Mysterious Vanishings on the High Seas

The oceans of the world are mysterious, hungry places, ofttimes more akin to some misunderstood prehistoric animal than a geographic feature. They are unpredictable, powerful beasts that seem to be as ravenous and insatiable as they are untamed. As long as we have gone out amongst their waves we have also gone out to disappear into the unknown vastness of it all. Considering the far spanning expanses of the seas and their myriad mysteries, perhaps it is no surprise that some of the most curious strange vanishings have occurred upon their dark waters, many of which have never been solved and indeed most likely never will. For we are only visitors to their realm, and have no guarantee of being allowed back.

One such disappearance involving a rather famous person at the time was the vanishing of the American passenger schooner Patriot in 1812, along with Theodosia Burr Alston, who was the daughter of the third vice president of the United States Aaron Burr. Born and raised in wealthy splendor and a life of privilege, Theodosia nevertheless had some hard times in her life. After the birth of her beloved son, Aaron Burr Alston, she experienced a sharp decline in mental and physical health, which only got worse when the boy passed away of a severe fever in June of 1812. Theodosia had deeply loved her son, and his death left her in a state of profound mental collapse, her mind a now a void which could not recover from the shock. Looking to try and find a change of scenery to help her overcome her grief and escalating health problems, Theodora decided to embark on a sea voyage to visit her father in New York.

On New Year’s Eve, 1812, ate the age of 29, Theodosia boarded the Patriot in South Carolina for the journey northward along the coast to New York. However, the ship never did arrive at its destination. Considering Theodosia’s social standing and connections, an extensive search of the region was launched but it found not a single trace of Theodosia, the Patriot, or any of its crew or passengers. They had seemed to have simply sailed off the face of the earth, and it is a mysterious disappearance at sea that captivates to this day, spawning numerous theories as to what might have become of the ill-fated vessel, ranging from the mundane to the decidedly weird.

Theodosia Burr Alston

Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the ship was simply the collateral victim of some sort of military action due to the War of 1812, which was raging in the Atlantic between the United States and the British at the time, or that the vessel was lost in a severe storm. It also seems somewhat likely that they could have fallen prey to the many pirates that were known to operate in the region at the time, not only at sea, but also from land, from where so-called “land pirates” would attack and plunder ships that ventured too close to shore, often after being intentionally lured in. In cases of pirate attacks, it typically did not bode well for anyone aboard the targeted vessel, with most passengers and crew being taken captive or killed.

Some strange clues have turned up concerning the fate of Theodosia. There was a man who in 1910 claimed that he had found the body of a woman washed ashore on the coast of South Carolina on the first day of 1813 who matched her description. There is also the claim of a 19th century doctor who reported that he had been called to treat an elderly lady who paid him not with money, but rather with an oil portrait of Theodosia. Could the elderly woman have been her and she had somehow survived? Who knows? A Native American chief of the Karankawa tribe, who inhabited the Gulf Coast of Texas, once claimed to have in his possession a locket with the word “Theodosia” etched upon it, which he said he had received from a woman he had found dying by the seaside in exchange for his trying to help her. These are all interesting stories, but the fact is that they are unverified, and we will probably never know exactly what happened to the Patriot and Theodosia.

Another American vessel that vanished without a trace in the 1800s was the USS Porpoise, which was a 224-ton Dolphin class brigantine launched in 1836. The USS Porpoise had a long and illustrious career that spanned a wide range of missions, including hunting pirates up and down the East Coast, conducting coastal surveying operations, engaging in charting vast portions of the South Pacific, tracking down slavers on the west coast of Africa, participating in Naval operations during the war with Mexico, and taking part in various exploratory expeditions all over the world, one of which saw it circumnavigate the globe. The ship is perhaps most famous for its role in the voyage with the United States Exploring Expedition Squadron that would confirm the existence of Antarctica in 1838.

USS Porpoise

In 1854, the USS Porpoise was engaged the North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition, under Commander Cadwalader Ringgold, with the aim of charting and surveying the South Pacific islands. They had already managed to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, and they had made good progress in exploring and charting an array of Polynesian islands, after which they had moved on to port at Hong Kong. From there, the expedition set out once again to chart and survey the Bonins, the Ladrones, and the Marianas islands.

At some point between China and Taiwan, then called Formosa, the USS Porpoise was separated from the rest of the group when it entered a thick fog. It would never be heard from again. It is thought that perhaps the vessel had been the victim of a typhoon that hit several days after its separation from the others, but it seems odd that this ship, which had an experienced crew and was battle tested and had been all over the world to far flung, often hostile lands, should become so hopelessly lost in the intervening time. To this day no one knows what happened to this seasoned crew and its respected, world travelling ship after they entered that mysterious, dense fog.

Americans were certainly not the only ones to have ships mysteriously vanish on them during this era. Over a career spanning two decades starting from 1837, the British Royal Navy brig called HMS Sappho was tasked with the suppression of slavery in North America, the West Indies, and Africa, tracking down and neutralizing the numerous slave ships that passed through these regions. In 1857, the heavily armed vessel was engaged in operations off the West African coast when it would become embroiled with an incident that it would become most famous for at the time; the chasing down and detainment of an American vessel called the Panchita in the Congo River, which had been suspected of being a slave ship. The ship was brought to New York under arrest, but the crew of the HMS Sappo was accused of unlawful seizure and were themselves arrested.

HMS Sappho engaging another vessel

The whole affair became somewhat of a diplomatic incident that strained relations between the two countries, and HMS Sappo was subsequently later ordered to set sail for Australia in order to try and give the ship a low profile, sweep the whole incident away, and put it out of the public eye in a place where it would not be able to do as much damage. The ship departed from the Cape of Good Hope for Sydney under the command of Commander Fairfax Moresby, and it is known that the ship successfully made it around the cape and managed to make it to Victoria, in southeast Australia, as it was spotted by the brig the Yarra entering the Bass Strait, which passes between Tasmania and the mainland. However, this would be the last time anyone would ever see HMS Sappho again. The ship never arrived in Sydney, and searches were unable to find any sign of it or its 147 crew, making it one of Australia’s more notable maritime mysteries.

Although it was mostly thought that the vessel must have sunk due to high winds or hitting rocks or an islet, the lack of any wreckage or sign of it make this uncertain. Additionally, in the years after the disappearance of HMS Sappo, a few odd reports would turn up claiming that the ship had actually wrecked off a deserted island off Australia, that the crew had managed to make it to its shore, and that Captain Moresby had gone stark raving mad there by the time they were rescued. It is all a very dramatic story, but there is no evidence of these unsubstantiated reports, and it has been suspected that these were perhaps even complete fictions conjured up by a sensationalist media still trying to milk some mileage out of the diplomatic scandal that HMS Sappho had been tangled up in. Nevertheless, residents of the townships at Wye River and Kennett River, in Victoria state to this day claim that they are descended from the survivors of a wrecked ship thought to possibly have been HMS Sappho. It is unlikely we will ever know for sure what happened to this ship, and it remains a persistent mystery.

The 1900s brought another rather well-known case, that of the hulking steel-hulled American Naval warship the USS Cyclops. The massive behemoth of a ship was primarily tasked with shipping bulk cargo of various supplies and raw materials for the Navy in the early 1900s, such as coal to be used as fuel. On 9 January 1918, the USS Cyclops lumbered into port at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, after delivering 9,960 tons of coal to allied British ships in the South Atlantic, after which it was loaded up with 11,000 tons of manganese ore to be used for the production of munitions and destined for Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States, with a stop off at Salvador along the way. After this the ship was supposed to head directly to Baltimore, and this is where things began to get strange.

USS Cyclops

Instead of going straight to Baltimore as scheduled, the USS Cyclops deviated from its course to end up in Barbados in March of 1918. This was not a scheduled stop, well off course in fact, and it was reported that the deviation had occurred because they were overloaded with cargo. However, an inspection of the vessel showed that it was in perfect order, that she was not overloaded as feared, and that all of the cargo was safely secured and nonthreatening. The USS Cyclops then departed for its final destination of Baltimore on March 4, 1918, to go on and apparently vanish from the face of the earth, with the last known sighting of the vessel allegedly made on March 9 off the coast of Virginia by the molasses tanker the Amolco, although this sighting has been disputed as this date and location does not match up with where the ship would be expected to be considering its scheduled arrival at its destination on March 13th.

Regardless, the fact of the matter is that the massive USS Cyclops never made it to its destination of Baltimore, and no trace of it, or even a scrap of debris or wreckage was ever found even after the area was thoroughly scoured by search ships and aircraft. The loss of the 306 crew members who had been aboard was, and is to this day, considered to be the largest noncombat loss of life in U.S. Naval history, and the vessel’s vanishing has become a great maritime mystery which has been pondered and speculated on ever since.

With no clues to really go on, this speculation has run all over the place. Perhaps the most rational explanation is that a series of unfortunate factors led to the ship’s doom. It was known that the USS Cyclops had been having engine difficulties at the time due to the fact that one of its cylinders had been reported as having a crack in it, which would have reduced its overall seaworthiness and speed. On top of this, although the inspection at Barbados had been all clear, the ship is suspected to have taken on even more cargo and left overloaded after all, a problem only exacerbated by the fact that the USS Cyclops had no prior experience shipping ore, which was denser and more volatile than its usual cargo. Additionally, it was suspected that the vessel had suffered extensive cumulative hull damage over the years due to a coal fire, shifting cargo, and the corrosive nature of its cargo.

It has been surmised that these factors could have all conspired with a bout of foul weather to bring the steel beast down. The problem with this theory was that the vessel had not once issued a distress call, and the only bad weather capable of potentially sinking the ship or causing it any problem at all along its scheduled route occurred with a typhoon off of Virginia a day after the Amolco sighting, but with a bad engine and overloaded state it is considered unlikely the USS Cyclops could have made it that far by that date. Another theory is that the ship was sunk by German forces, but again there was no distress call, and furthermore the German government at the time insisted that they had not attacked the vessel, and to this day has adamantly denied any involvement in the disappearance. Of course it has not been lost on many that the USS Cyclops happened to have disappeared in the notorious area known as the Bermuda Triangle, which opens up all sorts of less conventional explanations such as UFOs, inter-dimensional portals, and sea monsters. However, the disappearance has never been solved and no scrap of the ship ever found. For their part, the U.S. Navy has said of the matter of the vanished USS Cyclops: “Many theories have been advanced, but none that satisfactorily accounts for her disappearance.”

The USS Cyclops is of course not the only vanished vessel that has been last seen in the Bermuda Triangle, and another mysterious disappearance in the region concerns the T2 tanker called the SS Marine Sulphur Queen. Originally built to haul oil, the gigantic, 504-foot, 7,240-ton tanker had been extensively converted for the purpose of carrying molten sulphur, and on February 2, 1963 it was carrying a super heated cargo of around 15,260 tons out of Beaumont, Texas, on its way to Norfolk, Virginia, along with 39 crew members. On February 4, the ship made a routine transmission giving their position, which was given as being around 200 miles off Key West, Florida, and this would be the last time anyone would hear from the doomed vessel ever again.

When February 6 came and there had been no further communication from the Marine Sulphur Queen, authorities and the family of those aboard became concerned. The vessel was declared missing and an air and sea search was launched involving the Coast Guard, the Navy, and the Marines, that would go on for 19 days combing the entirety of the ship’s route and 30 miles to each side, covering a total of a staggering 348,400 square miles of open sea, but nothing at the times was found except for some life preservers and a small amount of debris about 12 miles southwest of Key West from the ship, consisting of two name boards, a shirt, a piece of oar, an oil can, a gasoline can, a cone buoy, and a fog horn. Searchers immediately converged on the area and searched a further 60,000 square miles all up and down the Florida coast, with Navy divers extensively searching for a wreck, but nothing more was discovered during this second search.

The Marine Sulphur Queen

An in depth investigation was undertaken, and interestingly when the debris was analyzed, two of the life jackets held evidence of being damaged by “predatory fish” but no sign of being damaged by an explosion or heat. It was also found that the area had experienced severe weather at the time of the vanishing, and that the heated sulphur tanks were often known to experience fires around them, but that these blazes, although sounding frightening, were considered to be fairly routine by the crew. Also discovered was that the ship had had some structural problems, such as a keel that had become rather weak due to corrosion, which it had been scheduled to get maintenance work done on. This led to the official conclusion that it had likely broken up in the bad weather and sunk out at sea. Other theories were proposed as well, such as that there had been a mutiny, or an explosion had torn the ship apart, but no one knew for sure, and the Coast Guard would conclude at the end of its investigation:

In view of the absence of any survivors and the physical remains of the vessel, the exact cause for the disappearance of the…Sulphur Queen could not be ascertained.

In later years there has been a promising find, when in 2001 a wreck was found in the Gulf 140 miles out from Ft. Myers, Florida and sitting upside down in 423 feet of water which is thought to perhaps be the missing ship, but it is not known for sure. The disappearance of the SS Marine Sulphur Queen quickly became latched onto by Bermuda Triangle conspiracists, and even now it is often mentioned in the same breath as the mysterious region, along with all of the more bizarre theories that entails. For its part, the Coast Guard has eschewed such paranormal explanations, at one point stating:

The Coast Guard is not impressed with supernatural explanations of disasters at sea. It has been [its] experience that the combined forces of nature and unpredictability of mankind outdo even the most far-fetched science fiction.

Yet another mysterious disappearance in the region is the vanishing of a luxury yacht known as the Witchcraft. The boat was a 23-foot yacht that had been fitted with special flotation devices to give it the claim of being “unsinkable.” On December 22, 1967, an avid and experienced yachtsman by the name of Dan Burack embarked on a cruise aboard the yacht off of Miami, Florida, along with his friend Father Patrick Horgan, in order to see the Christmas illumination along the coast. When the departed they were doubtlessly not expecting any trouble, as the weather was calm, and after all their boat was supposed to be unsinkable, but things would soon take a turn for the weird.

Just 1 mile out from the marina the yacht allegedly bumped into something unidentified in the water, which Burack suspected had bent the ship’s rudder. He called the Miami Coast Guard at approximately 9PM and explained the situation, yet at this time he was rather calm and composed, and did not seem to think that it was an emergency situation. Burack calmly explained that he had hit something in the water and requested assistance back to the marina, and there was no reason at all to suspect that anything was particularly wrong. Indeed, later reports from the Coast Guard would repeatedly emphasize Burack’s composed demeanor during the call.

It took only 19 minutes for a Coast Guard ship to reach the position of the Witchcraft, yet when they arrived there was no sign at all of the yacht or the two men aboard. A search immediately commenced that would quickly grow to meticulously scour an impressive total area of 24,500 square miles over 6 days, involving hundreds of boats and aircraft that looked as far as the Gulf Stream. Throughout all of this, not a single piece of debris was discovered, no emergency flares were sighted even though Burack had a flare gun aboard, and none of the ample safety flotation equipment that had been stowed aboard was found. Likewise there was never any further communication from the lost ship, and the Coast Guard was baffled at how fast the Witchcraft had so abruptly and completely disappeared in such a short time. It was also perplexing because the weather had not been stormy at all, the sea serene, and even if the “unsinkable” ship had been damaged somehow, its special flotation devices should have ensured that at least some of the wreckage would stay afloat. However, nothing at all was ever found, and the Coast Guard would say of the Witchcraft and its crew, ”They are presumed missing, but not lost at sea”.

The extremely odd, total disappearance of the Witchcraft has propelled the case into the annals of great sea mysteries, and it is often listed as one of the more baffling disappearances attributed to the Bermuda Triangle. Theories of course have cropped up around the case, such as that it was caught up in a sudden, short-lived squall or had been the victim of a rogue wave or freak ocean current, with one of the more outlandish being that the yacht had in fact bumped into some immense sea monster that had subsequently attacked and pulled it down to a watery doom. Considering no sign or trace of the Witchcraft or its crew have ever been found, we will likely never know for sure.

These are just a few of the countless cases in which the ocean has pulled unfortunate souls into its maw to swallow them up without a trace. In most of these disappearances there is very little, if anything, left behind to give us any clue as to what has happened to these people. It is as if they have been erased from existence, overpowered and vanished by forces beyond our control no matter how well equipped, large, or formidable the vessel was. What happened to these ships and their occupants? What was their final fate? It is likely that the seas will keep these secrets to themselves, divulging nothing even as they lie in wait for more victims, forever untamed by the forces of man and keeping us in their thrall. As long as we venture out among these watery expanses the sea will always keep some of us for itself, just as ravenous, mysterious, and ferocious as it has ever been.