Far out at sea is an uncanny place to be. There is no land in sight, and the curve of the earth is very apparent. Wherever you are you feel you are on top of the world, sliding on top of a huge dome. How many have said the sea is like the face of a clock that has stopped? Time is recorded by the passing of a ship. First the mast appears, then the entire vessel. It sails past and eventually disappears behind, once again sinking over the horizon, the last tip of the mast slips under and you are left all alone on top of the dome of the earth.
Landlubbers, which most of us be, very often are surprised at what the greatest part of our planet really looks like beyond the span of our gaze. The Mariana Trench in the Pacific, for example, goes down a staggering 7 miles. From the point of view of its bottom, a ship sailing over it would look as tiny and as faint as a big jumbo jet does at 36,000 feet to a ground observerís eyes. So much in this hydrosphere, so much potential untapped, so much mystery.
Its mysteries are often underscored by the mysteries discovered on it. One such befell the American schooner Ellen Austin. She was one of Grinnell, Minturn & Coís Blue Swallowtail line of London to New York Packets. She was a big ship, of 1,812 tons, 210 feet in length, built of white oak at Damariscotta, Maine in 1854.
As a London to New York packet, she often sailed the southern route toward LondonĖ the Gulf Stream north of the Sargasso SeaĖ to hasten her journey. While in this vicinity in 1881 she came upon a derelict, shipshape but apparently deserted. She hauled up and the captain sent over a prize crew to investigate. They shortly confirmed the vessel was indeed strangely deserted. The prize crew was ordered to sail the vessel in tandem with the Ellen Austin.
About 2 days later the Ellen Austin and the nameless schooner were parted by a squall. When the squall parted, the schooner had vanished along with the Ellen Austinís prize crew. No trace was ever found of the vessel, and the Ellen Austin crew, teaming with superstition, sailed on for London.
* Gould also said the destination was St. Johnís Newfoundland. Quite impossible considering the vesselís targeted route of London-New York unless, of course, it was the Meta.
Although the actual sailing record for the incident has not been found, this incident was first recorded by Rupert T. Gould, a retired British naval officer who collected many stories about mysteries of the sea.
Skeptics have poo-pooed the story, mostly because it became even more embroidered over the years since Commander Gould first wrote of it in 1944. In these retellings the schooner was indeed sighted again by the Ellen Austin, sailing erratically. Investigation proved she was once again deserted, with the prize crew having eerily vanished as the original crew. The captain, it is said, smelling the sweet savor of salvage rights, refused to let the ship go. He insisted and forced another prize crew aboard. This time, within days, the vessel vanished along with the second prize crew.
There is nothing implausible about either story, although the second story is no doubt fictional. Before the idea of aliens kidnapping people, occultists believed in teleportation of matter and areas or funnels which were
supernatural doors to other places. It was often in this light that people were titillated by such mysteries of the sea. After UFOs came into vogue, of course, the idea of alien abductions quickly brushed aside such old wives tales; and it is in this light that one is encouraged to view the incident in Bermuda Triangle lore.
A further reason why skeptics would not believe the story was the fact the ship could not be verified as existing, although I had no trouble finding the ship. A letter to Guildhall Library in England, where Lloydís Lists are maintained, and to the New York State Historical Society, revealed the particulars of the ship and its last sailing under the American flag under Capt. A.J. Griffin.
Gould rationally courted mysteries. He most likely repeated the tale as it was told him by an old hand long before, and there was no reason to assume he embroidered anything. However, as with all second or third hand information, there is room for mistakes. The first one is the year. The Ellen Austin sailed only once in 1881 under that name. This voyage ended uneventful in New York on February 11, 1881. She had left London on December 5, 1880. One notes this is an unusually long voyage. If the event did occur at this time, her delay in arriving New York may have been from searching for the vessel and prize crew.
Since any captain would have to account for a loss of some crewmen, the event no doubt took place some other year, for there is no record of a casualty report with Lloydís in 1881.
Either it occurred years before, or it happened afterward when the ship was named Meta. The traditional date some claim was in August 1881, which would mean it was the Meta.
Yet most likely it was another year. The seaman who told Gould either forgot the right year after so long or recognized the ship at port as he heard the tale. Remember, the tradition of the sea was to recognize a vessel by its beakhead. The old sailor who told Gould may have recognized the old Ellen Austin and didnít know she was renamed the Meta.*
The search for the incident goes on.