Maritime history is well-provisioned with alluring mysteries of lost ships and unexplained shipwrecks. From the vanishing of Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition to the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Bay, these tangled loose ends compare with history’s greatest ghost ship mysteries and the deadliest shipwrecks in history.
Here are 4 enduring maritime mysteries.
1. The explosion of the USS Maine
In 1898, the United States Navy ship Maine exploded in Havana Bay, Cuba. A battleship commissioned only four years earlier, it was stationed in Havana Harbor to protect American interests during the Cuban War of Independence. This was done at the urging of the assistant secretary of the navy, the future President Theodore Roosevelt.
Its mysterious explosion and sinking on 15 February killed 268 sailors. Was it an act of war by the Spanish, jealous of American ambitions in Cuba over which their own control was slipping? Or was the explosion instead the result of a spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bunkers? The next day, President McKinley wrote that the United States “can afford to withhold its judgement and not strike an avenging blow until the truth is known.”
Roosevelt, however, pronounced the cause as “dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards”. American newspapers also blamed the Spanish. The heightened atmosphere hastened the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April that year. This conflict saw the United States expand its territory in the former colonies of the Spanish empire, from Cuba to the Philippines.
2. The failed Franklin expedition
The vanishing of Sir John Franklin’s final Arctic expedition has inspired over 170 years of searching. Last seen off the coast of Greenland in 1845 by whalers, the expedition’s ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were outfitted with iron plates and steam engines to withstand the extreme conditions. Their crews sought to discover the Northwest Passage, a route through which trade could take place along the northern coast of North America.
It was 14 years until the first traces of Franklin, his ships and crew of 128 were recovered. The physical evidence and Inuit testimony collected by Dr John Rae and Sir Francis Leopold McClintock pointed to complete disaster, despite the expedition having been ably provisioned.
Forensic research in the 1980s succeeded in identifying the frozen bodies of crew members on Beechey Island, and the importance of Inuit oral testimony was reasserted in the 1990s. The greatest discoveries took place in 2014 and 2017, however, when the Erebus and Terror themselves were located in the Arctic.
The work to reconstruct the movements of Franklin’s men and ships is ongoing and the cause for the expedition’s calamitous end still compellingly uncertain.
3. The disappearance of the Sarah Joe
Among the innumerable tales of vessels lost at sea is the case of the Sarah Joe, a five-metre-long motorboat equipped on Sunday morning, 11 February 1979, with supplies for a fishing excursion. It was the property of Robert Malaiakini, who named it after his parents. While Robert stayed onshore on Maui, the second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands, his twin brother Ralph and four of his friends sailed south into calm, lake-like waters.
That afternoon, a chaotic squall descended on the sea around Maui. Other sailors reported their vessels standing on their sterns in towering waves. After the Sarah Joe was reported missing at 5 o’clock, the coastguard was notified. But having searched for days alongside the local community, they found no trace of the boat.
Malaiakini and his friends never returned from where they set off in Hawaii. But nine years later and 3,750 miles to the west, a Hawaii-registered boat was discovered in the Marshall Islands. While conducting marine research on Taongi Atoll, one of the initial searchers John Naughton identified the fibreglass hull as the Sarah Joe.
Nearby, the remains of Malaiakini’s friend, Scott Moorman, were found buried in a grave with a cross made from driftwood. Short of delivering closure to the families of the missing, the discovery raised new questions, not least who buried Moorman and what happened to the other men.
4. The vanishing of the SS Waratah
In July 1909, the 142-metre-long British passenger ship Waratah was en route between the South African cities of Durban and Cape Town when it vanished with its 211 passengers and crew.
Waratah was built one year earlier in Glasgow in order to operate between Europe and Australia, via the Colony of Natal in South Africa. Its disappearance and presumed sinking took place on its second voyage.
To date, no trace of the ship has been found, though theories advanced to explain its disappearance include a giant wave, a cargo shift inside the Waratah’s hold and an exceptionally large whirlpool.
Read more about maritime history, Ernest Shackleton and the Age of Exploration. Follow the search for Shackleton’s lost ship at Endurance22.