Monday, May 16, 2016
The Last Voyage of the Patanela
It is (relatively speaking) shockingly common for ships to vanish without a trace, but the disappearance of the Patanela has enough oddities about it to make the mystery somewhat unique.
On October 16, 1988, the Patanela, a very well-equipped, even luxurious yacht, set out from Fremantle, Australia for its intended destination of Airlie Beach, Queensland. The 62-foot schooner was carrying the owner, a businessman named Alan Nicol, skipper Ken Jones, and two passengers, Ken's wife Noreen and their daughter Ronnalee. The yacht was in excellent condition and well suited for long journeys. During its history, the Patanela had sailed around the world several times, and even made a voyage to Antarctica. Nicol had only owned the boat for a few months.
Also on board were two sailors, John Blissett and Michael Calvin. They had happened to see the Patanela when it was in the harbor at Fremantle, and so admired the yacht that they asked Nicol for a job. They were both trying to accumulate as many sailing hours as possible in order to get their navigational certificates. Nicol agreed, and took them on as crew.
Nicol only remained aboard for the first leg of the trip. At Esperance, he left the ship to attend to some business. For similar reasons, Ronnalee Jones also disembarked.
The Patanela and its four remaining occupants continued on its way, periodically radioing its position. The trip appeared to be completely placid and uneventful until November 8. At about 1 a.m., a radio operator at the Overseas Telecommunications Commission received a message from the yacht. Ken Jones reported that the ship was 10 miles east of Sydney's Botany Bay. He said they appeared to have run out of fuel. They intended to "tack out" for a couple of hours, then tack back in. He added that in the morning, they may need assistance to get back into Sydney harbor. Jones sounded calm and unconcerned. It was not uncommon for ships to run out of fuel, and the night was calm. Everything seemed routine.
At least, it seemed routine until Jones called a second time about an hour later. Still sounding untroubled, he asked for a weather report, saying that he didn't want to be too far out before coming into the harbor. Then--for reasons no one has been able to understand--he asked for directions to the town of Moruya, on the New South Wales coast. The radio operator replied that the town was about five hours away, and warned Jones that there was a wind warning in his area.
Shortly past 2 a.m., the operator received a third call from the Patanela. This time, there was so much static on the line that it was difficult to make out what Jones was saying. All that could be made out was the skipper saying "Three hundred kilometers south? Is it south? Is it? South..."
Then his voice faded away completely. Those enigmatic words were the last anyone heard of the Patanela.
At this point, no one at the OTC saw any particular reason for concern. It was quite normal for skippers to report that they would be entering the Sydney harbor, and then change their minds and sail elsewhere without bothering to inform the shore station. Everyone, including the Patanela's owner, assumed that Jones had just decided to sail straight for Airlie Beach. But as days went by with no word from the yacht, concern began to grow, especially when Jones' son Peter revealed that he had been unable to reach his father through ship-to-shore radio. November 18, the day when the Patanela had been scheduled to reach Airie Beach, came and went without any sign of the ship. A search was then launched, but by then it was far too late to be of any use. After such a long period of time, the yacht could have been virtually anywhere on--or under--the ocean. It could not even be confirmed that the yacht was truly anywhere near Sydney when Jones sent his last radio messages.
The mystery of the Patanela's whereabouts only deepened when Michael Calvin's father told reporters that three days before the yacht disappeared, he got an unsettling radio call from his son. Michael said only "Hello, Dad." Then the line suddenly went dead. It was also pointed out that the Patanela's large fuel tanks had been filled completely before it set sail, making it extremely unlikely that it could have run out of gas. Could Jones' message that the yacht was out of fuel have been made against his will? Or as a coded plea for help?
There was no evidence pointing to any collision. All 48 vessels known to have been in the area at the time were checked for damage, and none of them carried any sign that they had run into anything. The yacht was made of steel, with several watertight compartments, which made it exceptionally difficult to sink. Also, the yacht was equipped with an emergency radio beacon. If turned on, it could have been picked up by any passing aircraft. It would have beeped for 48 hours after being set off. There was no sign this signal was ever used. The suspicion quickly grew that the yacht was the victim of a hijacking, although that still did not answer the central question: Where was the Patanela?
Nothing more was heard about the yacht until May 9, 1989, when a fisherman off the coast of Terrigal (about thirty miles north of Sydney,) discovered a barnacle-covered lifebuoy. It bore the name "Patanela." Tests determined that the buoy could not have been in the water longer than a month, suggesting that the yacht was still afloat somewhere six months after it had disappeared.
Although--as is typical with any highly publicized disappearance--numerous "sightings" of the Patanela were reported around the globe, they all failed to lead investigators to the missing yacht. To date, it is anyone's guess what happened to the ship and its four inhabitants.
Predictably, there has been no shortage of theories. Was it accidentally sunk by a collision with a Russian spy submarine? Or by an uncharted reef? Was it hijacked by arms dealers, drug-runners, or other types of modern pirates?
The inquest into the disappearance failed to shed any light on the mystery. No evidence was found to support the idea that the Patanela had been hijacked. Although there was an equal lack of proof (other than the lifebuoy) that the yacht had sunk, officials could only propose that the Patanela was the victim of a maritime "hit-and-run": it had gone to the bottom of the ocean after colliding with a tanker or some equally large vessel. However, they admitted that this still did not explain the lack of any wreckage and the puzzling calls made by the skipper and Michael Calvin.
In 2008, there was one sad footnote to this story. A woman visiting a remote beach in West Australia found a bottle washed up on the shore. It contained a message the young crewman John Blissett had written aboard the Patanela on October 26, 1988--less than two weeks before the ship disappeared. It read, "Hi there. Out here in the lonely Southern Ocean and thought we would give away a free holiday in the Whitsunday Islands in north Queensland, Australia. Our ship is travelling from Fremantle, Western Aust, to Queensland to work as a charter vessel." The note gave a phone number for the finder to call and claim their prize.
The note closed with a lighthearted "See ya soon!"
To date, the fate of the Patanela still remains one of Australia's great sea mysteries.
[Note: The yacht's name only adds to the eerieness of this story. The name was chosen by the ship's original owner, Phil Waterworth, who assumed it was an Aboriginal word for a protective god. Then, in 1964, a group of scientists who were chartering the Patanela for an expedition did a little research and concluded that the name actually meant "Storm Spirit."
As it happened, they were all wrong. "Patanela," you see, is really another word for "Devil."]