Ships are a major component of fiction, be it in myth, epic poetry, legends, or simply entertainment. Handed down in oral traditions and songs, later transcribed on stone and parchment, ships of the ancients include the fishing vessels of the Twelve Apostles, the Ark described in Genesis, the twelve ships of Odysseus lost during his journey home, Charon’s boat used to transport lost souls to the Gates of Hades, and others. King Arthur is usually associated with his Round Table, but according to the legends he also had a ship at his disposal, of numerous names, Prydwen and Britain among them.
In more recent times, writers have created fictional ships sometimes based loosely on historical vessels as settings for their stories. They have served as refuges and as sites of conflict. Others have been born out of the superstitions of sailors, nautical versions of tales told around the campfire to entertain listeners. Here are ten fictional ships, most as famous as any real vessel known to have sailed the seas.
Argo is the mythical ship which carried Jason and his crew of adventurers, known as the Argonauts, on their quest to find the Golden Fleece in ancient Greek mythology. Most versions of the tale, of which there are several variations, claim Argo was built by Argus, the source of its name. Its construction was sanctioned by Hera, Queen of the Olympians. Amongst its mythical powers was the ability of its oaken timbers to speak to the crew in a human voice, foretelling their future in the form of oracles. The communicative prow of the vessel took the appearance of actress Honor Blackman in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, rendering it a handsome vessel indeed.
According to the myths surrounding the vessel, Argo eventually killed the heroic Jason, by dropping a heavy spar on him as he slept beneath the mast. In most versions of the myth, the ship which helped find the Golden Fleece is visible today. It was mutated into the stars by the gods, becoming the constellation Argo Navis, visible below the southern tropics as it sails the Milky Way. Only a few of the more than 160 stars which comprise Argo Navis are visible in the Mediterranean, where Argo gained its fame. Astronomers no longer count it as a separate constellation, despite the enduring fame of the ship for which it was named. Eventually broken up into multiple constellations, it is no longer considered a constellation at all.
9. SS Poseidon
Disaster movies were a popular form of cinematic entertainment during the 1970s and have remained so ever since, at least among producers. Their success at the box office has been unsteady. SS Poseidon was a fictional ship created for an early disaster extravaganza, the 1972 film, The Poseidon Adventure. The ship was struck and capsized by a tsunami on New Year’s Eve in that film, which follows a small group of intrepid survivors as they struggle through the vessel in their attempt to escape. Since the ship is inverted on the surface of the water, the survivors must go upwards as they travel downwards into the hull, deep into the hold, seeking the thinnest part of the hull and rescue at its bottom.
There is no known real-life inspiration for SS Poseidon (RMS Queen Mary provided a stand-in for the film). The writer of the novel (Paul Gallico) upon which the film was based was aboard Queen Mary when the liner was hit with a wave which caused a severe roll. Though the ship was never in danger of capsizing, it may have caught his attention sufficiently to inspire the story. Poseidon appeared in additional films, as a continuation of the story and a target for salvagers (Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, 1979); as a target for terrorists (The Poseidon Adventure, 2005 TV film); and once more as the victim of a large wave (Poseidon, 2006). All the films offer the same basic story, with a small party of survivors, drawn from an ensemble cast, struggling to reach a point where rescuers may offer safety.
8. HMS Surprise
Cecil Scott (CS) Forester created the genre of the British naval officer in a nearly personal battle against Napoleon with his fictional Horatio Hornblower in 1937. Eventually, Hornblower became a character of such renown he featured in novels and short stories, film, radio, and television. He, like Sherlock Holmes, became so well-known that some came to believe he was a real person, and the noted historian C. Northcote Parkinson even published a biography of the character, which included a “family tree” of his descendants to the current (1970) day. Hornblower and his adventures became the prototype of other heroes of the Napoleonic era, including Richard Bolitho, Lord Ramage, Richard Sharpe, and Jack Aubrey.
It was Jack Aubrey who gained fame in HMS Surprise, a fictional frigate and later a hydrography research vessel. Aubrey served in the ship as a young midshipman, a captain, and flew his flag in it as an admiral. The small frigate was entirely fictional, though some of its exploits were loosely based on the adventures of real ships of the period. USS Essex had a memorable voyage to the Pacific during the War of 1812, during which it conducted its own refit on little known islands. Aubrey’s version of Surprise had similar adventures in the Galapagos Archipelago, though the circumstances of its voyage were considerably different.
Patrick O’Brian, who authored the Jack Aubrey series, based his fictional HMS Surprise on a real British frigate of the same era, though its adventures under Aubrey were entirely created in the author’s mind. Some placed the fictional ship in the center of historical events, thus altering the past for the entertainment of his fans, The fate of both the real HMS Surprise and that of Jack Aubrey’s favorite command are unknown, though the replica used to film the Aubrey adventure Master and Commander is a tourist attraction today.
7. The Flying Dutchman
The ship known to posterity as the Flying Dutchman is both fictional and legendary. It represents both an unknown Dutch captain and the ship he sailed, at least in one version of the legend. It has been traced to the heyday of the Dutch East India Company of the late 17th century, when the region now known as Netherlands was a major maritime power. Its legend claims that it sails eternally, sometimes attempting to signal other ships or facilities ashore, often with messages addressed to the dead. It is thus known to mariners as a symbol of impending death. Sailors often repeated tales of the ship appearing during dangerously foul weather, usually in regions known for shipwrecks and stormy seas.
It has been claimed in legends, poems, songs, and short stories the Dutchman is crewed by the doomed souls of miscreants consigned to eternal damnation. It sails in search of those destined to join its crew. The origin of the myth is unknown. No less a personage as George, Prince of Wales, later King George V, reported sighting the vessel at sea in 1881. His sighting was reported in the log of HMS Bacchante written either by himself or his brother, Prince Albert Victor (the log was later transcribed by a functionary, and is in neither prince’s hand). According to the log entry the seaman who had first spotted the Flying Dutchman and called it to the attention of the future King fell from the mast to his death after reporting his observation. The weather was clear, though in repetitions of the story the Dutchman is usually depicted as emerging from storms and fog.
One of the oldest and most well-known myths of the sea, the Flying Dutchman has been the subject of opera, film, plays, novels, and even appears in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, commanded by Davy Jones himself. The ghostly ship and its equally ghostly crew is fictional, except among those who believe the earth and its seas are prowled by evil spirits, eternally doing their master’s bidding while shrouded by storms and darkness.
6. USS Caine
Prolific American author Herman Wouk enjoyed his greatest literary success with the novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both of which were made into major miniseries in the 1980s. The novels tell the global story of the Second World War, largely through the eyes of the fictional Henry family and their friends and relatives. By the time of their appearance, Wouk was an internationally renowned author. His first major success came with his publication of the novel The Caine Mutiny, followed by the play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. The two works described life aboard a fictional American destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific War, and a mutiny among its officers. Wouk had served as a junior officer on similar ships during the war, and knew life aboard quite well.
The fictional USS Caine represented one of 42 World War I era destroyers converted by the US Navy to serve as high-speed minesweepers during the Second World War. Most of the ships served primarily as convoy escorts, training vessels, and cargo ships. Not until late in the war did they actually operate as minesweepers, with a few exceptions. Such was the fate of the fictional Caine, which Wouk crewed with an incompetent Captain, Philip Francis Queeg, and a wardroom of officers which lacked experience and a grounding in naval tradition. Eventually they relieved their captain in a lapse of naval discipline which became the titular Caine mutiny.
USS Caine was entirely fictional, as the author notes in a foreword to the novel, as was the personage of Captain Queeg and the rest of the characters in the story. Interestingly, the author served in destroyer-minesweepers during the war, USS Zane and later as executive officer of USS Southard. One of his major characters in the novel occupies his spare time writing a novel about life in the Navy, as he did during his service. The author also noted there had never been a mutiny aboard an American ship of war, ignoring the three men hanged for planning a mutiny aboard USS Somers in 1842. How much reality Wouk exposed in the fictional USS Caine was known only to him, and those who served with him.
5. Whaling Ship Pequod
The whaling ship which carried Ahab, Starbuck, Ishmael, and Queequeg on their fateful pursuit of the Great White Whale was fictional, though so like the average whaler of the day it could have been any of them. The whale itself, Moby Dick, was likewise fictional, though based on the legend of an albino sperm whale known to whalermen as Mocha Dick. So named because he was frequently encountered near Mocha Island, Mocha Dick proved inordinately difficult to kill and developed the reputation of attacking the whaling boats which exhibited the impertinence of striking at him with harpoons. Herman Melville, a veteran of the whaler Acushnet, borrowed some of the attributes exhibited by Mocha Dick to create his fictional white whale Moby Dick.
Pequod was typical of the whaling ships of the day, self-contained factories for the transformation of freely swimming mammals into barrels of fine sperm oil, suitable for lighting the lamps of Bedford and other American towns. So, Melville incorporated two areas with which he was intimately familiar, using often florid language and Shakespearean drama, to create the novel Moby Dick. The destruction of Pequod was a fictionalized version of the loss of the whaler Essex, sunk following the attack of a sperm whale in 1820. Melville did not include the episodes of cannibalism which occurred among the survivors of that sea saga, perhaps the reason he allowed for only one survivor from Pequod.
Moby Dick did not appear until 1851, near the end of the heyday of whaling as the primary source of oil for lighting. Within a decade, kerosene derived from petroleum became the preferred source of illumination, followed by natural gas in the succeeding decades. Pequod remains a famous ship, its decks trod by the stumping Ahab, the pragmatic Starbuck, and the cannibal Queequeg, in the tale told by the equally fictional whaler known only as Ishmael.
Nautilus was the name of a submarine long before Jules Verne borrowed it for the fabulous undersea vessel he created for his adventure novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870. Robert Fulton had used the name for his submarine, first operationally tested in 1801. Nor did Verne’s Nautilus predict the submarine; the French Navy demonstrated a test submarine named Plongeur (Plunger) nearly ten years earlier. Many of the technologies described in the novel were in fact of their time, rather than predictions of the future. Some were already functionally obsolete, having been replaced by newer technologies, including the deep diving suits used by some of the characters.
But Nautilus did introduce a technology unknown at the time of the novel’s publication. The submersible used electricity to operate. As such it became emblematic of the future. The United States Navy operated a submarine named Nautilus during World War II, named for the shellfish as well as Fulton’s earlier vessel. When the US Navy launched the world’s first atomic powered vessel, USS Nautilus, in the 1950s, its being an entirely new technology, as was Verne’s fictional submarine, was stressed in the press.
Nautilus has thus been both a fictional ship as well as historical vessels, making it somewhat unique among ocean-going ships. Today, Verne’s Nautilus can be visited in the pages of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in the film recreations of the novel, and in graphic novels and comic books. The US Navy’s most recent version of a ship under the fabled name can be visited at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut.
3. The African Queen
As previously noted, CS Forester created the character Horatio Hornblower and the genre of the Napoleonic naval hero in the 1930s. He also created one of the more famous fictional vessels of all time, though it never went to sea. Instead, it plied the rivers and lakes of equatorial Africa, under the command of Charlie Allnutt, who also comprised its entire crew. A dilapidated vessel with a motor of questionable reliability, it delivered supplies and mail to outposts along a river in German East Africa just before World War I. Allnutt called his vessel the African Queen, a grandiose appellation given its dubious reliability and seaworthiness.
Circumstances left Allnutt saddled with a passenger, an English spinster, who criticized his boat and person, disposed of his liquor (to his outrage), and convinced him to use his boat in a nearly suicidal attack on a German vessel operating on a lake downriver. As they cruised downriver, enduring brutal heat and humidity, lousy food, getting lost, both rapids and shallows, leeches, and worst of all, each other’s company, they fell in love. By the end of the story they are married, the African Queen victorious, though sunk through its own actions.
For the film version of the story Humphrey Bogart (Allnut) won the Academy Award for Best Actor while Katherine Hepburn (the spinster, whose name was Rose Sayer), was nominated for Best Actress, though she did not win. The ship which portrayed the fictional African Queen in the film was restored and as of 2012 offered tourists and film buffs cruises in the Florida Keys.
2. Pirate Ship Black Pearl
The Golden Age of Piracy is loosely defined as the eight decades beginning in 1650. During that time pirates roamed the Spanish Main, the Indian Ocean, the coast of West Africa, and the waters off the English North American colonies. The names of some pirates remain legendary, Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Bartholomew Roberts, Captain William Kidd, Stede Bonnet, and many others. Some of their ships are legendary as well, Queen Anne’s Revenge (Teach, better known as Blackbeard), Whydah (Black Sam Bellamy), Adventure Galley (Captain Kidd), and Fancy (Henry Every, famed for having never been caught). But possibly the most famed pirate ship of all in the 21st century is an entirely fictional vessel, the Black Pearl.
Black Pearl was originally part of a Disney attraction, known as the pirate ship Wicked Wench in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim. When Pirates of the Caribbean went to film, Wicked Wench went too, renamed Black Pearl, with a suitable back story to explain how it came into the hands of Captain Jack Sparrow. Black Pearl changed hands several times, did battle against Blackbeard and Queen Anne’s Revenge, and proved itself capable of outsailing the Flying Dutchman, supposedly the fastest ship on the oceans. At the end of its most recent appearance in film (Dead Men Tell No Tales, 2017) it remained under the command of Captain Jack Sparrow.
The fictional Black Pearl is relatively lightly armed, since it was intended to attack merchant ships rather than battle men of war. It also uses black sails, rendering it difficult to see at night. Both of those attributes were shared with several real pirate ships, whose masters preferred stealth to combat. Its more supernatural capabilities are shared with several legends of the pirates of the Golden Age, as they were handed down by sailors and storytellers. Most, such as burying treasure, wearing bandannas and walking the plank, are untrue. Although there are claims the legendary privateer/pirate/politician Henry Morgan once sailed a ship named Black Pearl, there is little in the way of historical evidence to support them. More likely it is one more fictional creation out of the minds of the entertainers of the Disney empire.
1. MV Disco Volante
Disco Volante, Italian for Flying Saucer, first appeared in the 1951 novel Thunderball by Ian Fleming, the ninth book of his series of novels and short story collections featuring British agent James Bond. The book was unusual in that it was based on a then unfilmed screen treatment, rather than being a complete novel written by Fleming. As such it was the only of the Bond novels published by Fleming in which authorship was shared, though it required extensive legal action before the credits were finalized. Disco Volante appears as a luxury yacht owned by Emilio Largo, second in command of SPECTRE. The yacht serves to recover stolen atomic bombs as well as providing the means of transporting them to their planned place of detonation. It later appeared in the films Thunderball (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983), both starring Sean Connery as James Bond.
Besides being a luxury vessel of impressive appointments and power, Disco Volante held a secret weapon. At least the film version did. The yacht could, and did, split into two sections, allowing the forward section containing the bad guys to flee at far greater speeds than the after section containing the stolen bombs. In the novel, Disco Volante was attacked and destroyed by a US nuclear submarine, USS Manta. In the film Thunderball it wrecked on rocks after Bond dispatched Largo in the climactic scene. In Never Say Never Again the US Navy again supported Bond by destroying the villain’s yacht using missiles.
Three vessels were used to portray the Thunderball version of the yacht, one of which was later used as a houseboat in Florida. In Never Say Never Again the vessel was portrayed by the superyacht Nabila, owned at the time by Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi. A line in the film’s credits reads “Thanks A. K.”. It was purchased in the late 1980s by Donald Trump ($29 million), who renamed it Trump Princess and later sold it at a loss of $9 million to another Saudi, who renamed it Kingdom 5KR. As of 2022 it is still owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, and is 96th on the list of the largest yachts in the world.