They found the five-masted schooner Carroll A. Deering run aground on the outer Diamond Shoals near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. She had last been seen two days earlier off Cape Lookout Lighthouse, about 110km (70 miles) southwest of her current location. The crew had been seen on the quarterdeck, one of whom shouted out, reporting that the ship had lost her anchors.
On the morning of 31 January 1921, the sun rose over Diamond Shoals to find the Carroll A. Deering stuck in the breakers at the far-eastern point of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where the cold waters of the Labrador Current collide with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, making for consistently nasty seas.
The seas had pounded her hull for four days before the U.S. Coast Guard arrived to investigate. On board, they found the vessel in good condition. The men searched throughout the ship, the silence broken only by the creaking of boards and the sound of the sea smashing against the hull.
It was an eerie, unsettling scene. There was no trace of the crew and all personal effects were gone. The ship’s papers, chronometer, log, navigating instruments, even the ship’s clock, were nowhere to be seen. And yet food was left soaking in water, in preparation for the next meal.
It soon came to light that nine other ships had gone missing around the same time, never to be heard of again.
Inevitably speculation and popular mythology turned the story to legend, but attempts to explain this mysterious, vexing blackhole in the Atlantic continue today.
Over the years, much has been made of the Bermuda Triangle. Over a period of 35 years, the area claimed some 700 boats and more than 120 planes, although relatively few were lost in mysterious circumstances. The numbers seem high, but according to Lloyd’s of London, for the level of traffic in the region, the numbers are not extraordinary or even surprising. Neither do they charge higher insurance rates for ships operating in the area.
The mystery of the Bermuda Triangle feeds into a primal fear of the human psyche – a fear of the unknown, of the supernatural, of a force that we can’t measure or explain. But where did the legend come from? And despite all the evidence against any phenomenon, why does it continue to haunt us?
A simple news story
On 17 September 1950, the Associated Press released a story by one of its Miami-based writers, E. V. W. Jones. In the story, Jones doesn’t document a harrowing anomaly, but rather tries to illustrate that, for all the technological advancements made by modern man, nature is still a force to be reckoned with. “The miles add up to a vast unknown into which a hundred and more persons have flown or sailed within brief memory, to be swallowed up just as ships were swallowed in the old sailing days,” he wrote.
He went on to cite five examples of disappearances – four aircraft and one ship – which took place between 1945 and 1950 in a somewhat triangulated region off Florida’s Atlantic coast. One of these, the case of U.S. Navy Flight 19 - where five torpedo bombers left Fort Lauderdale never to be seen again – would become one of the Bermuda Triangle’s most perplexing mysteries.
On 5 December 1945, Flight 19 departed Fort Lauderdale on a training exercise. They were scheduled to fly more than 500km (300 miles) over the Atlantic – a routine exercise for the military. The planes never returned and one of the search-and-rescue planes sent out with a 13-man crew also disappeared.
The mystery has never been fully resolved, though the Navy attributes the disappearance to a combination of pilot error and low fuel.
Two years later, Fate magazine published a story titled “Sea Mystery at Our Back Door,” which re-examined Flight 19. The article was the first to point out the triangular area now known as the Bermuda Triangle, though the exact vertices have shifted significantly depending on the author. Scores of other articles and books were published over the following decade, with the supernatural and mysterious elements growing more robust with each telling.
The actual phrase “Bermuda Triangle” was coined by Vincent Gaddis in an article in Argosy magazine in 1964 – an article he expanded into a book one year later called, “Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea.”
The race was now on: Three more books were published by 1974, the most successful of which was “The Bermuda Triangle” written by Charles Berlitz, selling nearly 20 million copies in 30 languages. Berlitz outlined many theories in the book, but the most enticing to readers centred around the lost city of Atlantis.
UFOs, pyramids and Atlantis
Endless supernatural theories have been populaized over the years. Most of the early theorists tried to explain the disappearances through the natural world. However, that didn’t last long.
Tales range from a purported comet impact thousands of years ago which has electromagnetic properties to secret government testing facilities – a sort of Area 51 in the Caribbean. The two most prevalent theories focus on aliens and Atlantis.
Steven Spielberg popularized a UFO-based theory in his movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, when he depicted the crew of Flight 19 being abducted by aliens. According to some, the Bermuda Triangle exists as a sort of interplanetary portal where travel between other planets and other dimensions is possible. Others cite reports of odd lights as evidence of UFO activity.
The theory that garners the most attention focuses on the lost city of Atlantis, although there is very little to support this theory beyond a shred of amateur archaeology.
The first such theory cites a rock formation that has come to be known as Bimini Road, off the island of North Bimini in the Bahamas. The ‘road’ consists of rectangular-shaped blocks under the sea which believers claim are the remains of an ancient road or wall. Most geologists and archaeologists agree that it’s just a natural rock formation.
The second theory is based on the discovery of a mirrored pyramid on the sea bed somewhere near the Bahamas, but the proponent of this idea was not able to provide any evidence or even a location.
However, that didn’t stop the media from reporting on the crystal pyramid claim. Particularly amusing is a Russian newscast reporting the pyramid’s existence with spectacular seriousness.
These sensational theories make for good stories but poor science, although people seem to prefer it that way. Most of the more bizarre theories were completely dismantled in Larry Kusche’s book “The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved”. His book came out just one year after Berlitz’s but didn’t sell nearly as well.
Among the many sensationalists there are those who cite natural phenomena to explain the mysteries. To this group, belief in alien abductions is absurd, but breaking the time-space continuum is a plausible proposition.
The existence of electronic fog has also been proposed as a possible presence in the area – a disorienting storm system that functions like a wormhole, spitting out objects far from where they were. Bruce Gernon claims to have survived this phenomenon while flying near Bimini Island in 1970, saying he exited the wormhole 30 minutes forward in time and 160km (100 miles) forward in space.
While trained scientists have tried to explain this using the laws of physics, it has never stacked up within the scientific community.
Many stories of the triangle involve wild compasses. In fact, the first recorded instance of compass malfunction in the area came from none other than Christopher Columbus in 1692. Another famous navigator, Charles Lindbergh, also reported problems with his compass while flying over the area in 1928. However, no such anomalies have ever been substantiated.
One of the more intriguing theories concerns methane hydrate deposits under the seafloor, abundant in that particular area. In some instances, these deposits can erupt, sending large quantities of methane up through the ocean and into the skies. Scaled experiments in labs have shown that a large enough eruption could cause a ship to sink by significantly reducing the density of the water surrounding it. Theoretically, the same explosion could cause an airoplane’s engines to combust when flying through this highly flammable gas.
The problem with this theory is that the Bermuda Triangle is not the only place in the world with such concentrated methane hydrate deposits. There are larger deposits elsewhere, and authorities claim that these are secure underneath the bedrock, and are unlikely to have erupted for millenia.
Furthermore, the precision required for an eruption to occur at exactly the same time and place over which a boat or plane is crossing is statistically nonsensical.
Some of these theories have been popularized and fuelled by documentaries on the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel – programmes loaded with footage of eerie wrecks in fog with creepy sound-effects.
All that said, there are still some odd and unexplained occurrences. According to Gian J. Quasar, a leading Bermuda Triangle researcher, some 120 planes have disappeared without their Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) going off. However, many of these were small planes which tend to carry less advanced ELTs, some of which require manual activation, and it's quite likely that some pilots failed to activate them. However, it is a surprisingly large number.
In the end, the sensationalists are like the Brothers Grimm, playing on peoples' imagination to inspire terror. But there is one undeniable truth: This area of the ocean is dangerous, and particulary so, under the wrong conditions.
The perfect storm
Often it’s the simplest explanation that gets overlooked. In 2009, based on observations by E. V. W. Jones, the BBC reported on two incidents where a total of 51 people were lost in two separate commercial flights. It was determined that both planes were operating at the very limit of their capacities, such that any mistake could have proved fatal.
The most simple explanation is that the triangle is situated in a naturally dangerous area. The Gulf Stream runs through the area, sometimes at speeds of nearly five knots. Any debris resulting from a crash or sinking would be quickly washed away, which would explain the mystery of complete disappearance.
The area has also been a hotbed of piracy throughout much of its history, which has contributed to the lore, and currently it is renowned as a busy channel for drug-running.
In addition, it’s in the middle of Hurricane Alley. These storms are frighteningly intense, with winds of up to 200 miles per hour, and swells up to 60 feet. It’s only in the past half-century that equipment has allowed us to accurately predict these terrible storms, which must have accounted for a number of the disappearances over the years.
The area is also difficult to navigate, and is full of shoals and hazards. It is also full of amateur helmsmen and pilots, and is heavily trafficked both in the sky and on the water. Most of the disappearances have involved very small pleasurecrafts. And given the number of ships and planes operating in the region, the number of those that disappear is relatively insignificant, according to both the U.S. Coast Guard and Lloyd’s.
In a recent study by World Wildlife Fund International, the Bermuda Triangle isn’t even listed as one of the world’s top 10 most dangerous waters. The study says the most dangerous places to sail are the South China Sea, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
Mystery of the Deering
Almost six months prior to the Carroll A. Deering ran aground, it had been preparing to transport coal from the U.S. East Coast to Rio de Janeiro. Shortly into the outgoing journey, the captain and his first mate departed due to illness, and captain, Willis B. Wormell was hired as a replacement. Wormell then hired Charles B. McLellan as his first mate, joining the 10 man, mostly Danes.
The ship made it to Brazil without incident, and it was in Rio that we get the first hint of trouble, according to Quasar’s extensive telling. In Rio, Wormell met up with an old friend and told him that he considered McLellan a worthless troublemaker.
The yacht left Rio on 2 December 1920, bound for Portland, Maine. The trip back proved troublesome, just as Wormell had predicted. Upon reaching Barbados, where they were to take on supplies, McLellan got drunk and was locked up. Wormell managed to get him released, but that didn’t prevent McLellan from threatening his life before they left on 9 January 1921.
When the Carroll A. Deering passed by the lighthouse at Cape Lookout, a crewman on deck hailed the keeper of the lighthouse. According to this man, the entire crew was gathered on the quarterdeck – a very unusual occurrence. And that man was not Wormell.
Two days later, the ship was run aground and without a crew.
Many later theorized that pirates or rumrunners had taken the vessel, and there was a popular rumour that Russian Communists had hijacked the ships. A message in a bottle was also found which read: “Deering captured by oil burning boat something like chaser. Taking off everything handcuffing crew. Crew hiding all over ship no chance to make escape.” Not surprisingly, this turned out to be fake.
The most plausible clue was found inside the Deering herself. The captain’s quarters were in an odd state, as if several people had been sharing it. The large map, on which the ship’s movements were recorded, was marked in two distinct sets of handwriting. Wormell’s last recording was on 23 January, and another person had marked everything since.
It was never declared officially but, in the end, all signs pointed to mutiny. As for the other nine ships that disappeared? Word reached the mainland in July that one of the worst hurricanes in 22 years had swept through the area around that time. They wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Whatever the truth about the Bermuda Triangle, there are still some unexplained mysteries. There will always be mysteries as long as there's an abundance of imagination and a shortage of proof.
Photos provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.