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The Strange Ghost Ship Mystery of the SV Resolven

On August 29, 1884, a large merchant brig was spotted listless and abandoned in the grey, wind-lashed sea between Baccalieu Island and Catalina, at the northern point of Conception Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The ship was found by the Royal Navy gunboat HMS Mallard, which approached it to see that it was a ship called SV Resolven, which was a Welsh merchant vessel captained by John James, and which operated carrying cargo between Aberystwyth, Wales, and Canada. It was immediately apparent that the ship was not under any intelligent control, adrift and at the whim of the sea, and the decks were completely abandoned. After some efforts to make contact with anyone there, it was decided to board the vessel. From here things would get strange, indeed, launching a true unsolved ghost ship mystery of the high seas.

Upon boarding the aimlessly drifting ship, it soon became obvious that no one at all was there. There was no sign of the captain or crew, the whole of it completely abandoned, although the cargo was still in the hold. This was odd, as there could be found no sign of any damage or fire, nothing that could explain why they would want to leave their ship and its cargo behind. Making it even stranger was that the galley still had a fire lit, the lamps were burning, and food was set out on the table as if some would return at any moment. The logbook was found intact, and the last entry was a completely routine message left approximately 6 hours before the HMS Mallard had arrived. A lifeboat was found missing, but no one could figure out why anyone would possibly want to leave the ship. The best they could come up with was that an iceberg nearby had caused them to panic, but it wasn’t an immediate threat, certainly not to the point that such an extreme measure of abandoning ship was necessary. Especially odd was that wherever the crew had gone, they seemed to have taken nothing with them. Indeed, the only thing missing was a good number of gold coins that the captain had with him. Had this perhaps been an act of piracy? If so, why take only the gold coins and leave everything else? No one had a clue.

The SV Resolven was towed to port the port of Catalina, where it would eventually be refitted and pushed back out into service, but as to where its original crew and captain had gone, no one knew. It was as if they had just vanished into thin air. This was where the mystery would stay for years, with the SV Resolven gaining the nickname of the “Ghost ship of Trinity Bay” and “The Welsh Mary Celeste,” after the more famous case of a legendary mysteriously abandoned vessel. There were no new clues as to what had happened to the crew and captain of the ghost ship, no leads as to why they had suddenly abandoned the vessel in the middle of a meal. Nothing. It would not be until 2015 when by chance a woman from Newfoundland by the name of Daisy Bailey came across the website of researcher Will Wain, the great grandson of Captain John James, who had spent years investigating the strange case in an attempt to find answers. Her story would add a compelling possible clue, something he had spent a decade trying to find to no avail.

Bailey had by chance read about the tale on Wain’s site, and it brought to memory a story that had been passed down in her own family. It turned out that not long after the discovery of the abandoned SV Resolven, her grandfather and his older brother had been out on the gray coast of a remote island called Random Island, in Trinity Bay. There they had allegedly found a body sitting beneath a tree on top of a hill, as if looking out over the sea. The body had been dressed in a captain’s uniform, and had had on it a white gold watch. There was no identification found, but the discovery of this mystery man in the captain’s uniform would have coincided with the same general time frame as the SV Resolven mystery. Bailey explained that the two men had not reported the discovery at the time, and also that they had seemingly come into a good amount of wealth at the same time, perhaps because they had also found the missing gold coins. Wain would say of this:

Like me, this story had been passed down through various generations of her own family. She also told me that one of the pair who supposedly discovered my great-grandfather suddenly became richer than the rest of the community not long afterwards. And, when he died, his widow – whose mind had started to go – began spending what appeared to be a long-hidden trove of gold sovereigns. It was probably about £300 worth in total – a hell of a lot of money back in those days.

Wain was so excited by the prospect of potentially finally having some sort of answer that he immediately made arrangements to meet up with Bailey and take a trip out to the spot where the body had supposedly been found. Rough weather stopped him from making the journey out to the island at the time, but he has stated that he plans to try again, although the body is long gone, supposedly buried at an unmarked grave in an unnamed fishing village. It is unknown if the body found was truly that of Captain John James, but Wain seems to be convinced it was, and he aims to locate the body, have it DNA tested, and if it really is James give him a decent burial. As to what actually happened to the SV Resolven and why James would have ended up dead on that hill, Wain has said:

What did him in in the end is anybody’s guess – maybe he starved, died of an injury or froze to death. It’s likely I’ll never know all the details, but I’ve already heard plenty of theories about what the chain of events might have been that lead him to that place. There’s one which supposes the brig ran aground on an iceberg, which isn’t as unlikely as it may sound in that part of the world, even in August. It’s also been suggested that the ship was abandoned before it hit anything – there was, after all, a lot of money on board. The Resolven could have been a target for pirates, or some of those on board could have plotted a mutiny. Apparently, I’ve heard it said that, in addition to the usual crew of about eight, there had been four local men on deck who’d asked to hitch a ride around the coast. So, if it had been an inside job, I’d say it’s a safe bet they’d had something to do with it.

Myriad questions orbit this case. What happened to this ship and its crew? Why did they abandon it so suddenly? Was this pirates, a mutiny, an iceberg panic, or what? Was that really the body of the captain found on that lonely island, and if so how did he end up there and how did he die? What happened to the rest of the crew and what happened to the treasure that was aboard? There are no answers forthcoming, and whatever the case may be, as far as anyone knows, the crew of the SV Resolven has never been seen again, their fates perhaps forever lost to time.