Ship’s crews disappear in the Atlantic with absolutely no trace, leaving only the empty vessels to float aimlessly.
by Dale Gilbert Jarvis
When people think of nautical mysteries, one of the first things that springs to mind is the Bermuda Triangle, the mystical zone defined by Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and the coast of Florida. Within the Triangle, hundreds of ships and aircraft are said to have vanished without explanation. But the warm waters of the Bermuda Triangle are not the only seas associated with strange disappearances. The much more frigid waters of the North Atlantic hide their own mysteries.
A Fatal Meeting
One such mystery involved a ship by the name of the Ellen Austin. She was a fair sized ship, 210 feet in length and weighing in at 1,812 tons. She was a three-masted schooner built of white oak at Damariscotta, Maine, in 1854.
The Ellen Austin was probably constructed for the Tucker family of Wiscasset, Maine, a community that had become very wealthy from the shipping industry. Wiscasset was home to Maine’s richest sea captains, and some the world’s most magnificent sailing vessels graced her harbor over the years.
The Ellen Austin changed hands a number of times, and in 1857 was ferrying passengers between New York and Liverpool. By 1880, the schooner was a packet ship of the Grinnell, Minturn & Company’s Blue Swallowtail line, running between London and New York. In 1883, the ship was wrecked along the American coast under Captain A. J. Griffin.
In 1944, a retired British naval officer named Rupert T. Gould wrote up the story of the Ellen Austin in a book called The Stargazer Talks. Captain Gould wrote several nautical narratives chock-full of oddities, astronomical tips, sea serpents, and the like. Gould had heard the story of the Ellen Austin from a fellow seaman and was the first to put it to paper.
According to naval gossip, the Ellen Austin left London in 1881 bound for St. John’s, Newfoundland, under the command of Captain Baker. She was halfway between England and North America when the crew sighted an unidentified schooner. The schooner sat still in the water, and eventually the ship came within hailing distance.
The Mystery Schooner
The ship did not answer to any hails, so the captain and four of his crew boarded with weapons drawn, ready for any brigandage. Upon being boarded, the ship proved to be in well-maintained condition. Its sails were furled and its rigging was intact. There was no sign of the crew and there was no evidence of any violence. Mysteriously, the ship’s log was missing and the name plates had been removed from the bow.
The captain selected a crew to take the ship to St. John’s, ordering them to sail the vessel in tandem with the Ellen Austin. Two days later, the Ellen Austin and the nameless schooner were set upon by a storm, and contact between them was lost.
Once the storm lifted, the schooner was sighted sailing erratically. When it was boarded, investigation proved she was once again deserted, the replacement crew having eerily vanished with no indication of what had happened or where they had gone. The bunks had not been slept in and the new logbook had disappeared.
The captain refused to let the ship go. He forced another reluctant crew aboard the mysterious and apparently deadly ship. Shortly thereafter, yet another squall sprang up. The derelict schooner was traveling behind the Ellen Austin at a distance of ten ship lengths, but contact between the ships was again lost in the mist. When the storm lifted, the strange ship was nowhere to be seen. The Ellen Austin continued on its voyage, and neither the unknown vessel nor the second crew made it to St. John’s. They were never seen again.
An equally peculiar sequence of events took place only three years later, again in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland. This time it involved a ship by the name of the Resolven.
On the 27th of August, 1884, the brig Resolven left Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, for Snug Harbour, Labrador, to load up with fish. The Resolven was a soft-wood vessel built in Nova Scotia, and weighed in at 143 tons with a crew of six. She was under the command of a Captain James, who had arrived in the port of Harbour Grace with a cargo of salt for John Munn and Company. She left port on that August day with three passengers.
A mere two days after the ship’s departure, word reached her home port that the Resolven had been towed into another community by the H.M.S. Mallard. The ship had been picked up, abandoned, with no sign of the crew and passengers.
When the ship was discovered, the sails were set and a fire was still burning in the galley. There was no wreckage nor sign of violence. The ship’s small boat was gone, and the general condition showed the crew had left in a great rush. The ship’s log contained no clues, and no explanation for their sudden departure was ever found. When the ship was located, a large iceberg was seen nearby. Some suggested that when the ship had encountered ice, the crew had abandoned ship, and then were swamped and drowned. The small boat was never found, nor were any bodies.
The steamer Lady Glover was sent to tow the vessel back to Harbour Grace. She was eventually sold at auction and purchased by John Munn and Company. The Resolven was eventually lost, having gone ashore under the command of Capt. Fred Cole at Northport, Nova Scotia, on the 27th of July, 1888.
The story could have ended there, with the strange disappearance of Captain James and crew explained away as a freak accident. But the enigma surrounding the Resolven did not go down with the ship.
The Resolven had been lost at Northport after being sent there for a load of lumber. The C. W. Oulton, under Capt. William Fitzgerald, was dispatched with a second load of lumber to replace that lost on the Resolven. The C. W. Oulton was lost as it attempted to bring the lumber home. Following that, the brig Anastasia was given the same task. It too failed, and under Capt. T. Bransfield was lost at the same location as the C. W. Oulton, along with a third cargo of lumber.
A fourth ship, the S.S. Iceland, was dispatched to retrieve whatever lumber could be salvaged from the Oulton. In doing so, the Iceland destroyed and damaged numerous fishing traps in the vicinity of the wrecks, causing so much havoc that the owners were forced to pay heavy damages. Whatever curse had caused Captain James and his men to vanish seemed to taint all business associated with the Resolven, even long after the ship’s demise.
What was behind the curse of the Resolven? What happened to her crew, and the crew of the strange vessel encountered by the Ellen Austin? No one can say. The sea guards her secrets jealously, and we may never know the answer to these questions. What does remain certain is that the North Atlantic is a force to be reckoned with, and one that will never be tamed by the will of man.
Dale Gilbert Jarvis is a folklorist, researcher, writer, and tour operator living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Anthropology and a Master of Arts in Folklore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.