Moonlight sheds an eerie glow through the clouds that hover above the American Victory ship docked behind the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. Aboard the ship, a group of people congregates, awaiting orders. But these people are not members of the ship's crew; they're the Tampa Ghost Watchers and curious members of the public eager to catch a glimpse of the paranormal activity that has been reported on the ship since the end of World War II.
This event is called the Ghost of the Grey Lady and is being put on by the Tampa Ghost Watchers
. It is one in a new series of events aboard the SS American Victory Mariners Museum
that run through October.
Admittedly, when I took my seat and listened to a presentation by Tampa Ghost Watchers leader Bill Sharpe, I was a bit skeptical of the whole situation. But since scary movies actually scare me, I thought that I would give the ship a chance. Paranormal Activity 2 had me convinced that my house was haunted every time the ice maker turned on.
Ghost Watchers members and Groupon carriers whispered among themselves as Sharpe addressed what to look for on the 70-year-old ship that we were about to be exploring.
"The best ghost hunting tools are your own beliefs, your own senses and your own awareness," Sharpe explains. "Most importantly, use your brains, your natural senses and pay attention."
Sharpe gave a brief history of the ship and a background of the Tampa Ghost Watchers Club. He showed slides from previous Ghost Watchers trips to places such as St. Augustine and Ocala National Forest. The club has also made trips to Civil War destinations such as the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pa. and the Andersonville Prison in Georgia.
Once the presentation ended, the guests were let loose to explore the ship, all on the lookout for spirits of the past. A Distinguished History
The SS American Victory was built in 1944 by California Shipbuilding in just 55 hours and set sail on June 20, 1945. The 455-foot ship served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam and is now one of only four remaining fully operational WWII ships.
During its service, the ship carried cargo and ammunition from the U.S. to Southeast Asia. It was also used to transport troops back to the U.S. after the wars. At one point, the ship carried the bodies of more than 100 fallen soldiers back to the U.S. to be buried, an event which some believe to be the cause of paranormal activity aboard the ship.
"They transferred bodies back to the U.S. on this boat," says Sharpe. "And I believe there were also three crew members that were killed on the boat. It's very easy as you're loading equipment and stuff in to get hurt. It happens."
Sharpe pointed out the large cargo holds that open up on the deck and stretch about 30 feet down into the hull of the ship. Large cranes filled these cargo holds from the bottom up with equipment and supplies. A fall from the deck to the bottom would be fatal.
I followed Sharpe around the ship, while other amateur ghost hunters explored the ship unsupervised. One of the places he took me to was the refrigeration room, where soldiers' bodies were kept while being transported home for proper burial.
We stood in the middle of the room for about five minutes in silence, the only noises coming from the footsteps of other guests roaming the ship.
"Is there anybody here?" asks Sharpe. "Did you serve on the ship?"
He instructed me to check my digital recorder when I got home to see if there was an answer waiting for me. Unfortunately, there wasn't.
"Sometimes the recorder will pick up sounds that you really can't hear," he says.A Paranormal Chill
Sharpe has been interested in the paranormal since he was in high school. In his 50s now, he has conducted dozens of paranormal investigations around the U.S.
"My theme paper in high school was on ghosts," says Sharpe. "That's kind of how I got into it. Then in about 2006, I saw that someone was putting together a paranormal group and I thought, 'This ought to be interesting.' So I went and it was interesting and pretty soon I found myself ahead of the group."
He went on to describe an incident when he was on Gettysburg Battlefield with a small group of people late at night. He said that the wind picked up considerably and then abruptly stopped, followed by a sudden drop in temperature. He says that a woman in the group told them that she saw four or five men walking around them and that they were Union and Confederate soldiers. Right after that, the men walked away and the wind and temperature picked back up.
"When you think of a very hot and humid night, the temperature doesn't just drop 10 degrees and stay there," explains Sharpe. "It just doesn't do that.''
And temperature drop is one of the things that Sharpe tells people to be aware of when looking for paranormal activity on the ship. Other things to look out for are spherical orbs in photographs that are not seen by the naked eye, as well as sudden mood changes, especially sudden feelings of sadness.
As we made our way from the deck of the ship down to the main area where the presentation was held, a guest holding out a camera stops Sharpe.
He has a photo that he took right above where the presentation was held that has some sort of floating entity in it just above a stairway railing.
"I'd like to see more of what that is," says Sharpe as he examines the photo. "It looks like it could almost be an arm."
The photo was taken by Doug Tomlinson, a Tampa resident with a passion for the paranormal.
"I was in the Navy up in Jacksonville and I went on a ghost tour in St. Augustine," says Tomlinson. "I took some pictures and got some really cool stuff. I started going out and volunteering for the ghost tour."
Tomlinson says that he heard about the American Victory ghost tour event online, as did many of the guests roaming the ship. For Tomlinson, the event is another opportunity to try and document the existence of paranormal activity.
"I've seen some orbs," Tomlinson explains. "But orbs can be anything, dust flying in the air and your flash picking up on it. That could be an orb. Usually what you're looking for is something that you can actually see moving. Maybe something with a trail behind it."
As Sharpe and I continued our investigation on the ship, we were approached by another guest with a point and shoot electromagnetic field (EMF) meter.
"I need to stand where you're standing," says Wendy Hauver.
"You got something?" asks Sharpe.Feeling Electromagnetic Energy
"When I walked up here the first time, while everyone else was downstairs, I got really nauseous when I stood right here," Hauver explains. Nausea is another one of the changes of moods that Sharpe pointed out in his presentation.
Hauver had been on the ship previously during the day and said that while the electromagnetic energy is still present during the day, it is much more intense and measurable at night, especially where Sharpe and I are standing.
Finally, after mustering up some courage, I decide to venture off and explore the ship on my own. I make my way down the dimly lit corridors unsure of what I would see or what to expect. Mostly, I just saw unoccupied staterooms where soldiers used to bunk.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that I was alone.
For the skeptics and non-believers, the Tampa Ghost Watchers will be hosting a series of these events
that run once a month, now through October. The next one is scheduled for July 15th, 2011.
"My goal as the (Tampa Ghost Watchers) leader is to put you in a position to have experiences," says Sharpe. "There was a lady who wrote a book called "How to Marry a Millionaire." And the first premise on marrying a millionaire, she says, is you have to go where millionaires are. If you live in some small town where there aren't any millionaires, you're probably not going to marry one. Ghost hunting is not much different. Go where people say that something has happened. It doesn't necessarily mean that it is, but it's more liable to be happening there than in a place nobody is talking about."Matthew Wiley is a freelance journalist living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. He spends his spare time skateboarding around Tampa while trying to figure out what to do with his life. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.