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A Long and Strange History of Lost Ships

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It is eerie to think that those who stood at the windows of the airport in Kuala Lumpur and watched the Malaysian flight MH370 depart for Beijing would possibly be the last humans to set eyes on the plane. Yes, accidents happen – we all know that when we board a plane.

But until lately we had an unshakeable belief that with modern radar, tracking devices, search equipment, and indestructible black boxes, we could nearly instantly discover any wreckage and begin piecing together what went wrong. No one had any thought that over a week later we might still know almost nothing of what had become of the 239 passengers and crew who disappeared in the most bizarre and mind-bending aviation disaster of our times.

Yet this certainty isn't something incredibly new. For centuries, those who watched the white sails of a ship disappear over the horizon, bearing loved ones on board to distant lands they knew little of and had never seen pictures of, traveling over barely charted waters, knew not only that they might never see the people on board again, but also that they might never know what had become of them.

The commerce and exploration which had exploded onto the world scene in the 15th century brought incredible opportunities for economic gains and exchanges, and to see places we never knew had existed. But as ships left the coastal waters and made their way to the high seas, the amount of time these sailors would be away from home lengthened, and the chance increased that they might never be heard from again.

The UN estimates that there may have been some 3 million shipwrecks over the course of human history. Surprisingly, these did not happen predominantly in the deepest parts of the wide oceans. Probably most shipwrecks have happened in water no deeper than a swimming pool.

Ships were usually wrecked by striking rocks, wreaths, and wrecks of other ships. The most dangerous part of a voyage might not be the deepest parts of the ocean, or the fear of foreign militaries or pirates, but the cliffs, sandbars, and shoals near a coast, and the passageways into a harbor, dotted with rocks and the sunken remains of other shipwrecks. It was the goal of chart-makers to record as many of these hidden dangers as possible, and lighthouses to make sure that ships kept away.

These numerous coastal wrecks had at least one advantage: the survivors had a much greater chance of reaching land, and whether they did or not, at least we would know from sightings of the vessel or washed up wreckage what had happened, and be able to take steps to prevent it from happening in the future (such as when the British Parliament in the 18th century put out a large cash reward to anyone who could find a way to accurately determine longitude while at sea). Those on board ships which went down in the open sea still often found their way back home. The survivors of the Essex, which was attacked by a whale and sunk in one of the most remote parts of the Pacific ocean, thousands of miles from land, still found their way to a friendly vessel that rescued many of the crew.

But many ships were never found again, and the mystery of their fates never solved.

Perhaps these most recent events have put us in touch, in a small way with the fears and pains of our ancestors. Ninety-six years ago this month, the United States lost a ship, carrying a cargo of ore, and her 306 officers, enlisted men, and passengers, and nobody knows, to this day, what happened to her.

The USS Cyclops left the island of Barbados, bound for Baltimore, on March 4, 1918. She never arrived at her destination. Nothing has been found of her remains, nor anything heard from the crew ever again. On June 1 of that year, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, future President Franklin D. Roosevelt, declared that the ship was lost, and her crew dead.

Immediately there was some consensus on what might have happened. The Cyclops had a cracked cylinder in the starboard engine. Furthermore, she was reported to be overloaded. These two factors, mixed with a storm, seem to provide a plausible explanation for why she went down, though no one still knows where. She was near what has been called the Bermuda Triangle when she disappeared.

Like today, speculation swirled around the possibility that it may not have been an accident. The United States was at war with Germany at the time, so it seemed possible a submarine may have sunk her. Furthermore, the captain, Lieutenant Commander G.W. Worley, had been born in Hanover before coming to the United States, and many speculated that his crew was full of German sympathizers. The Germans denied any involvement in the missing vessel (remember that ships sunk by submarines typically had survivors, whereas no survivors were ever found for this vessel). And when access to German records was gained after the war, no mention or record of the ship was found.

She had a problem with bearing extreme rolls in the water. A month later, a steamer reported running into a gale on the same course the Cyclops had taken. Yet it was not officially known what had happened. And decades later the Navy was still launching investigations into her disappearance. This was the first major loss of a steel-hulled steam ship carrying a bulk cargo, and the largest loss of life by a United States ship not directly related to combat.

The fate of MH370 continues to baffle and frustrate the world, and is causing immeasurable grief for the families of those involved. We all hope an explanation is obtained, and that even survivors are found. But we may be witnessing a rare throwback to a time when vessels could disappear without a trace.

Just as the Navy has continued to probe the disappearance of the Cyclops almost a hundred years ago, so future generations may forever remember that a Malaysian flight disappeared in 2014, and nothing has been found of its passengers. It may inspire fictitious tales of a settlement sprung up on an Indian Ocean island which will go undiscovered for decades.

A Cornish folk song, arranged by the 19th century composer Gustav Holst, tells of a maiden who is mourning and going mad for the loss of her lover, who was shipwrecked at sea. And though in this song, the ending is happy, as her lover suddenly arrives back on land, the final verse of the song ends with the sobering words “All pretty maids with patience wait that have got loves at sea.”  

Those of us who have not been directly affected by the events of this disappearance have still been given a brief window into the pains and fears of our ancestors, who waited anxiously for years at a time wondering if their loved ones would ever return from their voyages.

Caleb E. Smith is a Washington, D.C.-based RealClearHistory contributor.

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