ross about his ship, but he became confused and embarrassed about their questions. Later that day, they overheard Ross mutter to himself, “I was a fool, they should never have died” and “Millie shall have it.” He repeated each statement over and over again.
That night, they found a small deserted island. It was mostly a large collection of rocks set in the middle of the sea. It held almost no vegetation and no signs of life. However, they found rain water that had collected on some of the rocks, and Ross was able to catch more fish.
The next day, Ross told them he had to leave.
“Would you do a favor for me, boys?” he asked.
Eric and Peter agreed. Then Ross recited his wife's address and a safe-deposit box number.
“The key to the box will be found in the shed behind my house,” he told them and gave them precise directions to the spot. “My wife is to have everything in the box.”
He began to push off the boat.
“Don't you worry,” Ross said. “You'll be picked up within two days. You're safer here than in my boat.” Then he rowed away.
Later that day, a United States Coast Guard plane buzzed the island and dropped a package of supplies, along with a brief message: SHIP ON WAY. By the next morning, a ship had rescued the two and taken them to San Francisco, where they were asked to explain how they had come to be on the island.
“Where's Ross?” they asked, once they had described the explosion of their ship and their rescue by the Scottish sailor.
“All we know is that some guy in a row boat stopped a ship and told them to radio us with your position. As far as I know, he just rowed off again.”
Eric and Peter were puzzled, but followed up on their promise. When they returned to Great Britain, they located Mrs. Millicent Ross. When they told her that a key was hidden in her back shed, she was amused, but allowed them to look. Sure enough, they found the key to the safe-deposit box.
Eric wrote the box number on a slip of paper. “Your husband said that this key will fit this box at your bank.”
Mrs. Ross became noticeably upset. “How did you know about this?” she asked.
They told her how they had met her husband.
“But he's been dead for eight years.” She told the two men that her husband had fallen overboard while on a cargo ship in the Pacific.
Eric and Peter were so shaken that they could not forget their encounter. Eventually, a reporter heard of their spooky rescue and wrote a newspaper article about it.
That's where Colin Parsons read it. The story intrigued him so much that he decided to check for proof. He found it in the captain's log of the cargo ship from which Ross had fallen. It read:
At 3 P.M., the wind which had blown strongly all day freshened to almost storm force. All hands were ordered on deck as a precaution and Ross was reported as drunk. A small fight broke out between the officer of the watch and Ross when he tried to launch one of the ship's boats, apparently under the impression that a hurricane was imminent. The officer was incapacitated by Ross, and I ordered two seamen to restrain him. The boat and the three men fell into the sea and the ship stopped. All three were brought back dead and in accordance with my duties they were given burial at sea.
More chilling than this entry, though, is the entry that followed a few days later: the boat that fell into the water was never recovered.
It must be the boat that Ross still rows in the Pacific, five days out from San Francisco.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Originally published in Ghosthunters (Avon, 1992). All rights reserved.