First experiences: Ghost Hunting on the SS Nomadic

24 Feb
The SS Nomadic. Photo © Robert J.E. Simpson, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

The SS Nomadic. Photo © Robert J.E. Simpson, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

There’s a further article (maybe more) on this subject to come, and an audio documentary, but I couldn’t not write up something first chance I had.

I’ve been researching a documentary on Macabre Belfast, exploring the fascination with our city’s underbelly (something which most other major cities have been doing for decades – with our Troubles obsession it seems we’re rather late to the gate). Looking at the growing tourist industry gave me an opportunity to meet up with the NIPRA (Northern Ireland Paranormal Research Association) and join them on board the SS Nomadic for one of their regular paranormal nights.

In spite of a love affair with the supernatural, paranormal and the occult, which I’ve had since I was a teenager, I’m wary heading in. I know the NIPRA use mediumship in their investigations, and mediums sit very uneasily with me. Firstly, because of a Christian upbringing, and secondly, because I’m of the opinion there’s a bunch of charlatans among them, not least Derek Acorah, who I saw performing in Belfast several years ago. Heading into something like this for a documentary though, one has to push any existing prejudices to one side in an attempt to be as objective as possible. So I adopt the stance of someone fascinated, captivated, curious, but importantly, dispassionate, distant, unconvinced.

The weather is woeful as I arrive at the dry dock in which the Nomadic is now berthed. A strong biting wind blows and a driving drizzle forces its way through my clothes and biting into my cold skin. The Nomadic is in darkness, only the white light from the dock highlighting its ironwork, and the regular rectangular cobblestones alongside. I take a walk over to the Titanic centre, which is locked but provides just enough shelter to allow me to check my phone messages and load up my recording equipment.

I’m met by Warren Coates, founder of the NIPRA at the entrance, and by 7.30 we’re boarding the boat with only a security officer for company.

I take the opportunity to familiarise myself with the structure of the Nomadic, and liberally wander through the three decks, flitting between engine room, staff areas and the cavities that once housed the 1st, 2nd and 3rd class passengers. I’m struck by how open the space is – there aren’t a lot of places that someone could hide, and while there are obvious traces of 21st century technology, this is a pretty spartan environment.

I wander round with a video camera as well for part of it, and it might help you to visualise the ship:

Warren is at pains to explain that the NIPRA try and give those that join them a neutral and authentic experience. They don’t rig the boat with sound effects or actors that jump out and go ‘boo’. He tells me about a couple of incidents, and swears by the authenticity of the experience. They don’t tell the stories to the groups in case it affects their judgement. When they are in a space, it is up to the group to indicate what (if anything) they feel, and only if the NIPRA members feels a presence that others are not picking up on will they mention it.

They are also armed with an assortment of electronical gadgets – special cameras, thermometers, etc. which help to verify any experiences and persuade some of the more sceptical among them, and those who pay to join in on an investigation/experience may take their pick of the electronics.

On board the group split into two. Two or three members of the NIPRA accompany each group and they move to different parts of the ship and during the course of the five hour event, move through each of the rooms independently. I interview several NIPRA members, two newbies (one wanna-believer, and her rather more sceptical husband), and I join the other group which includes Warren as leader and several folk out for a birthday party who seem very open.

Off-record I also talk to security, and while carrying out my own preambles overhear extracts of conversations. I’m assured that the Nomadic is a hive of activity, which is increasing with each visit. There are reports coming through during the regular tours in the day too of supernatural activity – sightings of figures, strange noises, feelings of sea-sickness… One part of the ship is particularly prone to activity – something I’ll leave for a future fuller report.

While I interview Warren pre-investigation, we sit on the 100+ year old wooden benches that adorn the ship. In our alcove as we talk, periodically there is a loud rumbling coming from what sounds like the very bowels of the ship. You can almost feel the ship vibrating slightly, and the noise is rather like a ship’s engines. Which of course it can’t be, because the engines have long since been taken out. It is unnerving. Warren tells me that this isn’t quite the engine sound they’ve heard other nights – which is considerably louder. Eek.

As the investigation begins, the lights go down and we make our way to the disparate sections of the ship. We sit on the floors, on chairs, wherever comfortable. We can just make each other out thanks to the lighting from the harbour, and the dim emergency exit signs. There is pleasant conversation as the group gets the feel of each other. It is clear that my group is full of those who want to believe and who are very open. The NIPRA team keep us steered safely and are welcoming.

Ghost-hunter on the Nomadic. © Robert J.E. Simpson, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Ghost-hunter on the Nomadic. © Robert J.E. Simpson, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

I have my voice recorder on my HTC mobile phone running as a backup, alongside my minidisc. Listening through earphones my sonic experience is slightly different, and I’m aware (as I remove the buds on occasion) of the electrical hum of the lights, and I suspect am picking up subtle noises slightly more clearly. In the first room, I can feel a slight draft coming from the stairwell down past me, and I spent a couple of minutes with the shivers creeping up and down my body. There are occasional taps of the metalwork from the rear of the vessell, which seem to move. Warren takes the lead, but one of the guests also has a go at addressing the ‘spirits’ directly.

They call for the spirits to step out of the shadows and make themselves known. Do something with the lights. Make a noise. Was that you? If so thank you. Can you make another. Silence…. The group seem convinced they’re hearing deliberate tapping or even footsteps. To me it sounds like nothing more than the creaking of an old vessel on a cold winter’s night.

I look around the space, take a couple of photos (no flash). I keep focussing around the staircase, but I think this is because this is where the bulk of the ship’s furniture is, where the bulk of the lighting and shadows is, rather than because I detect a presence. I do the same thing in the other rooms too. The temperature supposedly drops significantly in the first two rooms while we are there, but I’m not sure I feel it. I make a note to next time bring the thermometer myself – would be good to be able to confirm first hand and systematically analyse the alleged phenomena.

In the second room, there is some talk about EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena), and that some of the group might want to try their mobile phones for example to record the sound and see if there is anything there on playback. We are told of some of the mistakes folk have made – one chap convinced he had caught the sound of a demon had in fact picked up his own rumbling tummy. As I have to leave soon, and I am recording the sound for the documentary I suggest a double blind EVP session. I set my mobile on a table, and hold my minidisc microphone in my hand. Warren asks if I’d like to ask the questions – but I refuse. As an observer I need to try and remain distant and impartial.

And so Warren asks a series of questions, leaving a gap in between each question. In the silence that should follow, the theory is that there *might* just be a response from the spirit world. In the interest of a scientific approach, and transparency I will now upload both recordings and add them below.

The Hi-MD minidisc recorder segment:

https://soundcloud.com/robert-j-e-simpson/nomadicevp-mdfile

– Nothing discernible here. I’ve amplified the recording just before the questions start so any low-level responses would be audible. You will hear the vibration of the ship though in the gaps between the last couple of questions, and the beep near the end is someone taking a temperature reading with the electronic thermometer.

And for transparency, the HTC One X phone mic recording of the same section:

https://soundcloud.com/robert-j-e-simpson/nomadicevp-htcfile

– Also, no indication of EVP. The poorer quality of the mic means that the ship rumble hasn’t been picked up. Of course, not every EVP experiment does register a result anyway, but I think a no-response result is just as worth sharing as one with a ‘voice’.

As we walk into the third room, we encounter the other group heading in the opposite direction. They ask us if we were shouting a short time earlier. Categorically we weren’t. In fact, I hadn’t heard anything loud at all. They are convinced they heard women shouting loudly. Something which if it were outside, I imagine we would hear, even a couple of rooms further back.

Nomadic interior. © Robert J.E. Simpson, 2014

Nomadic interior. © Robert J.E. Simpson, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

The rest of my time passes without incident. I leave just after 9.30, barely 90 minutes into the five hour investigation. Enough time to get a feel and a flavour and to whet my own appetite as well as answer some of my questions. I resolve to return on a future night.

My first ghost-hunting experience is an interesting and useful one. Its certainly easy to see how people might convince themselves of a mysterious presence on the ship simply through atmosphere alone. And if you’re someone that wants to believe anyway, that’s even more likely. I did suggest before I left, that once I was gone with my own equipment everything would start happening, and that seems to have born out with accounts of hearing pianos playing, and loud conversation of women and footsteps. Second time lucky?

If you’re interested in one of the NIPRA’s NOMADIC experiences, tickets are £35 each, and include a light supper.
For more information visit www.nipra.co.uk.
My thanks to Warren and the NIPRA team for being so accommodating.

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One Response to “First experiences: Ghost Hunting on the SS Nomadic”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Sherlock Holmes English-speaking Vernacular - January 13, 2015

    […] Material which I’ll have to use when I get the chance. You can read about the experiences ghosthunting onboard the Nomadic here; and there’s another piece about Belfast City Cemetery I’ll publish soon. The final […]

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