As has often been said, strange things happen at sea. One particularly eerie incident was recorded by nautical explorer Rex Clement in his 1924 book “A Gipsy of the Horn.” He tells of a night some twenty years past when, while sailing the Pacific in a windjammer, he and his crew heard a sound they would never forget…
One dark, moonless night just before we got clear of the “forties," with a fresh breeze blowing and the ship running quietly along under t’gallant'sls, there occurred a most uncanny experience.
It was about four bells in the middle watch, the “churchyard” watch, as the four hours after midnight is called, that it happened. We of the mate's watch were on deck--the men for'ard, Burton and I under the break, and Mr. Thomas pacing the poop above our heads. Suddenly, apparently close aboard on the port hand, there came howling out of the darkness a most frightful, wailing cry, ghastly in its agony and intensity. Not of overpowering volume--a score of men shouting together could have raised as loud a hail-it was the indescribable calibre and agony of the shriek that almost froze the blood in our veins.
We rushed to the rail, the mate and the men too, and stared searchingly into the blackness to wind'ard. The starbowlines, who a moment before had been sleeping the sleep of tired men in their bunks below, rushed out on deck. Shipwreck would hardly bring foremast Jack out before he was called, but that cry roused him like the last summons. If ever men were “horrorstruck" we were.
Even the old man was awakened by it and came up on deck. Everyone was listening intensely, straining their eyes into the blackness that enveloped us.
A moment or two passed and then as we listened, wondering, and silent, again that appalling scream rang out, rising to the point of almost unbearable torture and dying crazily away in broken whimperings.
No one did anything, or even spoke. We stood like stones, simply staring into the mystery-laden gloom. How long we peered and listened, waiting for a repetition of the sound, I do not know. But minutes passed and still it did not come, and slowly, like men coming out of a trance, we began to move about and speak to each other again.
We heard it no more and gradually, one at a time, trickled back to fok'sle and half-deck. As far as the occupants of the latter were concerned, no one evinced any inclination to turn in and we sat around, smoking and discussing what the sound we had heard could possibly be. Nobody slept much more that night and thankful we were when the grey dawn broke over the tumbling, untenanted sea.
This was all. In bare words it doesn't sound very dreadful, but it made that night a night of terror. For long enough afterwards the echoes of that awful scream would ring in my ears, and even now it sends a shiver through me to think of it.
Who and what it was that caused it we never learnt. We hazarded a variety of guesses, many of them farfetched enough. The cry of a whale was suggested, but I never heard a whale utter any sounds with its throat. Some other sea-monster, somebody else thought, that only rarely comes to the surface but this was more unlikely still. The scream of seals or sea-lions on an island beach was another hypothesis--again, the nearest land was Easter Island, six hundred miles to the north'ard. Besides, the shriek we heard had certainly a human, if not a diabolic, origin. Whether it was, as some imagined, a shipwrecked boat's crew who saw our lights and in their extremity raised a sort of death-scream, or whether, as others asserted, it had a supernatural origin, remained a mystery insoluble.
Some time after, Nils, our taciturn Russian Finn, who was as superstitious as big Mac, told me we should have called out: “Jou wass come here, oldt man,” and the thing, whatever it was, would have come and done us no harm. Nils evidently thought it was a seaspirit. Who shall say? For my own part, I hold with Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy," and certainly more than one can well put a name to.