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Spooky Boat

I've been aboard beautiful boats, and ugly ones. I've toured luxury yachts costing millions and steampowered tugs. Sailboats, fishing boats, passagemakers and paddleboats have been part of my beat.

But I've never been aboard a haunted boat. Until now.

Ghosts and other supernatural spirits have been part of life since we, as people, began to wonder what comes after life. Composers, authors, storytellers and journalists have contributed to the mystery of spiritualism through thousands of spook stories, operas, folk tales and haunted houses.

The scariest moment of my life took place around a YMCA campfire, when counselors spun a ghost story so dramatically and with such a shocking ending that my young heart pounded crazily for minutes, I felt chilled and my skin crawled. Many of us slept poorly that night.

Decades have passed, with nary another ghost. I have read Samuel Coleridge's The AncientMariner and Shakespeare's Hamlet and I knew about cursed vessels: Flying Dutchman, Marie Celeste and even an old World War I German submarine, U-65. But there have been no other spooks in my life.

Many ships reportedly have been haunted, often by the spirits of workers who died during construction or of guests and crew members. Then there are vessels that were ghosts themselves, forever sailing the seas even after everyone knew they had sunk- including Flying Dutchman, which haunts the Cape of Good Hope. Marie Celeste was found abandoned at sea under strange circumstances, and others later would surmise it was the work of poltergeists.

Many men died on the German submarine before she saw combat, and on her first patrol at sea hysterical crew members reported seeing the ghosts of some of those men.

I have read that former crew members haunt the retired World War II aircraft carrier Hornet. She now is a museum vessel in Alameda, California, and figures wearing WWII khakis have been seen pacing her corridors. It also has been reported that the ghost of the big guy, John Wayne, has been seen aboard his beloved Wild Goose, a converted Navy minesweeper. Apparently, he's just checking to be sure his old love gets good care.

Ghosts are not just for old castles or dark and lonely houses. But are they for real? I doubt it.

Recently I began getting messages (via phone, not a spiritual network) about a haunted yacht, a beautiful 75-footer laid up for refitting at a yard on the river. Chuck Worst, an experienced trawler owner and marine electronics expert, had heard about the possessed vessel. He told Bill Parlatore, who called me. Go check it out.

I'm a skeptic, even cynical. I was reluctant. But many believe a reality exists beyond the one we know. Polly, my wife, doesn't believe in ghosts, but she has an open mind. Things happen, she says.

So I dialed the paid skipper. I'm going to call him Capt. Pete, which isn't his real name. I know the boat's name and its home port and where it was built, and I have been aboard. But I can't tell.

After establishing ground rules of anonymity, Capt. Pete agreed to share the story. "Why don't you come down tomorrow evening?" he asked.

Now, this yard is on a dark, winding river at the end of a long, narrow street. City lights can be seen in the distance, but after sundown . . . . Skeptic though I am, my counter offer was for 1000 hours instead.

The yacht was out of the water. I met Pete at the foot of the ladder and we climbed aboard. He is a stocky, seasoned ocean cruiser with decades of experience under sail and power. He looks like a no-nonsense kind of guy. This is the story he told.

Adam (another made up name) worked hard and made millions. A number of years ago, he bought the yacht and she became his true love. "He loved her more than any woman," Pete says.

With his love, Adam cruised the West Coast, from Mexico to Alaska, usually in the company of his best friends. Family members were less apt to be invited, because they often came with outstretched hands, arguing that it was his duty to finance their lives, too.

The owner was a bit of a penny-pincher and a prude, not too surprising for a self-made man of advanced years. Adam agreed to hire Pete as captain, but only if Pete married the woman with whom he had been living. Unmarried people didn't share beds on Adam's yacht. So they got married.

After Adam's death in June other family members gained control of the yacht and directed Pete and his wife to take it to southeast Alaska. They would join them there for cruising and fishing. They also would bring Adam's ashes for burial at sea.

"It all started when the owner's ashes came aboard," Pete recalls. "Now, I really believe in ghosts."

The autopilot went crazy, operating only intermittently and occasionally swinging wildly off course. The gyrocompass spun as if possessed.

A worried guest reported a flood of water flowing from the stern. Pete had operated the reverse osmosis watermaker earlier in the day and had shut it down when the tanks were full. But somehow the system had turned on, and the excess flow was discharged overboard.

Pete and his wife have a TV in their stateroom. It is on a shelf at the foot of their berth. During this spell of odd occurrences, the TV switched on during the middle of the night, and Pete's wife woke and demanded to know why he had not turned it off.

Pete hit the TV switch and went back to sleep. It snapped on later, waking them both. After about the fourth spontaneous switching on, Pete pulled the plug and all was quite for the rest of the night.

At other times guests reported water running in stateroom washbasins and swore they had not left it on.

Under way one day, engine room alarms began screaming. Pete found the engine room flooding. A new bilge pump switch had failed, and only one of three pumps was working. The water had come from the line running from the engine's raw water system to the propeller shaft stuffing box. A fitting had snapped.

Preparing to anchor in a secluded harbor near Sitka, a hydraulic motor on the windlass failed and the anchor, chain and several hundred feet of steel cable went overboard. Pete calculates the loss at about $20,000.

My skeptical mind was churning. Poor maintenance, careless operation, bad luck, I thought. But ghosts? No way.

Pete took good care of the boat. While the owner did not lavish money on it, he had paid for maintenance and repair. I asked Chuck Worst how he would diagnosis the autopilot problem. He smiled.

Things got worse. The single Caterpillar engine began overheating. Pete dug into it and found the raw water system choking on a massive growth of what he describes as a soft-shelled barnacle. He had to chisel the critters out of the seawater intakes and filters. No other yacht they encountered in southeast Alaska had experienced the problem, Pete says.

And there was more. Electrical wiring on the outboard powering the ship's tender burned, and Pete had to make underway repairs. The tender rides on a boat deck, and looking aft from the pilothouse one day they saw its windshield wipers tossing back and forth. Pete shut them off, but 30 minutes later they were on again. He finally disconnected the battery lead.

There were kids aboard.

"Adam didn't like kids on board," Pete says. "And so every time a kid was on board freaky things happened." Lights turned on and off, the channels switched randomly on the satellite TV.

Finally, that crowd of family flew home, and another group appeared. It included a favored grandson, a young man who had asked Adam for advice-not money-and who had become a millionaire following that advice.

And Adam's ghost retired. Systems performed normally. The boat ran well. The TV stayed on the selected channel, and no one reported water running in head basins. The autopilot stuck to its course.

Later, friends would joke the yacht was possessed by the devil.

But Pete is convinced it was Adam, giving his greedy, unloved relatives a little hard time.

"I don't (scoff ) at stuff like that," the captain adds. "Too many people have had things happen. And really, we don't have any idea of what's going on, and we won't know until we get there."

While sitting in the saloon with Pete and during an inspection of the boat, I neither saw nor heard anything ghostly. No gusts of chilly air, no ruffling of the curtains, no chains clanking in the bilge, no strange presence, no smell of death.

No ghosts here today.

I thanked Pete for the story and the tour. We exchanged business cards and I stepped through the transom gate and toward the ladder. I was thinking how I would tell BillP. there was no story here.

Notebook in hand, I started down. At the first step a gust of warm air touched me, and then there was pressure on my shoulder. I turned, thinking it was Pete. But he was 20 feet away in the saloon, talking on his cell phone. Was it my stimulated imagination? Or was it Adam saying farewell-and believe?

As I finish writing this, a black cat lies on my desk, scattering a pile of notes. It's Jet, who has been a member of our family for about a year. Normally he begs to have his ears scratched. But now he is staring intently at me, his green eyes glowing deeply, brightly, trying to tell me something.

My heart accelerates; my skin is cold. I won't sleep tonight.