Ships are usually declared lost and assumed wrecked after a period of disappearance. A ship’s disappearance usually meant that all the crew were lost too. Without witnesses or survivors, the mystery surrounding the fate of missing ships has inspired many items of nautical lore and the creation of paranormal zones such as the Bermuda Triangle. In many cases, a probable cause has been deduced, such as a known storm or warfare, but it could not be confirmed without witnesses or sufficient documentation. UNESCO estimates that 3 million sunken ships litter ocean bottoms worldwide, many of which date back thousands of years. According to UNESCO, some shipwrecks are well-documented or even deliberate (navies often purposefully scuttled ships to block entrances into ports or waterways). But others are veiled in mystery.
The Mary Celeste (see screenshot below from a video on the Smithsonian Channel, here called The True Story of the Mary Celeste, HERE) provides arguably the biggest mystery of all (see story below). Then there is the SS Cotopaxi. Lore has it that this steamship was swallowed by the infamous Bermuda Triangle after it, and all 32 crew members on board inexplicably vanished in 1925. But in the sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, aliens were shown as responsible for the ship’s disappearance. Nonsense: A team of divers has identified the ship and debunked the fictions, theories and conspiracies that emerged over the years. And unlike in Close Encounters, the ship wasn’t found in the Gobi Desert but rather 35 miles off St. Augustine in Florida. The story is here.
A few examples of maritime mysteries, listed below, are worth some attention:
- The Mary Celeste, a two-masted brigantine ship, didn’t disappear in 1872, but its crew and passengers did. Mary Celeste was built in Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia, and launched under British registration as Amazon in 1861. What happened 11 years later is unknown, yet it is described as ‘the greatest maritime mystery of all time’. She was a merchant ‘ghost’ ship spotted by a Canadian brigantine on 4th December 1872, unmanned, sailing off the Azores in seaworthy condition.The Mary Celeste’s finders determined she had already been at sea for a month and had over six months’ worth of food and water on board. The mysterious part was that her cargo was virtually untouched, and the personal belongings of passengers and crew were still in place, including valuables. The only things missing were the lifeboat, the captain’s logbook and, most importantly, the entire crew. Since pirate’s attacks could not be held responsible for such a phenomenon, theories of crew mutiny, waterspout killing, and consumption of poisonous food leading to madness came into being. British officials dismissed any suggestion of piracy or foul play as there were no signs of violence. One of the most prevalent and plausible theories to date suggests that the crew perished after embarking on a lifeboat, fearing the ship’s cargo may have been about to explode as they were transporting barrels of alcohol. All we have today are multiple theories about what happened to the 100ft brigantine.
- The USS Cyclops is perhaps the most famous of the early 20th century seafaring disappearances. She vanished sometime after 4th March 1918 with 309 men aboard. It remains the single largest loss of life in US Naval history which did not directly involve combat, though treason may have played its hand. USS Cyclops was a huge steel-hulled fuel ship tasked with carrying coal and other essential supplies for the US Navy. On her final journey, the Cyclops set sail from Rio de Janeiro, with a full load of 10,800 tons of manganese ore and over 300 people on board. Then it disappeared with its crew, without a trace.
- The SS Marine Sulphur Queen was originally a T2 tanker ship that was converted to carry molten sulphur. She disappeared off the coast of Florida, taking with her the lives of 39 crew members. The ship’s last voyage began on 2nd February 1963 out of Beaumont, Texas, with a cargo of sulphur weighing 15,260 tons. The ship itself weighed 7,240 GRT. Two days later, as it reached Florida, a regular radio message giving the ship’s position was sent out. By 6th February, there had been no news from the Sulphur Queen – and she was declared missing. After 19 days of searching, all that was left were some life preservers and debris, but no trace of the ship or the 39 men.
- In October of 1996, 16 people went missing after reporting that they were abandoning their sinking yacht, Intrepid, off Fort Pierce, Florida. The passengers of the 65-foot yacht sent out a MAYDAY call saying the ship was sinking and everyone on board was escaping on a life raft. The Coast Guard reported that seas in the area were rough, with waves up to seven feet high. Four aircraft searched all night and into the morning for the life raft. After searching 6,000 square miles, the search was called off. Intrepid and her 16 passengers were never found.
The Mental Floss website has a list of ships that disappeared without trace. This list was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019. Some of the ships mentioned are:
- On New Year’s Eve 1812, the schooner Patriot left South Carolina for New York. It is known that the ship left dock and sailed north, but what happened after that is a mystery. It never arrived in New York, and no trace of the ship or crew was ever found. After more than 200 years, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever know the real fate of the Patriot and those who were on board.
- The Andrea Gail was a 72-foot-long-liner boat that fished in the North Atlantic for swordfish. In September 1991, the ship and several other fishing vessels set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts, for the last fishing session of the season. By October, the Andrea Gail and its six-man crew passed the coast of Newfoundland when the confluence of terrible weather fronts conspired to create what has been dubbed “the perfect storm” with massively powerful winds whipping waves 100 feet high. The Andrea Gail failed to return to port after the worst of the storm had passed. Rescue missions were sent out, but nothing was ever found. The story of the storm and the imagined fate of the Andrea Gail and her crew was later told in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, as well as a Hollywood movie of the same name.
- In a 20-year career, the British Navy ship HMS Sappho worked to suppress the slave trade off the coast of West Africa. In 1857, after wrongly chasing down and boarding an American ship—an event that caused a diplomatic crisis between America and Great Britain—the ship was ordered to set sail to Australia. The Sappho reached Cape Town without incident, and from there, headed toward the Bass Strait, where it was last spotted by a passing brig on 18th February 1878. Bad weather was reported in the area, and it has been assumed that high winds caused the ship to founder and sink. No sign of the 147 crew members was ever found, but rumours abounded that the captain, Fairfax Moresby, had somehow escaped the wreck and made it to an island off Australia, where he was said to have become insane.
One lost ship not mentioned above is The Flying Dutchman. In maritime folklore, this ship has left the maximum impact like no other by inspiring numerous paintings, films, books, opera, etc., as a legendary ghost ship that was said never to be able to make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever aimlessly. Van der Decken, the captain, on its way towards East Indies, with sheer determination, tried to steer his ship through the adverse weather condition of the Cape of Good Hope but failed miserably even after vowing to drift until the doomsday.
Legend says the ghost ship and its crew were cursed to sail the oceans for eternity. To this day, hundreds of fisherman and sailors from deep-sea have claimed to have witnessed The Flying Dutchman continuing its never-ending voyage across the waters.
Picture Credit: Albert Pinkham Ryder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/18/Flying_Dutchman%2C_the.jpg
Many disappearances occurred before wireless telegraphy became available in the late 1890s, which would have allowed the crew to send a distress call. Sudden disasters such as military strikes, collisions, rogue waves, or piracy could also prevent a crew from sending a distress call and reporting a location. Among the many missing ships are submarines (see page 4), which have limited communication and provide the crew almost no chance of survival if struck by disaster underwater.
Most vessels currently listed as missing disappeared over a vast search area and deep water, and there is little commercial interest in searching for the vessels and salvaging the contents. Often the search and recovery costs are prohibitive even with today’s sonar and wrecking technologies and could not be compensated by salvaged valuables, even if there were any on board. The search for these types of missing vessels is usually motivated by historical, legal or actuarial interests requiring the aid of government funding.
The Baltic Sea Anomaly: Another Maritime Mystery
In 2011, a group of divers exploring the Baltic Sea floor with sonar stumbled across an object measuring 70-metre long (210 feet), laying 100 metres (300 feet) beneath the waves. The object, dubbed the Baltic Sea Anomaly, has sparked international interest due to its intriguing shape and location. The anomaly appears to have been handcrafted and made of metal and has an uncanny resemblance to the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, leading to many conspiracy theories about its origin. Some have suggested that the anomaly is a UFO, while others have suggested it is a formation from an underwater city buried beneath the waves.
In 2017, a team from Stockholm University studied the anomaly and found that it is a glacial formation deposit, probably left over from the Ice Age. You can see a video on YouTube about The Baltic Sea Anomaly. It’s available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JwNE0o83J4. Here’s a screen clip from the video:
British Submarine Losses
The Royal Navy’s Submarine Service was formed in October 1901, since when there have been 174 British submarine losses. The unfortunate HMS A1 was the first, foundering with the loss of all hands following a collision with the surface ship SS Berwick Castle on the 18th March 1904. During the following 67 years up to 1971, the Submarine Service of the Royal Navy would suffer losses in both World Wars and several peace-time accidents. The circumstances surrounding each loss vary, including those lost to enemy mines and those never fully explained. The question is often asked: “why are there so many conflicting dates for British wartime submarine losses?” The answer lies in the fact that the Admiralty used to take the date of the submarine was due to have returned to harbour as the date of loss – because the Admiralty had no information as to the cause or date of the loss of the submarine but only knew when a submarine failed to return after a war patrol. The ‘paying off’ date was therefore used for administration purposes. The crews were then listed in their personnel records as having been DD (discharged dead) on this date.
The Sinking of The Marie Rose
Despite decades of study, the reason for the sinking of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s favourite warship during the Battle of the Solent against the French on 19th July 1545, is still a mystery. But there are plenty of suggestions. There was only one confirmed eyewitness, a Flemish sailor who escaped from the sinking vessel: he claimed the Mary Rose had fired all of her guns on one side and was turning when her sails were caught in a strong gust of wind, pushing the still open gunports below the waterline. Other accounts agree that she was turning, but there could be many reasons why she sank during this manoeuvre. You can read about the more common suggestions HERE. Not too well known is that the Mary Rose had a sister ship, the Peter Pomegranate. Both ships were built in Portsmouth, making the sinking of the Mary Rose in the Solent and her eventual resting place in the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth all the more poignant.
The Mary Rose was largely inactive for the first five years of the 1530s. From January 1536 to March 1537, the Mary Rose could be seen in the Thames without her masts. Tensions were on the rise in Europe due to Henry VIII’s break from the Church of Rome. King Henry began reinforcing his warships, and the Mary Rose underwent a refit. Extra gunports were added, and the ship’s sides were strengthened to accommodate the extra weight.
Most written about is Mary Rose’s last battle, but rarely mentioned is her first – the Battle of Saint-Mathieu, some 33 years earlier. At that time, the War of the League of Cambrai was waging. Although this was mostly an Italian war, all the European Countries were taking sides, and England had allied itself with Spain, the Papal states and the Holy Roman Empire against an old foe: France. At the start of the war, Henry VIII had appointed Sir Edward Howard as Admiral of the newly enlarged English Fleet and allowed him to choose a flagship. Howard chose the Mary Rose.
Photo at Portsmouth of the remains of the Mary Rose and support structure in July 2019
Picture Attribution: Geni, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Mary_rose_2019_sideish.JPG
The Bermuda Triangle, also known as the Devil’s Triangle, is a loosely defined region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean where several ships and aircraft are said to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The idea of the area as uniquely prone to disappearances arose in the mid-20th century, but most reputable sources dismiss the idea that there is any mystery.
I should also mention the explosion of the USS Maine in this paper as it remains to this day an unexplained mystery. In 1898, the United States Navy battleship Maine exploded in Havana Bay, Cuba. A battleship commissioned only four years earlier, it was stationed in Havana Harbor to protect American interests during the Cuban War of Independence – done at the urging of the assistant secretary of the navy, the future President Theodore Roosevelt. In Maine’s mysterious explosion and sinking on 15th February 1898, 268 sailors perished.
Was it an act of war by the Spanish, jealous of American ambitions in Cuba over which their own control was slipping? Or was the explosion the result of the spontaneous combustion of fuel in Maine’s coal bunkers? American newspapers blamed the Spanish. The heightened atmosphere hastened the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898. This conflict saw the United States expand its territory in the former colonies of the Spanish empire, from Cuba to the Philippines.
Picture Credit: “Looking forward from the stern – USS Maine wreck – 1912” by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Finally, on Wikipedia, you can find a list of ships that went missing, organised by the marine region where the disappearance or sinking occurred or the closest country to the area. The year of the disappearance, last known location, and possible location of the wreck are included.
- The Mystery of Ghost Ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – The Franklin Expedition
- The Unexplained Mystery of the Sea Serpent
- The Baltic Sea Mystery of the Strange UFO Object
- Unexplained Mystery: The Devil’s Sea (The Dragon’s Triangle)
- Maritime Mysteries: And the Ghosts Who Surrounds Us by Bill Jessome
- Stories of the Sea: Great Maritime Mysteries and Adventures by W. W. Jacobs, Joseph Conrad, et al.
- Shadows on the Sea: The Maritime Mysteries Of Britain by Neil Arnold
- Titanic and the Mystery Ship by Senan Molony
- Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea by Paul Begg
- Shipwrecks, Smugglers, and Maritime Mysteries by Eugene D. Wheeler and Robert Kallman
- Icebound In The Arctic: The Mystery of Captain Francis Crozier and the Franklin Expedition by Michael Smith
- Source: LiveScience.com – https://www.livescience.com/60915-most-mysterious-shipwrecks.html ↑
- See: https://www.boaterexam.com/blog/2011/03/lost-at-sea.aspx ↑
- See: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/ ↑
- See: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/84242/7-ships-disappeared-without-trace ↑
- See: MarineInsight.com, HERE. ↑
- Read story about The Baltic Sea Anomaly at: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/11/06/maritime-mysteries/ ↑
- Source: National Museum of the Royal Navy at https://www.nmrn.org.uk/research/submarine-losses ↑
- Source: MaryRose.org at https://maryrose.org/about-the-mary-rose/ ↑
- See: MarieRose.org at https://maryrose.org/blog/historical/museum-blogger/the-first-battle-of-the-mary-rose/ ↑
- Source and acnowledgement: https://www.historyhit.com/maritime-mysteries/ ↑
- See: Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_missing_ships ↑