The Unexplained Disappearance Of The Patanela

It's believed that for at least 50,000 years people have traveled the oceans, even though the oldest known archaeological evidence of seafaring only dates back to about 8,000 BC, according to Ancient Port Antiques. In those tens of thousands of years, untold numbers of vessels, and the crews on them, have simply disappeared, most likely sunk to the bottom of the sea, destined to spend eternity in their watery graves.

You would think that with modern standards of ship-making, and with modern navigation and weather-monitoring methods, as well as ready communication with other humans on the ground, wholesale disappearances of ships and their crew would be rare. And while they are indeed rare, as recently as 1988, according to MySailing, a vessel seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth. The Patanela, a 63-foot schooner, departed Western Australia and was never heard from again.

Deepening the mystery of the Australian vessel is the fact that, two decades after her disappearance, according to Sail-World, a beachcomber found a message in a bottle, written by a member of the ship's crew. However, the message appears to have been not a plea for rescue, but a mundane account of the voyage and an invitation to call a phone number to claim a prize.

The Patanela and Her Crew

The Patanela was, according to Sail-World, one of the most advanced ships on the ocean in its day. Owned by a wealthy businessman named Alan Nicol, according to MySailing, over the course of 30 years, the vessel had completed several voyages, both treacherous and mundane, which included sailing the rough waters around Antarctica as well as circumnavigating the globe. The ship was equipped with all of the latest safety, communication, and navigation equipment, and was considered "unsinkable" by those who had traveled on it.

On its final voyage, according to Sydney Morning Herald, its passengers consisted of two crewmen named Michael Calvin and John Blissett, a Perth couple named Ken and Noreen Jones. Their daughter. Ronnallee, was also on board for part of the voyage, according to My Sailing. On this particular voyage, according to ABC News Australia, Ken Jones was the skipper. How and why Calvin and Blissett were on board is unclear; the author of a book published after the disappearance, "The Patanela is Missing," by Robert Reid, the two had discussed stealing a vessel and might have "talked their way onto" the craft. The four of them were never heard from again.

The Patanela's Final Voyage

The Patanela departed from Fremantle, Western Australia (per My Sailing), on October 16, 1988, according to Sydney Morning Herald, with a view towards making a leisurely sail to Airlie Beach, where another crew was to take over the ship. At some point before the voyage, Calvin wrote a message to his twin sister, Sue, detailing his plans for what was to happen when the voyage ended. 

"Myself and John will then drive, fly or bus back to Taree for [Christmas], maybe two weeks then make our way back to start up a charter business onboard." Perhaps eerily, he also added, "We have just made a message in a bottle for a free holiday onboard the Patanela."

At some point during the voyage, the ship stopped at Port Eyre, and Ronnalle departed, for reasons that remain unclear. The boat continued its voyage, "seemingly with no issues," as My Sailing notes, until November 8. That would be the last communication from the ship before it disappeared.

No Signs Of Distress

At some point on or around November 1, 1988, according to My Sailing, Ken Jones made the first of what would be the Patanela's final three calls to shore. Likely near Port Botany in Sydney, Jones radioed into Sydney Overseas Telecommunications Commission. "I believe we've run out of fuel ... we've hoisted our sails and we're tacking out to the east, tracking about zero-eight-zero ... our intention is to tack out for a couple of hours, then tack back in. We may need some assistance in the morning to get back into Sydney Harbor." The man on the other end of the line, Keith McLennan, would later say that the call was routine and that Jones didn't seem distressed.

In a second call, Jones asked for directions to Moruya, which was out of the way from the direction the ship was heading. The third and final call was equally mysterious: it was mostly static, but what could be heard was something like, "Three hundred kilometers south? Is it? South ..." The vessel was never heard from again, save for a buoy, found a year later, marked "Patanela, Fremantle."

A Messge In A Bottle

Sometime in 2008, according to Sydney Morning Herald, Sheryl Waideman, her husband, Gary, and her brother Doug, were beachcombing on a remote beach near Eucla when Sheryl found a bottle with a message in it. This shocked her, as the beach is so remote that she anticipated little to no human activity that day.

Once the bottle was pried open, they found a message. As Sail World reports, John Blissett had written it on October 23, 1988, and tossed it into the sea. "Hi there — out here in the lonely Southern Ocean and thought we would give away a free holiday in the Whitsunday Islands in north Queensland, Australia. Our ship is traveling from Fremantle, Western Aust, to Queensland to work as a charter vessel." The note also included two phone numbers to call to claim a weeklong sailing holiday as a prize.

Sheryl called the numbers out of curiosity, according to Sydney Morning Herald, and perhaps unsurprisingly, got no answer. "It was only after we searched on the internet that we realized what had happened," she said.

What Happened to The Patanela?

In 1992, according to Sail-World, the Australian government looked into the disappearance of the Patanela and concluded that the vessel foundered early in the morning of November 8, 1988, not long after its last radio contact. The inquiry did not offer up any explanation as to how or why.

Over the decades, various conspiracy theories have popped up. One suggests that a shipping container -– significantly larger than the Patanela –- ran over the smaller ship, although there was little freight traffic in the part of the ocean where the ship was believed to have disappeared. Claims of piracy and drug running have also popped up over the years, but there's no evidence to support or disprove those claims.

In his book, "The Patanela Is Missing," by Robert Reid, excerpted via ABC News Australia, the author posits that Calvin and Blissett had spoken about plans to hijack the vessel and sail it about "a la Erroll Flynn," as Reid describes it. "They were engaged in those conversations, turn up across the country, talk their way on board a vessel, that vessel goes missing in very mysterious circumstances. Those are the facts ...," he wrote.