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Curse Of The Collier: Did These Ships Meet A Supernatural End?

Explore the mysterious disappearance of three ships in the same class and the destruction of another...

By definition, the service life of the average collier should have been rather boring.

These vessels were meant for one simple purpose - to haul coal largely during the 1871 – 1914 Steamboat era so that ships of that period could be refuelled.

However, historical exceptions to the mundane job description do exist. The most famous is probably the HMS Bounty, which had a mutiny aboard before being destroyed by the rebel crew.

And even beyond such isolated cases, there is also an entire series of colliers, the Proteus-class, that stand out precisely because every single one of them had their service lives cut short.

The most well-known of these was the USS Cyclops.

collier
The USS Cyclops

This ship had been used during World War I to haul manganese, an element that was utilised in the manufacture of munitions. 

Things had been largely routine for the vessel, but at some point in March, 1918 she presumably sank carrying 11,000 tons of her cargo.

One must preface with “presumably” because, beyond March 4, there is no known location for the vessel and no trace of it was ever found.

Adding to the mystery is the fact that it disappeared, along with all 306 crew members, somewhere inside the Bermuda Triangle. 

This makes it the greatest loss of life outside of combat in the history of the US Navy.

(No records of a U-boat sinking of Cyclops, or any of her sister ships, exist in Germany.) 

Of course, the loss of life must also only be presumed, because, given the reputation of the Bermuda Triangle, some might consider it theoretically possible that the ship and her crew were sucked up by an alien spacecraft or that it accidentally entered another dimension.

The Bermuda Triangle (image: NOAA National Ocean Service)

Before dismissing these outlandish possibilities, those who are sceptical might want to consider the fate of Cyclops’ sister ships, Proteus, Nereus and Jupiter.

At some point after November 23, 1941, the USS Proteus, the lead ship in the class, was sailing in the Caribbean when it also disappeared.

Some have suggested that she, too, may have strayed into the adjacent Bermuda Triangle.  

(As a side note, it is interesting that Proteus’ disappearance very nearly happened exactly 22 years before JFK was shot.)

Meanwhile, the USS Nereus was hauling aluminium for the construction of Allied aircraft when she also vanished less than a month later.

Weirdly, the ship was travelling the same route the USS Cyclops had been using 23 years earlier.

If that isn’t enough to start the chords of the ‘Twilight Zone’ playing inside the heads of sceptics, then the fate of the fourth and final Proteus-class vessel just might. 

The USS Jupiter was converted into an aircraft carrier and renamed the USS Langley.

This ship also failed to live out her full-service life, instead having it cut short by a Japanese attack. 

The ship was subsequently scuttled to stop it falling into enemy hands, but, who knows, if this had not happened, perhaps she might have gone on to ‘dematerilise’ within the Bermuda Triangle as well.

The wreck of HMS Vixen off the coast of Bermuda - this ship was actually scuttled (image: David Broad)

Of course, not all ships that have disappeared within the Bermuda Triangle have ‘dematerialised’.

Many historic shipwrecks in the area have since been found and the causes established.

Speaking to National Geographic, Bermuda's Custodian of Historic Wrecks, Phillippe Rouja, points out that the island is known to be particularly treacherous for ships.

Its volcanic geological past means there are multiple points around Bermuda protruding out of the sea bed that could prove hazardous. 

Rocky algae and molluscs can also form ‘breakers’ on these points that add tens of feet to the height of the rock under them and could lurk just under the surface of the water.

These sharp protrusions are capable of slicing into a ship’s hull. Rouja claims these can actually be more dangerous in calm weather:

"One of the ironies of breakers is that they’re more visible when there's wave action in storms, so in fact the breakers are sometimes at their most dangerous on a flat, calm day."

While Bermuda features dangers that are close to the surface, the southern corner of the Bermuda Triangle presents the opposite problem: Mysteries hidden in the depths.

The Puerto Rico Trench

The Puerto Rico Trench, which runs east-west just north of Puerto Rico, is the deepest crevice in the Atlantic, almost as far below sea level as Mount Everest is above it.

Ships sunk here are therefore almost impossible to trace.

The triangle as a whole is also busy with a number of tectonic plates jostling against one another.

Methane hydrate is thought to be one by-product of this as it clusters where gas escaping from geological faults interacts with cold sea water and crystalizes.

The methane is then trapped within the crystals and may be released later.

When large quantities bubble to the surface they have been observed to violently rock and even sink ships.

Not that any of this explains why three out of four Proteus ships all may have succumbed to such natural phenomena. 

However, Marvin W Barrash, author of ‘USS Cyclops’, just might. 

Barrash, who lost a distant relative on the ship, notes that in the absence of any clear explanation for the disappearance, speculation filled the gap:

"All kinds of bizarre stories came out. There was a Washington, DC, newspaper that claimed that she had been taken over and turned into a pirate ship and was running in Amazon waters. Others were saying that she had been taken over by a German submarine, (and the stories even went as far as gigantic sea life, like (an octopus).”

But Barrash’s findings have turned up a rather more logical and likely cause:

"She was, at one time, the largest and fastest US Navy ship afloat. She had a flat bottom, she rolled quite easily, and on one day she rolled approximately 50 degrees one way, and in the high forties the other way. And to many vessels that could have just continued and caused a complete catastrophe."

A simple sinking begins to seem even more likely for Cyclops, Proteus and Nereus when one considers another natural phenomenon: Rogue waves.

A 1940 image showing a rogue wave approaching a merchant ship

Speaking to National Geographic, Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre has said:

"The idea of rogue waves has been the thing of legend for many many hundreds of years. Mariners come back reporting having seen these waves, having experienced and survived these rogue waves…

"Using satellites we can observe the entire world in a few days, so we have, over the last 20 years, observed freak waves which are, in some cases, in excess of 100 feet - so they do exist."

Boxall has suggested that the seas of the Bermuda Triangle could get quite turbulent, thanks to hurricane systems and equatorial and Gulf of Mexico storms.

Plymouth University put Boxall and Barrash’s ideas to the test using a scale model of the Cyclops in a wave simulator.

Their results showed that, because of its flat bottom, rogue waves as high as 50 feet would have been enough to capsize it.

But the three Proteus-class vessels that may have been lost in this fashion are only a small number of ships and aircraft that have gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle over the years.

How can rogue waves explain the disappearance of ships without design flaws, or the disappearance of aircraft, for that matter?

Late last year, a Science Channel documentary called ‘What on Earth’ featured a scientist named Randall Cerveny who, according to the Sun headline, claimed “170mph ‘air bombs’ capable of downing planes and ships could unlock mystery of” the Bermuda Triangle.

The report explains that hexagonal hollows observed within clouds using special satellite technology could be the source of these ‘air bombs’.

Speaking to CNN, Cerveny said:

“They’re formed by microbursts and they’re blasts of air that come down out of the bottom of the cloud and then hit the ocean and create waves that can sometimes be massive in size as they start to interact with each other.”

But Cerveny later criticised the editing of the Science Channel documentary, calling it “horrendous” in the Washington Post, which noted that the Sun, then the New York Post, then the Daily Mail, Popular Mechanics, RT, India Times and “Today” show had all given inaccurate information by quoting the documentary.

Explaining the issue, the Post says:

“You might not think the Sun or the New York Post are authorities on science, but they cite the Science Channel, which certainly sounds like it’s an authority, and the Science Channel (mis)cites Cerveny, who definitely is an authority.”

The paper goes on to say that “Microbursts can do extensive damage on land and can definitely sink ships in the ocean.

Could microbursts have sunk a few ships and downed a few planes in the Bermuda Triangle? Of course.

Does this mean the Bermuda Triangle mystery is real and that we’ve solved it? No, Cerveny isn’t saying that".

What Cerveny thought he was doing, it transpires, was the “strawman explanation” that the real phenomenon of microbursts could explain the ‘mystery’ of the Bermuda Triangle in order for another scientist to them come along and knock it down.

Instead, the programme used his ‘strawman bit’ as an actual explanation.

In fact, not only was Cerveny not offering an explanation for the Bermuda Triangle mystery, the Bermuda Triangle mystery itself doesn’t even exist.

Planes and ships have disappeared there, probably for the natural reasons that have been suggested above. They also disappear for similar, or other, natural reasons all over the world.

This was first explained in pilot-cum-librarian Larry Kusche’s book ‘The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved’, first published in 1975.

More recent surveys support Kusche’s claim that the area is not unique for shipwrecks, downed planes, or unexplained events involving either.

The SS El Faro disappeared in October 2015, and while it was never retrieved, some debris and bodies were recovered.

In an article titled “Study finds shipwrecks threaten precious seas’, the BBC lists the top ten spots for wrecks based on data collected between 1999 and 2011.

According to Southampton Solent University, the source of the figures, the South China Sea actually has the most perilous sea lanes, with 293 wrecks occurring there during this timeframe.

Britain, by contrast, had 135 and the Bermuda Triangle didn’t even make it into the top ten.

Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor has reported that at the moment, 146 shipwrecks a year are the global average, so one in the Bermuda Triangle in 2015 hardly screams out as a paranormally high rate.

As for aircraft, one is known to have gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle in 2007.

Although downed and missing airplanes are less frequent than missing ships, they still occur.

2014 was an unusually bad year, with three high-profile plane crashes and one disappearance involving multiple casualties. 

The 2007 incident, then, is hardly unusual. The Aviation Safety Network concluded that the small Piper PA-46-310P plane had flown, ill-advisedly, into a particularly intense (level 6) thunderstorm.

In the end, tragic as the losses of three colliers were, belief that the region they vanished in has paranormal properties did not help.

The best thing that can come out of lost ships is a patient search for possible causes of their demise. That way future losses have a greater chance of being prevented.