Join Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions! Subscribe Today!

The Mysterious Boat at the Edge of the World

There are places in our world that lie well beyond the confines of civilization, existing out past our cities and over the horizon mostly away from human eyes. These are the locales that barely know the touch of human beings at all, uncharted wildernesses that have remained the same over the eons and which seem to almost not want us there at all. Out among these remote places on the edge of our known world are often mysteries and enigmas that defy our attempts to understand them as surely as they defy human encroachment, and one of these is a mysterious boat, left forlorn and unexplained in one of the most rugged, least explored places on the planet.

Way down at the southernmost end of the world, right there in the midst of one of the most inhospitable and remote places on Earth is the remote sub-antarctic Bouvet Island, lying approximately 1,700 kilometers (1,100 mi) north of the Princess Astrid Coast of Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. An uninhabited, wind ravaged, frigid slash of volcanic rock shrouded in fog, it looks to be the surface of some alien world, forbidding and aggressive towards all who come here. Yet come here people have. Discovered in 1739 by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier, there have been sporadic excursions to this otherworldly storm-beaten land of snow and wind over the centuries, and for a time it was an almost mythical land that many could not even locate at all, eluding many explorers and placed wrongly on maps all the way up until 1808, its location not really even fully known or properly set on nautical charts until 1898.

Bouvet Island

What early explorers found when they came here was a storm-wracked expanse of rocks and imposing cliffs, around 19 sq. miles in area, sitting among the grey churning sea from which it emerged like some ancient god to tower over the waves. Indeed, so unforgiving were the conditions here and so unwelcoming was it to approach, with its cliffs, rocks, perpetual storms, and lack of any landing points, that is was largely seen as impossible to even land here at all, forcing those who found it to merely observe it from afar like some snarling, dangerous beast. It was due to this aggressive nature that Bouvet Island was not even officially set foot upon by human beings until 1927, when the Norwegian survey vessel Norvegia managed to land here and its crew, led by Harald Horntvedt, was able to successfully penetrate inland. It was at this time that this fierce land was claimed for Norway and christened Bouvetøya, although it had also been claimed by the British in 1825 and called Liverpool Island. The expedition did not stay long, and after leaving behind a hut and some supplies they left this alien land behind.

In 1930 the island was conceded by the British to Norway, and it would not be until 1955 that there was any further real effort to make another such journey, when the South African vessel Transvaal visited with the intention of scouting it as a possible location for a weather station. Then, in 1958 it was found by the American vessel Westwind that volcanic activity had created a previously unseen expanse of rocky land free of ice measuring around 400 yards long by 200 yards wide, which was named Nyrøysa, the Norwegian word for “new mound.” The next expedition would not be until 1964, when the South African ship R.S.A. and the British Royal Navy’s Antarctic ice vessel HMS Protector arrived to fearsome weather, yet they managed to finally drop a survey team, led by Lieutenant Commander Allan Crawford, onto Nyrøysa by helicopter. It was during this excursion that they would find something rather anomalous indeed.

As they picked through the rocky landscape the team came across a shallow lagoon in the center of which sat a half-sunken abandoned boat described as a “whaler or ship’s lifeboat,” yet there was no sign of any crew other than some scattered equipment on shore, and no one had any idea of where it could have possibly come from or how it had ended up there. There were no markings on the vessel, nothing to even indicate what nationality it was, and a search of the surrounding terrain showed no trace of anyone having been stranded or of any fire or camp. Oddly, there was found to be a copper flotation device that had been unfurled and made flat for reasons unknown. The ship was obviously from a larger vessel, having no motor, nor mast or sails, and only a single pair of oars, but there was no sign of any larger ship either, and furthermore this was over a thousand miles from any known trade route. It was just this mysterious boat sitting out there in the middle of nowhere in the most inhospitable place on earth.

An early expedition to Bouvet Island

At the time they were unable to do much investigation of the enigmatic boat, as the weather was harsh and they were surrounded by a colony of aggressive elephant seals that kept them from getting too close. They went about collecting some rock samples and mapping the area before getting on their way, the thought of where the boat had come from and where its missing crew had gone weighing heavily on their mind. Strangely, it seems as though this boat would sort of vanish after this, with an expedition in 1966 to the very same area making no mention of it, despite the fact that the lagoon in question was thoroughly surveyed.

It is odd in the fact that the strange boat of Bouvet Island hasn’t really ever been mentioned at all outside of Crawford’s journal, leaving the whole thing cloaked in mystery. Where did this boat come from and where did it go? There have been quite a few theories on the odd discovery over the years. Considering that there were no human remains found or any sign of a campsite in the immediate vicinity, it is thought that perhaps this boat had washed ashore in the stormy seas and its crew later rescued to leave their craft behind, or that they had gone off to die somewhere inland, but why would they risk the treacherous terrain and leave the relative safety of where they were? They could have also come from a shipwreck, but we are still left with the question of why any ship would have been anywhere near the island in the first place, or how the lifeboat would have been able to traverse the rough seas at all.

Another idea that has been put forward is that there was never any crew on it to begin with, and that it was a derelict that just happened to wash ashore here. However, there was found some equipment from a crew on shore, and since the boat itself was undamaged it seems unlikely it would have just happened to have floated into the lagoon unguided without being smashed against the many cliffs and jagged rocks. There is also the idea that the boat might have intentionally gone there from some passing vessel on an excursion, after which the boat was abandoned, or that a landing crew had come ashore in two boats and left in one, but why would they do this? Why leave a perfectly good boat behind? Indeed, why would they have even risked navigating their way into the lagoon in the first place and why had they hammered out that flotation tank? Was there some sort of emergency that occurred and if so what? No one knows.

The mysterious lifeboat

Making it all even more mysterious is that there doesn’t seem to be any known record of a larger vessel passing the area between the years of 1955 and 1964, which is when the boat would have appeared there, and no known record of any shipwreck either. It is possible that some record exists somewhere, but it appears to be a daunting task to find it, akin to a needle in a haystack. Historical researcher Mike Dash, from the excellent site A Blast From the Past, says of this conundrum:

Plainly more research is needed if we are to grope towards the right solution. Most of the materials do exist, but they require work; there are directories, for instance, of all the known shipwrecks and marine disasters that occurred during the years 1955-64. But these books, when consulted, turn out to be most unhelpfully organized – alphabetically, by name of ship, without any system of cross-referencing by date or place. This means that the only way of locating a likely wreck is to read through the whole of three large volumes, all the way from A to Z. [Hocking; Hooke]  Thanks to this hopeless limitation – and my own ingrained unwillingness to devote a couple of days to ploughing through about 800 pages of close type in search of something that is very possibly not there – the most that I can say, after going through the business end of just one of the three volumes, is that any shipwreck capable of leaving a party of men struggling across the Southern Ocean in a lifeboat must have taken place before the end of 1962. None of the wrecks that occurred between January 1963 and March 1964 remotely fits the bill.

In recent days it has been suspected that the mysterious lifeboat could have come from a Russian expedition to the area in the 1950s. In 1958 the Slava Antarctic whaling fleet passed by and the vessels the Slava and the Ivan Nosenko allegedly managed to set up two shore stations on the island. Considering this operation was very hush hush at the time, it makes sense considering the time frame that one of their boats might have been left behind, after which the elements could have stripped it of any identifying markings. However, there is little evidence to prove that they ever really even went ashore and no information on what they were up to at Bouvet Island in the first place, leaving this theory part of the limbo of speculation in which this case seems doomed to linger. In the end we are left with this strange passing discovery that has never been followed up on or satisfactorily explained, and it is likely the only ones who will ever know are the crew itself and perhaps the elephant seals, its fate frozen in time and the landscape itself.