In Episode 169, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger sail out from Freeport, Maine, in search of the ghost ship Dash, a merchant brig and privateer made famous during the War of 1812. In January of 1815, Dash sailed into a storm and into legend when she vanished. But that wasn’t the last of her. They say for years to come the ghost ship Dash would sail into Casco Bay when some loved one from the lost crew was ready to pass on.
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[OCEAN WAVES AND SEAGULLS AND WIND]
RAY: Wow! It’s cold here in Freeport! That November wind is whipping in from the northeast.
JEFF: Northeastern wind is a bad sign here in New England. It means a nor’easter might be brewing up.
RAY: Yeah, this is not an ideal day to be standing on the shores of Maine, looking out over Casco Bay.
JEFF: Then I have good news and bad news for you, Ray.
RAY: What’s the good news?
JEFF: We won’t be standing on these wind-whipped shores very long.
RAY: That is good! Then what’s the bad news?
JEFF: The bad news is we’re going to board a sailboat to head out into this potential storm in search of a ghost ship called… Dash.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 169 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. If you’ve been with us these last 169 consecutive weeks, then you already know we’re on a mission to chronicle every legend in New England. All of them! And we need your help to do that. We love when you share your story leads with us, either through our super secret Facebook group, by calling or texting our legend line at 617-444-9683, or reaching out to us through our free New England Legends app that you can download on your smart device right now. The app, developed by Forest City Marketing, features an interactive map with pins and driving directions to every story we’ve ever covered.
JEFF: We’d also like to thank our patreon patrons for being the financial backbone of everything we do. These legendary listeners kick in $3 bucks per month, though some give a little more, and get early access to our new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to help us out and become an even bigger part of the movement!
[WIND AND OCEAN AGAIN]
RAY: Oh man, we’re going to climb on a boat in this weather?!
JEFF: We can’t look for a ghost ship on land, Ray.
RAY: Good point. But this seems dangerous!
JEFF: Life at sea is dangerous, Ray. But that’s where we might find the ghost ship called Dash – out at sea. Though others say you can watch her sail into Casco Bay when a loved one from someone lost aboard the ship is getting ready to pass on. But since we can’t predict when that will happen, get your sea legs ready, Ray. We’re heading out on the ocean.
RAY: Okay, let’s head back to 1812 and set this up.
RAY: It’s June 18, 1812, and this young nation called the United States of America is once again at war.
[CANNON AND MUSKETS]
RAY: Life on the Atlantic Ocean just got tougher for American merchant ships; ships like Dash out of Freeport, Maine. Dash is owned by Seward and William Porter. She’s be a brig, 223 tons, and built for speed. On her maiden voyage down the American coast, it’s clear she’s well-named. She’s fast. REALLY fast.
JEFF: She’s rigged as a topsail schooner and armed with a long thirty-two pivot gun and six broadside guns. The ship sails from Maine down to the Caribbean, usually carrying lumber and returning with a cargo of coffee. Still, these are dangerous waters between the West Indies and New England. British ships are all too happy to pick off a vessel if they can. But Dash is speedy, her guns are only a last resort if she can’t outrun her attackers.
RAY: The Dash spends the first two years of her life as a merchant ship, running from Maine to southern cities, often to Port-au-Prince in Haiti. She has a few encounters with British ships, but she’s quick enough to outrun them. But her speed depends on a regular treatment to the bottom of the ship.
JEFF: What kind of regular treatment?
RAY: British ships have the money to line the bottom of their keels with copper, which helps speed them through the water. Because copper is hard to come by, at each port Dash needs to be turned on its side, and an application of soap and tallow is applied to the bottom to achieve the same result. The soap and wax reduces drag and makes the ship even faster.
JEFF: Got it. Clever. So the ship is always going to be faster at the start of a voyage, right after treatment, compared to near the end of the voyage, because the soap and tallow are going to wear off in the water.
JEFF: So Dash is making her journeys from port to port, and outrunning the British when she has to. But as the War heats up, it’s clear more ships are needed for more aggressive purposes. British ships are attacking just about any American vessel they can in an effort to disrupt supply lines, commerce, and the country. In June of 1814, Dash is overhauled for her new, modified purpose.
[HAMMER AND SAWS]
RAY: The small guns are removed, and two eight-pound cannons are added as well as some other alterations to turn this ship from a merchant vessel into a true privateer war ship. On June 18, 1814 – exactly two years after War was declared, Dash receives official notice that’s she’s to begin her new life. Here, Jeff, you can read the official commission.
JEFF: Okay, it says “The commission authorizes Captain Cammett to ‘Detain, seize, and take all vessels and effects to whomsoever belonging, which shall be liable thereto according to the law of nations and the rights of the United States as a power at war, and to bring the same within some port of the United States in order that due proceedings may be had thereon.” The commission bears the signature of James Madison, President and that of James Munroe, Secretary of State.
RAY: Under the command of Captain William Cammett, Dash still makes merchant runs, but she’s now authorized to seize any British ship she can and keep the spoils for the trouble.
JEFF: This is a tough time for the shipping business, but especially for the Porter Brothers who own Dash. When cargo is picked up and sold for a profit, everyone makes money. But on some voyages when British ships are chasing the heavily-laden Dash, the only way to increase speed is to decrease cargo. When you throw that cargo overboard to lighten the load, you also throw profits out with it.
RAY: The real money is in the capture of another ship. It can mean the difference between bankruptcy and striking it rich. On August 21, 1814, Dash sees her chance off the shores of Bermuda when she spots a sail… it’s a ship called Five Sisters, headed from Jamaica to Bermuda and loaded with rum and cocoa. $6000 worth of goods. By the time Dash sails back to Maine, the company is profitable again.
JEFF: In the coming months, more ships are captured, and business is good for Dash and her owners and crew. They’re making a name for themselves as one of the most successful privateers during the War. Some would go so far as to call her lucky considering she never let a chased ship escape, and she’s never been hit by a hostile shot.
RAY: It’s now January of 1815, when Dash is loading up to sail from Portland, now under the command of Captain John Porter. It’s a cold day, but the seas are good when the ship leaves the harbor accompanied by the private schooner Champlain. For two days the ships sail together, racing at times for fun, but then dark clouds on the horizon spook the crews.
[WIND AND OCEAN PICKING UP]
JEFF: But then, almost out of nowhere the winds pick up from the northeast. The Champlain decides the best course is to turn and head for shore, but the Dash decides to press forward. After all, she’s fast. She can outrun anything if she has to.
[STORM PICKS UP INTENSITY]
RAY: As the schooner Champlain turns south, they watch the sails of Dash disappear into the wind and rain of the coming gale. It would seem her luck just ran out. (PAUSE) And that is the last anyone sees of Dash and the sixty men on board.
[STORM FADES THEN SILENCE]
JEFF: Well… maybe not quite the last. After weeks turn to months with no word from anyone on board the Dash, or from any other ships who may have encountered her, it’s becoming obvious that something horrible happened, likely around the dreaded George’s Banks about 60 miles offshore from the coast of Maine. The crew is lost, and their families and friends back home are devastated.
RAY: Funeral services are held, and every sailor in the region is reminded of the dangers of their occupation.
JEFF: The reason this isn’t the end of the story is because for years to come, a ghostly ship makes an occasional appearance in the waters around Portland. Often on days when a still fog moves in over the water.
RAY: Fishing vessels will report calm seas and low visibility, and then they hear a larger ship bearing down on them.
[SAILING SHIP THROUGH WATER]
RAY: They turn to see a ghostly ship gliding by, and on the back of the ship there’s a sign with ship’s name. It’s weathered, but readable: Dash from Freeport.
JEFF: Soon, locals start to figure out that the ghost ship Dash shows up when a family member of someone on board passes away. Almost as if the ship is coming to shore to ferry the new soul to the other side.
RAY: Other witnesses see the ghostly ship sail into the harbor, moving at full speed right toward land. But when it reaches shore, the ship melts into nothing and dissipates.
JEFF: Another loved one from someone lost aboard the Dash must have passed away. And suddenly, Dash and her crew take on a Greek mythological feel. Like Charon who ferries the newly departed across the River Styx. And Casco Bay now has its own version of the Flying Dutchman. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: The Flying Dutchmen is the world’s most famous ghost ship. It’s a vessel that was lost near the Cape of Good Hope near the southern tip of South Africa. They say if you see Flying Dutchman at sea it’s a bad omen. And if you’re hailed by the Flying Dutchmen and are asked to take mail from her to shore, your ship is doomed.
JEFF: For many years after the Dash was lost, her ghostly ship made occasional appearances in Casco Bay. The assumption was that someone related to the lost crew must be dying, but a crew of 60 people offers a lot of connections.
RAY: Right. 60 sets of parents, and who knows how many spouses, children, nieces, nephews, friends, neighbors, and friends.
JEFF: We’re talking generational connections from this ship. Dash reminds us that we don’t always reach our destination. And not knowing exactly what happened to loved ones can be maddening. It can haunt us.
RAY: Before we sail back to Freeport’s harbor, we’re going to end this one with a section of a poem written by a local poet named Elisa Dennison King. She penned this work after the ghost ship Dash had sailed its way into Maine legend and lore.
ELISA DENNISON KING:
It was in the year of Eighteen-Twelve
They launched the Dash from a Freeport yard,
She sailed the bay as the Dead Ship now,
You have heard her doom from the Quaker bard.
She was manned by a crew of gallant lads
As ever a vessel’s deck had trod,
A score and a hundred of them all –
And their fate is known to none but God.
But when any of those who loved the lads
Are ready to slip their moorings here
And sail away to the unknown port
You will see the Dead Ship gliding near.
JEFF: Thank you for sailing with us on another adventure, you legendary people.
RAY: If you like tales of phantom ships, you might want to take a deep dive into our archives. In Episode 43 we explored the ghost ship of New Haven, Connecticut, in Episode 88, we told the story of the Mary Celeste from Marion, Massachusetts, and in Episode 29 we sailed to Block Island in search of the Palatine Light.
JEFF: We’ve seen a ghost ship or two in our journey. Be sure to check out our Web site where you can find an archive of not just ghost ships, but all of our past episodes, plus pictures, clips from the New England Legends television series on Amazon Prime, and each episode also has a transcript for the deaf.
RAY: We’d like to thank Lorna Nougeira for lending her voice acting talents this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Will calling from the middle of the Bridgewater Triangle in Bridgewater, Massachusetts until next time remember if it’s our is closer than you think.