The True Story Behind ‘1923’s Ghost Ship’

Credits: Alwi Alaydrus/ Unsplash
  • The Zebrina ran ashore on the coast of France in 1917. Up to this day, no one knows what happened to its crew.
  • Yet another real ship featured in “Ghost of Zebrina” is the RMS Mauretania.
  • The Zebrina was a real ghost ship that roamed the Atlantic sometime in the first half of the 20th century, more specifically in the final years of World War I. 

The fifth episode of Paramount+’s 1923, “Ghost of Zebrina,” is titled after one of the most fantastical things to appear in the Dutton-verse so far. During their seemingly endless journey back to the States, Spencer (Brandon Sklenar) and Alexandra (Julia Schlaepfer) are nearly killed when their ship almost collides with an empty vessel stranded in the middle of the ocean.

Ghost ships

Thankfully, the two are saved by the expertise of captain Lucca (Peter Stormare), who then proceeds to tell them all about ghost ships and the danger they pose to sailors. 

One of the stories that he shares is that of the Zebrina, a ship that was found completely abandoned on the coast of France, its crew having disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It’s one of those stories that sound too good (and spooky!) to be true, but true it is. 

The Zebrina was a real ghost ship, and, so far, no one knows for sure what happened to its crew.

Learning about the Zebrina 

Spencer Dutton first crosses paths with Lucca while trying, and repeatedly failing, to find a way to return to the States upon hearing of his brother’s death and the harm that came over his uncle Jacob (Harrison Ford). 

Wishing to be near his family, he convinces Alexandra to return home with him and starts looking for a ship that can get them back. 

Alas, there are no ships sailing directly from Mombasa or anywhere else in Africa to the US, and the next vessel bound for London won’t leave for another month. 

With no time to waste, Spencer starts looking for alternatives. The best one he finds is paying to work on a tugboat headed to the Suez Canal. From there, he can get a ship to any European port, and then to the States.

The tugboat that Spencer and Alexandra eventually board belongs to captain Lucca, an older, ailing man that is constantly coughing up blood. 

However, his poor health hasn’t yet taken a toll on his abilities as a seamaster, which come in handy when the boat is nearly crushed by an enormous ship sailing aimlessly near the Suez Canal. Lucca is quick to steer the tugboat away, avoiding a collision.

In the process, he also finds the time and the energy to give Spencer a brief lesson on ghost ships. 

He explains to him that the vessel that nearly collided with theirs was abandoned after its boilers blew and that the canal’s current keeps it from running aground. 

Later that day, he tells Spencer and Alexandra the story of another ghost ship, a mysterious vessel known as the Zebrina.

According to Lucca’s story, the Zebrina was a British cargo ship that ran aground in France on its way to join the war effort. 

Lucca, who was part of a hospital ship’s crew at the time, says he spent weeks running away from it. It was as if the abandoned ship was chasing them. 

He then proceeds to speak of even stranger occurrences off the coast of Indonesia. But even though the stories of fishing boats surrounded by seagulls eating away at the dead crew members are indeed horrifying, it’s the Zebrina that truly sticks with us — especially given what happens to Spencer and Alex later in the episode. After all, it’s named “Ghost of Zebrina.”

True Story of the Ghost Ship Zebrina

The Zebrina was a real ghost ship that roamed the Atlantic sometime in the first half of the 20th century, more specifically in the final years of World War I. 

As captain Lucca says, the ship ran aground in 1917, while transporting coal from England to the town of Saint-Brieuc, in northwestern France. But what exactly is known about the Zebrina and its fate?

Well, for starters, the Zebrina wasn’t originally intended for travels by sea. Built in 1873, the ship was a trade vessel meant to navigate the River Plate, in South America. 

However, in 1881, the ship was taken to Britain and placed in the European coasting trade. According to boating expert John Leather, the ship gained a reputation as a lucky vessel. Sadly, that reputation didn’t stop it from meeting a tragic fate.

Now, what exactly that fate was is kind of anyone’s guess. What is known is that the Zebrina sailed from Falsmouth to Saint-Brieuc in October, 1917, carrying a shipment of coal. 

Alas, it never reached its intended destination. The ship was found only two days after it set sail on the shore of Rozel, south of the French city of Cherbourg. 

Apart from some disarrangement to the rigging, Leather says, there was no damage done to it. Still, its crew was completely gone. 

This led many to conclude that the ship had been attacked by a U-boat. The Zebrina’s crew are believed to have been taken prisoner.

But even with a theory as plausible as this one right at hand, there is still much speculation about what happened to the crew of the Zebrina. 

Those devoted to historic mysteries claim that it was unusual for U-boats to take prisoners from other ships, and that the Zebrina escaped completely unscathed from the alleged attack. 

Furthermore, it seems that there were no records of the attack on the Zebrina found after the war. 

This led some to believe that the U-boat responsible for the attack on the vessel sank sometime after the strike. Others claim that the ship’s small crew was thrown off the boat by a squall.

What is known, however, is the fate of the Zebrina after it ran ashore. According to Leather, the ship was salvaged, refitted, and turned into a coal hulk from 1928 to 1930. 

She was then turned back into a schooner, and worked the coal routes in the coast of England up until it caught fire somewhere between Blyth and Truro. 

Deemed unseaworthy after the incident, the ship’s hull spent many years exposed in Velder Creek until it was set on fire, in 1953.

The Zebrina isn’t the only real ship

Yet another real ship featured in “Ghost of Zebrina” is the RMS Mauretania, which gets its own cameo as the ship Spencer and Alexandra board to try and send a message to the States. 

Launched in 1906, the Mauretania was a transatlantic vessel that was considered the fastest in the world up until 1929. 

It was the sister ship of the Lusitania, famously sunk by the Germans during World War I. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Mauritania served as a transport and hospital ship during the war, and made 269 double crossings of the Atlantic as a commercial liner. 

The end of its career came in 1934. The following year, the ship was completely dismantled. 1923 premiered new episodes every Sunday on Paramount+.

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Source: Collider


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