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The Most Mysterious Missing Ships

Numerous ships have been lost to storms, mutiny, piracy, and even accidental bombings since humans first took to the sea. According to the UNESCO, over three million sunken ships – many of which were lost thousands of years ago – litter the ocean floors worldwide. 

There’s always something ghoulishly fascinating about a mysterious disappearance, and our vast, fathomless oceans seem to provide endless opportunities for ships to vanish without a trace. While many of the better known shipwrecks (such as the sinking of the Titanic or the Andrea Doria) were well-documented, analyzed, and understood, there were certain notable exceptions.

In this video, we will discuss seven shipwrecks that remain veiled in mystery to this day.

Le Griffon

Le Griffon (also known as The Griffin) was a sailing vessel constructed in 1679 by 17th century French fur trader and explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Despite many famous searches conducted over the years by experienced divers and shipwreck hunters, the disappearance of Le Griffon (and its ultimate fate) still remains a mystery. 

In August of 1679, La Salle departed on the ship’s maiden voyage with a 34-man crew, intending to map the Great Lakes. His dream was to find the fabled ‘Northwest Passage’, a hypothetical east-west sailing route that could potentially decrease the amount of time needed to travel to Asia. 

At the time, Le Griffon was navigating uncharted waters that only canoes had previously explored. Believed to be the first ship to have traversed Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and even Lake Michigan, Le Griffon was something of a trailblazer. Between the lakes, the ship had to be manually pulled with ropes through the narrow channel of the St. Clair River, for more than forty miles. During this time, the crew faced brutal storms as they undertook a thousand-mile voyage across three of the five Great Lakes of North America. 

Eventually, the ship landed on an island in Lake Michigan, located at the mouth of the body of water now known as the Green Bay. On the island, the local, Native American inhabitants had gathered to trade with the French visitors. According to surviving records, La Salle disembarked from the vessel along with many of his crew members on September 18th, sending the ship back toward the Niagara with a skeleton crew of six. 

He had apparently intended to explore the head of Lake Michigan, while some of his crew members sailed back to the Niagara to sell the furs and purchase essential supplies for the return journey. During this trip back from the island, Le Griffon disappeared without a trace, with its load of furs, animal pelts, as well as all six crew members. 

Over the years, many theories have been proposed about what might have happened to the ship during the last leg of its voyage. While there is no clear consensus among experts, many speculate that the ship might have been lost in a storm, attacked by hostile tribes, or even abandoned by the crew, who simply decided to run off with the cargo. 

USS Porpoise

Launched in May 1836, the Porpoise was an 88-foot, 224-ton, Dolphin-class brigantine authorized by Congress for coastal surveying operations. Before joining the US Exploring Expedition in 1838, the Porpoise hunted pirates along the southern coast, serving on anti-piracy patrols for the US Coast Survey. With the Expedition, it circumnavigated the world and charted vast areas of the South Pacific between 1838 and 1842. 

Upon its return from the Expedition four years later, the ship was refitted and deployed to the west coast of Africa to patrol for slavers and participate in anti-slavery cruises. Between 1845 and 47, the Porpoise cruised in the Gulf of Mexico, participating in various naval operations during the Mexican War. 

The refitted brigantine joined the North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition in 1853 and charted the islands and coasts of Southeast Asia. In September 1854, the Porpoise parted company with the other vessels between Formosa and China to explore the Bonins and the Marianas. After leaving the North Pacific Expedition, the ship was never heard from again. 

Speculation abounds about what might have happened to the Porpoise after its separation from the squadron. Most historians and naval experts believe that the ship was lost while transiting the Taiwan Strait amidst a heavy typhoon. The Porpoise was last sighted by the USS Vincennes (a 703-ton Boston-class sloop of war) on September 21, 1854, before disappearing without a trace.

SS Baychimo

Originally named the Angermanelfven, this ship was built in Sweden in the year 1914. Later, it was purchased by a German shipping company, which used it primarily as a transport vessel for the trade of goods between different European countries. 

After the First World War, however, Hudson’s Bay Company gained ownership of the vessel as part of the German reparations. Now called SS Baychimo, the ship was used by the company to deliver food, fuel, and supplies to trading posts along the Victoria Island Coast. 

On August 26th, 1931, the ship stopped at Herschel Island to deliver some goods on its way to Vancouver. The weather began showing signs of winter-like conditions, despite it being the tail end of summer. Believing that the cold, inhospitable weather was temporary, Captain Sydney Cornwell insisted that they continue on their journey, setting sail for Vancouver on the following day. 

Unfortunately, this turned out to be a mistake. Winter arrived earlier than usual and an unexpected storm blew in on the 1st of October, trapping the SS Baychimo in an ice-covered ocean near Point Barrow, a headland on the north coast of Alaska. The crew signaled for help, but the high winds, blowing snow, and icy waters made the stranded ship impossible to reach. 

On October 10th, the Hudson Bay Company sent a rescue plane and airlifted the crew members to safety. Captain Cornwell, along with some of his crew, built a temporary wooden shelter near the ship, in order to monitor it until it eventually broke free from the ice. A strong blizzard hit the area on November 24th, 1931, forcing the crew to retreat to the town of Barrow in Alaska. When they returned, they found that the ship had vanished.

Initially, it was assumed that the Baychimo had sunk during the blizzard. However, one week later, an Iñupiat hunter reported that the ship was floating near Skull Cliff, about fifty miles from where it had originally been trapped. When Captain Cornwell and his crew finally found the ship, it was severely damaged, giving the impression that it would soon break apart and sink. Consequently, the crew decided to salvage the valuable cargo of furs and leave the vessel behind. 

This should have been the last time anyone heard of the SS Baychimo, but it wasn’t. Over the years, local residents as well as other ships navigating in the area reported spotting the unmanned vessel gliding silently across the Arctic waters, drifting from shore to shore, completely intact. 

It was last sighted in 1969 in the Chukchi Sea, floating between Barrow and Icy Cape. As late as 2006, the state of Alaska deployed a formal search team to locate the elusive wandering ship of the Arctic. Even with all their advanced equipment, however, the team was unable to find it, and what exactly happened to the Baychimo may forever remain a mystery.

The Antikythera

Dating from the second half of the First Century BCE, the Antikythera shipwreck was discovered in 1900 by sponge divers near the Greek island of Antikythera. Over the years, marine archaeologists have recovered several surviving artifacts from the site of the shipwreck, including some bronze and marble statues, jewelry, silver coins, an amphora or ceramic jar, several pieces of glasswork, and a bronze lyre. Numerous works of art were also recovered, including a seven-foot-tall statue of Herakles. Hull sheeting, lead scupper pipes, and a set of lead sounding weights are some of the shipping equipment found at the site of the wreckage.  

Many scholars believe that this Roman era shipwreck, submerged at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, was originally a Greek trading or cargo ship that went down while carrying some of the treasures looted from Athens in 86 BC by the Roman General Sulla. Lucian of Samosata, a Greek rhetorician and satirist, had (in some of his writings) made references to one of Sulla’s ships sinking in the Antikythera region, which might lend some credence to this theory. Domestic utensils and accessories recovered from the wreck, such as Roman ceramics and amphorae, also seem to support this theory.

During the first excavation of the Antikythera shipwreck, an unassuming lump of bronze was discovered, which later turned out to be an early mechanical computer used to plan important religious rituals, agricultural activities, and sporting events. The so-called Antikythera Mechanism comprised a complex set of interlocking gears used to predict the movements of celestial bodies, including the sun, the moon, and several planets. From the inscriptions and gear settings, scientists deduced that the mechanism could also predict the timing of lunar and solar eclipses years in advance.  

The reason for the loss of the Greek vessel almost two thousand years ago is still unclear, but the artifacts recovered from the shipwreck have made it one of the most important discoveries in the world of marine archaeology. It has changed many assumptions in the scientific community about the limits of ancient technology. The Antikythera Mechanism, for instance, predates any other object approaching the same level of sophistication by at least a thousand years. 

The Merchant Royal

The Merchant Royal was a 17th century English merchant ship that traded with Spanish colonies in the West Indies between 1637 and 1640. At the time, Spain and England were at peace with one another. The Merchant Royal, under the command of Captain John Limbrey, was tasked with transporting treasures from the New World to Spain. The treasures were to be used to pay the salaries of the 30,000 Spanish soldiers stationed in Flanders, Belgium. 

In September 1641, the ship was loaded with 400 bars of Mexican silver, 500,000 silver coins, a huge quantity of precious jewels, and 100,000 pounds of gold. The ship was apparently leaking badly after its long voyage from the West Indies to Europe. As it entered English waters, the weather conditions deteriorated. The pumps on board broke down and the ship began to take on water. 

Eighteen men drowned when the Merchant Royal sank, somewhere off the coast of Land’s End, England. Captain Limbrey soon fired the ship’s cannon, asking nearby vessels for assistance. He and 40 of his crew members were rescued by the Dover Merchant, another merchant ship sailing in the vicinity. However, they could not save any of the cargo, resulting in a loss of more than £1.1 billion (or $1.5 billion) in today’s money. 

Countless people have, over the years, tried to find the wreck and recover its valuable cargo. In 2007, an American company by the name of Odyssey Marine Exploration (engaged in deep-ocean exploration for the extraction of subsea mineral resources) salvaged 500,000 pieces of gold and silver coins from a shipwreck that was originally rumored to be the Merchant Royal. 

However, the wreck discovered by the company was later identified as the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish ship lost in 1804. Hence, the incredible, long-lost treasures of the Merchant Royal still await discovery at the bottom of the English Channel. 

USS Cyclops

The USS Cyclops was a Proteus class collier ship launched in 1910 and commissioned by the United States Navy during World War I. In March of 1918, the ship disappeared without a trace near St. Kitts Island, along with all 306 passengers, crew members, and officers onboard. At the time of its disappearance, the ship was on its way back to the US from Brazil, after having completed an assignment – under Lieutenant Commander George W. Worley – to aid in the refueling of British ships. 

The ship was last sighted in the vicinity of Barbados, on the 4th of March, 1918. Interestingly, the Cyclops vanished without a trace in an area commonly known as the Bermuda Triangle, and it wasn’t the first ship to have disappeared mysteriously in this area. 

There was no distress call from the ship before it went missing; nor was any wreckage, debris, or any other evidence of a shipwreck ever found. Nearly 550 feet long, the Cyclops carried 11,000 tons of manganese ore, aside from its 306 passengers, when it disappeared. The last known message from the Cyclops simply read: “Weather Fair, All Well”. 

Something went wrong during the long journey home to Baltimore, however, and no one from the ship was ever seen or heard from again. The USS Cyclops – a key naval asset used for transporting coal to fuel other ships around the world – simply dropped off the map without so much as an SOS. 

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the loss of the Cyclops have given rise to a flurry of sensational theories about what might actually have happened to it. It is one of the most famous among the 100-odd planes and ships to have mysteriously vanished in the so-called Bermuda Triangle, a region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean surrounded by Puerto Rico, San Juan, Miami, and Bermuda. 

Some suggest that the ship fell victim to an attack by a German submarine, while others point to the fact that a few months before the ship’s disappearance, some members of the crew had staged a minor mutiny, alleging that Commander Worley was an alcoholic and incapable of steering the Cyclops. Most naval experts, however, are of the opinion that the ship sank due to structural failure, as Proteus class collier ships were designed to carry coal and not manganese ore, which is denser and heavier than coal and may therefore have caused the structural beams of the ship to weaken over time.

H.L. Hunley

The disappearance of the H. L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that played a minor role in the American Civil War, is one of the greatest mysteries in the maritime world. When it plunged a live torpedo into the hull of the USS Housatonic on February 17th, 1864, the Hunley became the first submarine in history to successfully sink an enemy warship. 

However, before the submarine could return to base after this successful attack, it was lost at sea along with its eight-man crew. For over a century following its disappearance, divers and shipwreck hunters searched for the remains of the Hunley in the waters off Charleston. It was finally found in 1995 and raised from the ocean floor in 2000, but this recovery ultimately raised more questions than it answered. 

An archaeological examination of the wreck revealed that all eight crew members remained at their stations even as the submarine sank. There was no sign of panic or any last-minute, desperate attempts to flee the sinking vessel. Moreover, the remains of the crew members bore no signs of major physical injury, suggesting that whatever happened to the Hunley, it wasn’t violent enough to break the bones of those inside. 

Since the recovery of the submarine, researchers have found a hidden failsafe mechanism in the vessel’s keel which should have allowed the crew to escape the Hunley when it began sinking. However, the mechanism was never activated, which seems to suggest that the crew did not perceive any danger in the minutes preceding the sinking of the submarine. 

All the emergency levers were also locked in position, which seems to provide further evidence that there was no panic on board as the sub went down. The levers, if engaged, would have released 1,000 pounds of keel blocks and raised the submarine to the surface of the water, thus allowing the crew members to swim away to safety.

Conclusion

Since time immemorial, humans have been fascinated by the idea of shipwrecks – and it’s not hard to understand why. First, there’s the lure of sunken treasure, an idea attractive to any culture that appreciates shiny things (so all of them). Then, there’s the inherent mystique and tragedy of seeing a once-mighty vessel languishing at the bottom of the ocean, covered in algae and home to fish and crabs. 

When a ship sinks or disappears with no survivors to tell the tale, speculation runs rampant, with facts morphing into stories, and then legends, in no time. One day, plausible explanations for these maritime mysteries may be found. But until then, we’ll have to rely on stories, legends, and guesswork to try and understand what happened after these vessels set sail for the last time. 

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