Since the day a caveman first pushed a dug-out log into the ocean only to sink fifty feet from the shore, sailors and civilizations have accepted that some ships will leave port and never return.
Sometimes, however, these “lost” ships are found again without their crew. While naval and police authorities can usually come up with a rough theory of what happened, there are still a few cases where no satisfactory explanation has ever been offered.
There’s no mystery surrounding the loss of the Baychimo. It became mired in pack ice off the coast of Alaska and the crew walked to safety after determining that the ship would never float again. The real mystery is that only a few days later the ship was seen again in a different part of the ocean by Inuit seal hunters.
'This motivated the crew to walk back and grab the most valuable furs from the cargo hold before again determining the ship was a write-off. This was in 1931, but the apparently unsinkable ship was seen over and over again for the next thirty-eight years.
Several times salvage crews would attempt to board her and steer her home, but all efforts were driven back by freak storms and encroaching ice floes.
The last confirmed sighting of the Baychimo was taken from the air in 1969, showing the seemingly immortal ship confined once again in heavy pack ice.
For the last six years, the Alaskan government has been trying to determine where the Baychimo might have finally come to rest—although researchers have not eliminated the possibility that the ship is still afloat.
THE SCHOONER JENNY
The Antarctic Circle has never been a safe or simple place to sail, and among the hundreds of tales of death and tragedy the story of the schooner Jenny is among the most disturbing.
On September 22, 1860, the crew of the whaler Hope sighted a battered ship emerging from a gap between two icebergs, seven men seemingly standing at attention on the main deck.
As the two ships drew nearer, the whaler’s crew saw that the men on deck were actually frozen solid, apparent victims of some freak storm that caught them in the open.
Boarding the schooner, the Hope’s Captain Brighton made his way to the master’s cabin, where he found the Jenny’s captain apparently in the middle of writing a log entry.
When the man failed to respond to conversation, Brighton discovered that he too was frozen stiff. The log’s final entry (“No food for 71 days. I am the only one left.”) was dated May 4, 1823, almost forty years prior.
The Zebrina was an anachronistic design, a three-masted sailing barge operating in the late years of World War I alongside oil-burning warships and early submarines.
Advances in the development of ship rigging allowed the 189-ton Zebrina to operate with only five sailors. She ran a fairly simple course between England and France, so when the ship was found aground south of Cherbourg in good condition but completely lacking a crew, naval authorities were at a loss.
The easy explanation was a U-boat attack. Common German practice was to allow merchant crews to board lifeboats or the U-boat itself before sinking the target with cannon fire, and it was assumed that a Royal Navy patrol had discovered and sunk the sub before it had the chance to destroy the Zebrina.
This ignored several facts, chief among them that the captain’s log was still aboard and U-boat captains always claimed such documents as proof of their claim. At the height of the war, Allied commanders had little time to investigate the mystery, and the barge was subsequently broken up. Post-war research never definitively put a U-boat along the Zebrina’s course.
THE TEIGNMOUTH ELECTRON
Donald Crowhurst was a talented inventor with severe money troubles, looking for ways to promote his “navicator” marine radio-navigation device. Like many people in dire financial straits, Crowhurst decided the answer lay in entering a one-man yacht race around the world, earning himself both prize money and free advertising.
Setting out in his trimaran the Teignmouth Electron, Crowhurst almost immediately ran into trouble—he had little experience sailing the open ocean, and the Electron’s semi-experimental design was difficult for even veteran yacht racers to handle.
A desperate Crowhurst decided to cheat by loitering in the south Atlantic falsifying logs and navigational records until everyone else had finished, then limp in at last place hoping nobody bothered to check a loser’s records that closely.
Unfortunately for Crowhurst, he hadn’t counted on everyone else in the race having just as much trouble. Out of nine contestants, six had retired and one wrecked as they approached the final leg of the journey, leaving Crowhurst in the position of finishing second or even first overall and subject to a detailed analysis of his logs.
Crowhurst ended radio communications on June the 29th and stopped writing his increasingly bizarre journal entries on July 1. The Teignmouth Electron was discovered adrift and abandoned nine days later.
HIGH AIM 6
The Taiwanese fishing ship Haian liuhao or High Aim 6 was found adrift in Australian waters in mid-January, full of fuel and provisions but lacking its Indonesian crew.
After being towed to Broome and beached for forensic examination, authorities in three countries slowly began to unravel a tale of mutiny and murder.
After Taiwanese authorities determined that the chief engineer’s cellphone was still in use after the discovery of the abandoned ship, Indonesian police tracked the signals to North Sulawesi, where a manhunt tracked down a single crewmember who confessed to the murder of the captain and engineer… but refused to say why.
The crewmember wouldn’t or couldn’t say what happened to his fellow mutineers. Australian investigators could find no trace of foul play or accident aboard the ship, and no more information was forthcoming from the Indonesian crewman (whose name was apparently never released).
Eventually, the High Aim 6 was broken up for scrap, and the mysterious deaths of two men and disappearance of eight others was accepted as part of doing business in the often murky waters of Oceania.
In April of 2007, a passing helicopter spotted a yacht drifting off the Great Barrier Reef with tattered sails and called in the sighting as a potential distress call.
When Queensland Emergency Management officials boarded the Kaz II two days later, they found a ship in near-perfect operating condition, with the engine still running, GPS and radio functioning perfectly, all three lifejackets still stowed, and a full meal set up at the dining table.
The Kaz II was found to be the property of Derek Batten, who had set out on a pleasure cruise with neighbors Peter and James Tunstead less than a week earlier, and a forensic investigation found nothing out of the ordinary other than a video recording taken shortly after they set out.
The footage helped establish the boat’s position at the time it was recorded but also contained an odd detail. The safety rails were rigged with fenders, foam bumpers used to prevent damage incurred by bumping into wharves (in harbor) or other ships (at sea).
The official conclusion was a plausible but complicated accident where one man fell off, another fell in trying to rescue him, and the third was knocked over by a swinging boom.
The families of the victims, however, focused on the fenders, arguing that the three men were too experienced to have all fallen prey to simple accident and that the fenders indicated they were expecting contact with another ship—possibly an unfriendly one.
THE “JIAN SENG”
Officially nameless and stateless, the dilapidated eighty-meter tanker found floating empty in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria was only found to be named Jian Seng after Australian Customs boarded the ship and sorted through its documents.
The boarding party found little else: the engines had seized up, much of the valuable electronics and gear had been stripped out, and the only thing in the vast hold was a huge amount of rice.
One of the largest derelicts ever found, the Jian Seng’s purpose is unknown. Although the rice led officials to believe that it was being used as a resupply and mother ship for seaborne criminals ranging from illegal fishing fleets operating in Australian waters to piracy and human smuggling operations.
The apparent age and bad condition of the ship showed that whatever the Jian Seng and its crew were up to, they had been getting away with it for quite a long time.
THE CARROLL A. DEERING
A weird and unhappy ship, the five-masted schooner Carroll A. Deering was only a year old when it set out on its final voyage. At the time the only thing unusual about the ship (other than its size and multitude of sails) was the tension between its aging captain and its authoritarian first mate.
Arguments over navigation and proper crew discipline had reached a point where the captain had his first officer briefly arrested. The issue seemed to be settled when the ship left Barbados, but when she hailed the Cape Lookout lightship three weeks later neither captain nor first mate were in evidence.
The keeper reported being hailed by a man with a foreign accent, and that crew were seen “milling around” on the foredeck where they were customarily forbidden.
The foreigner (possibly one of the deckhands, who were mostly Danish immigrants) reported the loss of the ship’s anchors before drifting away, and that was the last anybody saw of the Deering’s crew: the ship itself was found a few days later run aground on Diamond Shoals, missing two lifeboats, the captain’s log, and the crew’s personal effects.
Five different departments of the American government (Commerce, Treasury, Justice, Navy, and even the State Department) launched investigations, each with their own theories that ranged from simple mutiny to piracy to rogue waves and even to a Communist plot.
An earlier raid on a Workers Party group in New York had supposedly turned up plans to capture American shipping vessels and sail them to Russia. No official conclusion has ever been reached on the case of the Carroll A. Deering, and no trace of its crew has ever been found.
THE MARY CELESTE
With a history of minor accidents, crew illnesses, and embarrassing mishaps, the brigantine Mary Celeste was considered by superstitious sailors to be an unlucky ship.
Said sailors were apparently proven correct when the ship was found adrift and unmanned in the middle of the Atlantic some six hundred miles from the nearest port.
Investigators found nothing awry (and contrary to popular belief, the boarding party didn’t discover untouched and still-warm meals when they entered the galley) except for slight damage to the sails and pumps and the loss or destruction of much of the ship’s navigational equipment and documentation.
The ship’s only lifeboat was gone, but nobody could think of a scenario where the crew would willingly leave the ship weeks away from any friendly port. Allegations of piracy were made by the American government against the British crew who had recovered the ship, but the Mary Celeste was still carrying every barrel of its lucrative cargo of alcohol when it was steered into Gibraltar… except nine barrels were mysteriously empty.
Modern explanations have fixed on these nine barrels, suggesting that the porous wood allowed the alcohol inside to evaporate and fill the hold with noxious and explosive vapors.
Were the crew overwhelmed by the fumes, or did they evacuate in a panic fearing explosion and fire? Whatever happened apparently didn’t leave enough time for the captain to mention it in his still-intact (but frustratingly unilluminating) log book.
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THE BOUVET ISLAND ROWBOAT
Bouvet Island has the distinction of being one of the most isolated places on Earth: the closest land of any kind is the uninhabited coast of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica, and that’s a full 1100 miles away.
It is on no shipping routes, contains no interesting or precious resources, and its sole purpose today is to host a weather station on one of the few patches of ground where boats can land.
It was in 1964 when the British and South African governments went to establish that weather station that they found one of the strangest abandoned ship mysteries of the modern age. A single twenty-foot boat, described as “a lifeboat or whaler,” together with a single pair of oars, a forty-four gallon drum, and a “copper flotation or buoyancy tank” that had been cut open for some reason.
No human remains or traces of habitation could be found, and the officers had almost no time to properly investigate the site—the hellish weather and aggressive wildlife left them with only 45 minutes to determine whether the area was suitable for establishing a weather station.
The weather only worsened when the crew returned to their ships, forcing the expedition to abort and return to Cape Town; when a follow-up expedition returned two years later, there was no trace of the boat or the damaged equipment.