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Crewless cat leaves authorities baffled

Australian authorities may have thought it was the second coming of the Mary Celeste, the brigantine found adrift and crewless off Portugal in 1872. Earlier this year, a 32-foot catamaran named Kaz II was found off the Great Barrier Reef about 100 miles northeast of Townsville, in Queensland on Australia’s east coast. The sails were up — the headsail shredded — fenders were out, and the dinghy was on its davits, but there was no sign of the crew.

The explanation behind what happened to the sailors has proved as baffling as the case of the Mary Celeste. Investigators say the three crewmen aboard Kaz II — skipper Derek Batten, 56, and brothers Peter and James Tunstead, 69 and 63 — got under way Sunday, April 15, from ArlieBeach in the WhitsundayIslands, north of Mackay, Queensland. It is believed that one of the men purchased the vessel there and that they were headed north along the coast on a two-month voyage to their hometown of Perth in Western Australia.

When the abandoned catamaran was found three days later, the boat’s diesel was running and in neutral, cabin lights were on, navigation equipment was running, and food was set on the galley table, according to news reports. Thomas Hilston, with the Queensland Police, wouldn’t verify those details in mid-May, as the investigation was still open.

After searching the vessel and analyzing GPS and navigation data, investigators determined that no one had been steering Kaz II since shortly after the men set sail, according to a Queensland Police news release. Believing the men may have sailed into rough weather, officials launched an extensive sea and aerial search. It was suspended April 22 after medical advisors suggested that the men likely weren’t still alive. Friends and family of the missing crew called off their own private searches in early May.

“Initial investigations indicate … the vessel may have been tracking in a direction towards an area where some high wind squalls and rough seas were building,” says Roy Wall, Queensland Police northern region chief superintendent, in the release. Details about the storm, including wind speeds and wave heights, weren’t immediately available.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Kaz II crew had investigators considering many theories. Were they swept overboard in heavy seas, or knocked into the water by the boom? Might the men have fallen victim to foul play? Did the cat run aground on a sandbar, the crew swept away after getting off the boat to free her? Although the evidence collected couldn’t support any of these theories, investigators were confident that the crew’s disappearance was accidental.

“Police have thoroughly examined the vessel and its contents,” Hilston says in an e-mail to Soundings, “and at this time there is nothing to suggest foul play.”