Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Derelict Found by the Ellen Austin

Derelict found by the Ellen Austin, 1881.

Last, and queerest of all, comes the case of the abandoned derelict, in seaworthy condition, which the British ship Ellen Austin encountered, in mid-Atlantic, in the year 1881. She put a small prize-crew on board the stranger, with instructions to make for St. John's, Newfoundland, where she was bound herself.

The two ships parted company in foggy weather — but a few days later they met again. And the strange derelict was once more deserted. Like their predecessors, the prize-crew had vanished — for ever. (Gould, p. 30.)

The greedy captain of the Ellen Austin then forced another prize crew onto the derelict. Again the ships were parted in the fog — and neither the derelict nor the second prize crew was ever seen again in this world!

"A comparison suggests itself here between the abandoned ship and a trap…" (Berlitz, Bermuda Triangle, p. 70.) A trap by which the Martians capture their human specimens, to say out loud what Berlitz implied.

This story originated with Gould's account given above. The vanishing of a second prize crew and any further embellishments are fiction.

As for Gould's original story, Gould was a serious researcher, so he likely didn't make it up, but he didn't give any sources. Kusche searched in The New York Times, in the London Times, at Lloyd's, and in Newfoundland papers, but didn't find anything. (Kusche, Bermuda Triangle Mystery, p. 45.)

Until Gould's source is found, nothing can be said about the veracity of this tale. He may just have been relating some yarn he heard from an old sailor.

Berlitz claims that the sails of the derelict were furled and her rigging was intact and the ships were parted by squalls, not fog. Of course, a guy like Berlitz won't let you off the hook at less than two prize crews.

Chaplin claims the derelict could not be identified, as she had no logbook or trail boards (p. 36) and that the captain of the Ellen Austin was called Baker (p. 37). Maybe that's true, or maybe it's just Chaplin's way of getting around the embarrassing fact that the original story doesn't have the good grace to name the derelict, without having to make up a name that could be debunked. (Storm and fog, two prize crews.)

Winer finds the following fascinating facts (Devil's Triangle, pp. 160.):

The derelict's "teak decks betrayed traces of recent holystoning."

The head- and foresails of the schooner had been furled so carefully that it must have been done at leisure. The "mainsail was luffing wantonly…" "It was evident that she had been hove to…"

"The two dories lashed down atop the main cabin appeared to have been the only small boats ever carried aboard." (OK, now we "know" that the crew of the derelict didn't take to the boats, so they must have been beamed away.)

"The open galley door banged in cadence with the ship's movement." (A-one, an-a-two…)

The captain was called Baker. (So that's where Chaplin found the captain's name. Chaplin didn't have the good grace to give sources for his individual claims, but he listed Winer's book in his bibliography. Some bibliography: Star, Enquirer, Tattler…)

Captain Baker led a boarding party of four crewmen. (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and — yes, the redshirt.)

"[H]e smashed his boot down[,] pulverizing a thumb-sized cockroach into the deck…" (Yes, he's bad. I'd hate to be that roach… Hey, at least he didn't hit the redshirt.)

He was carrying a Colt revolver. (Did I say he's badass? And he still didn't hit the redshirt.)

His mating call was, "Halloo thar… anybody aboard?" ("Sure thing, love. Come right down — I'll suck for a buck." That's by the way why no one ever left the suck boat.)

He was thinking of the Mary Celeste. (The ship, not the suck for a buck lady.)

"The two sailing vessels had been becalmed within sight of each other for several days before they drifted to within hailing distance on August 20, 1881."

The derelict carried a cargo of lumber that looked like mahogany. She (the derelict, not the suck for a buck lady) had apparently sailed from Honduras or some such Central American lumber-producing country, was found halfway between The Bahamas and Bermuda, and may have been bound for Britain or the Mediterranean.

Her logbook and the trail boards with her name were missing. There was nothing to identify the ship or her crew. (Oh, come on. Just make up a name for her, so that I can debunk it.) Otherwise, there was no damage and no trace of violence. There were plenty of provisions.

The Ellen Austin was Boston bound, but had to detour south due to headwinds. (Ah, that's how she got into the Bermuda Triangle.) Baker decided to take his prize to Boston.

After two days of calm, a storm struck right on time for the witching hour. The crew of the Ellen Austin could see the derelict's navigation lights all through the night, until early in the morning, when the rain was blown horizontally into their faces from that direction so they couldn't look there anymore.

After two dark and stormy days, fair weather returned, but the derelict had vanished. Three days later at dawn, she was sighted once more.

She was sailing so erratically that it took almost an hour to board her. Of course, she was deserted once more.

But that's not all. The food was untouched, the bunks had not been slept in, and the new logbook had vanished. The navigation lights had burned out. The crew of the Ellen Austin had filled them with whale oil to last three days straight — and now they were dry again! Had they really burned out — or was it like nobody had ever been on board?

Spooky, huh? But whether it's spooky already or not, Winer won't let you get up from the campfire after just one prize crew!

Yes, another prize crew is placed on board. All of them are armed. A lifeboat is towed behind the derelict. The prize crew is ordered to abandon ship at the slightest sign of trouble.

After two days of sailing, the ships get separated in a haze. When the Ellen Austin gets back to the spot where the derelict was last seen, she's gone! And neither she nor any of the prize crews is ever seen or heard from again!

Winer's account being so very vivid and detailed, there are three options: He was there (doubt it), he located the mother of all sources (please tell us, Richard), or his account is largely fictional. I tend to think the last option is the right one.

In one of Quasar's better efforts, he researched the following facts: The American schooner Ellen Austin was a New York to London [sic] packet with the Blue Swallowtail Line of Grinnell, Minturn & Co., a big ship of 1,812 tons, 210 feet long, built of white oak at Damariscotta, Maine, in 1854. She last sailed under the American Flag under Captain A.J. Griffin.

Something would appear to be amiss here. The Blue Swallowtail Line linked New York to Liverpool; the New York to London service was the Red Swallowtail Line.

Unfortunately for a true believer like Quasar, this is where the story really starts to fall apart. According to his research, the Ellen Austin made only one voyage in 1881 under that name, before she was renamed the Meta. The Ellen Austin left London on December 5, 1880, and arrived in New York on February 11, 1881.

Quasar notes that this was an unusually long voyage, and that the delay could have been due to her searching for the prize-crew-snatching derelict. But he also, quite reasonably, assumes that the captain of the Ellen Austin would have had to account for a loss of crewmen. Yet Quasar could find no casualty report at Lloyd's for that year. Besides, the legendary Ellen Austin was allegedly bound for St. John's or Boston (depending on whether you believe Gould or Winer), not New York.

So if the incident occurred in 1881, the destination or the name is wrong. If it occurred before 1881, the year is wrong. If it occurred after 1881, the year and name of the ship are wrong.

Quasar speculates that the old salt that told Gould this yarn had forgotten the right year, as the incident had happened many years before. Also, that illiterate old salt would have identified ships by their beakheads or figureheads, as sailors traditionally did. So that hypothetical old sailor would still have identified the ship as the Ellen Austin, never noticing that the name had been painted over.

Any way you slice it, the facts don't match. There's at least one error even in the least sensational version of the story, Gould's. So it looks like whoever originally told the story was at least in one respect an unreliable witness.

"However, as with all second or third hand information, there is room for mistakes," observes Quasar. Yet, as with all second or third hand information, there is also a good chance it never really happened. Without a credible contemporary source, the story seems to be just that — a story.

So what we do not have is a good source for this story, which would indeed be very mysterious (though not necessarily supernatural) if it were true. The only source we have, Gould, while good as in reasonable, recorded the "incident" (if an incident it was) about half a century after it allegedly happened.

What we do however have is a 1911 short story by British maritime writer William Hope Hodgson, "The Mystery of the Water-Logged Ship," which describes a very similar incident of a repeated loss of salvage crews on a derelict. (Spoiler: In the story, the recurrent salvage crew vanishings are due to the derelict being a trap by pirates. The pirates hide in a secret compartment accessible through hollow masts.)

So we have two options: Either there was a real incident, which inspired both Hodgson's fictional short story and Gould's allegedly factual account later on. Or someone who knew Hodgson's short story attached the name of a real ship, Ellen Austin, to it and sold it to Gould as the real McCoy. Until someone finds a contemporary historical account of the incident, like in a newspaper, a logbook, or a casualty report, one has to assume that this story, fascinating as it may be, is nothing but a sailor's yarn run amuck.

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