Was this ship steered by a ghost?



Above the wheelchair in which Kenneth Taylor spent most of his day hung a carefully-painted water-colour of a small somewhat shabby freighter of some 5,000 tons with a single blue and black funnel.

Kenneth Taylor, living in retirement with his wife and daughter in the Thames-side port of Gravesend, was second mate on that ship, the Albert North, for nearly seven years.

His career at sea ended in its wheelhouse during a north sea gale in 1979 and it could well have been that his life, and those of his eight crew-mates could have ended, too.

For over half an hour the Albert North was steaming in darkness through the crowded shipping lanes approaching Rotterdam in a force seven gale... with no human being at the wheel.

But according to Kenneth Taylor and another crew member, there was someone at the wheel of the Albert North ... but he was not of this world.

Until his death in 1997, Ken Taylor was adamant that there was a ghost steering the freighter to safety that night ... the ghost of a friend and  colleague who had died just three years earlier.

In an article he wrote for a maritime magazine, Ken Taylor explained that in the winter of 1976 there had been a fatality on board the Albert North while the ship was loading sugar refining machinery in Bristol docks.

The victim, crushed to death in the aft hold, was the third mate Leslie Bray, a popular figure, and his death brought a cloud of depression over the ship.

Ken Taylor wrote: "Several of the crew were convinced that he had come back as a ghost to haunt the ship — sailors are often very superstitious — and never happier than when they are claiming that a ship is jinxed or haunted."

But one thing which was undeniable was that the next voyage after the death of Leslie Bray would change Ken Taylor's life — and his mind — for good.

On the first night out, a deckhand swore that he saw the dead man sitting on the bunk in which he had slept while alive. A few hours later another man claimed that a shadowy figure had brushed past him on the steps up to the bridge.

As speculation swept the ship, the master, Captain George Saul, told the crew he "wanted  no more of this superstitious nonsense." A deep depression was approaching the North Sea and they would need all their concentration to bring the ship safely to port. At midnight on the last night before docking in Rotterdam, Ken Taylor took over the wheel for a four-hour spell. "There were three of us on watch as traffic was heavy as land approached and there were lights and buoys to check.

"A deckhand named Martin was on deck and the skipper was to be called if there were any problems. The westerly wind had turned the approaching coast into a lee shore and the sea was becoming increasingly rough.It was no time to lose your concentration."

But after about 50 minutes on the wheel Ken Taylor felt he was losing his. The wheelhouse felt uncomfortably hot and he was aware of a pain in his chest. He held his course, staring grimly at the glowing compass in front of him, knowing he should get help but was unable to move or speak.

"I knew that something terrible was happening to me. My consciousness was ebbing away until the only thing I could think of was what would happen to the ship. How long would it be before someone came into the wheelhouse and found me? And then it might be too late.

"I remember beginning to slide towards the floor. The strength had gone out of my limbs and body but somehow I was clinging to the wheel. Everything went blurred and it was impossible to see the compass or keep the ship on course.

"Suddenly I felt the wheel being gripped and steadied and a voice said: 'It's all right. Ken, my old cock,' in a cockney voice which I knew immediately belonged to Leslie Bray. "Shortly afterwards I passed out. I didn't know what was happening to me but I knew the ship was in good hands. On the deck, deckhand John Horton could see a figure at the wheel and naturally assumed it was Ken Taylor. The ship slowed at one point to give precedence to another vessel and seemed in complete control.

"About 20 minutes later I went to the galley and brought up some tea. I took it into the wheelhouse and there was no one at the wheel. Ken Taylor was lying unconscious on the floor. But the ship was exactly on course. I roused the skipper and took over the wheel." Ken Taylor, totally unconscious, was taken off the ship by lifeboat and hurried to hospital, where he was found to have suffered a series of major strokes.

Slowly he recovered but he never walked unaided again. He retired from the sea and for the rest of his life worked at home in Gravesend as a part-time accountant. In the evenings he painted pictures of ships he had known and sailed. As he wrote in his article: "People ask how could I be sure of anything when suffering a stroke? But I just know that everyone in the ship that night was kept safe by the ghost of a man killed on Bristol docks just three years earlier to the day. I will go to my grave convinced of that." 

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