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The sea tantalizes but keeps its secrets

The sea tantalizes but keeps its secrets

Despite powerful new search and bottom-scanning technologies, the sea still does not easily give up her missing ships or her lost sailors.

So it came as something of a shock earlier this year when a bottle containing a note tossed from a sailboat that has been missing for nearly 20 years was discovered on a beach in western Australia. A clue that escaped Poseidon’s grasp?

The note was written by a 23-year-old crewmember aboard the 63-foot schooner Patanela, which disappeared on a calm November night in 1988 just outside Sydney’s Botany Bay. The crew of four had planned to bring the vessel into harbor at dawn. A well-regarded circumnavigator and Antarctic voyager, the steel-hulled Patanela with her four watertight compartments was considered “unsinkable” by many who sailed aboard her. She also was reportedly well-outfitted with safety equipment and was under the command of a seasoned skipper.

Her sudden disappearance without a mayday or a debris field, under benign conditions and essentially within sight of land, remains one of the most puzzling sea mysteries of the late 20th century. Speculation over what happened still runs the proverbial gamut, and for years there were numerous “reported” sightings of the schooner, from South America to Asia. None proved true.

About seven months after Patanela went missing, a fisherman found a barnacle-covered life buoy bearing the vessel’s name. But since then, no tangible evidence of the schooner has turned up until the recent discovery of the bottle. The prevailing wisdom holds that the Patanela probably was run down by a large commercial ship, although rumors have included everything from a hijacking by pirates or gun smugglers to being struck by a Russian submarine. After two decades, the bottom line is no one knows for certain what happened to the Patanela that night, and the note in the bottle does little to clear it up.

The message was written by crewman John Blissett and offers the lucky finder of the bottle a free sailing vacation aboard Patanela. “Hi there — out here in the lonely Southern Ocean,” wrote the young sailor. “I thought we would give away a free holiday in the WhitsundayIslands, in north Queensland. Our ship is traveling from Fremantle, Western Australia, to Queensland to work as a charter vessel.”

Blissett gave the Patanela’s coordinates in the note, as well as two phone numbers to call to obtain the charter. The note was dated Oct. 26, 1988. The ship was lost during predawn hours of Nov. 8.

The bottle was found on New Year’s Eve by a woman beachcombing on the southern coast of Western Australia. The note was inside a Bacardi bottle up in the dunes on a secluded beach, according to reports. The surprised beach walker said the bottle didn’t look very old, but the blue ink on the paper was faded, and it took about 20 minutes to get the note out of the bottle.

Blissett’s mother was quoted as saying she was “stunned” by the discovery. “It’s not going to solve the mystery, but it is a little piece of John we never had,” she told reporters.

To read more about the disappearance of the schooner, order a copy of “Patanela is Missing” by Paul Whittaker and Robert Reid, which is easily found on the Web.

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Closer to home, many of us followed a sailing mystery last year when world-renowned computer scientist Jim Gray and his red-hulled 40-foot C&C sailboat, Tenacious, disappeared outside San FranciscoBay.

Gray, who was 63, vanished after sailing out of the Bay for the FarallonIslands, about 27 miles west of the Golden GateBridge, where he planned to spread the ashes of his mother. Winds were light and visibility good, so weather probably did not play a role.

When Gray failed to return to his slip that night, an intense search was undertaken by both the Coast Guard and a large group of Gray’s friends and colleagues from the high-tech community based in and around Silicon Valley. Scientists, engineers and researchers at companies from Microsoft to Google lent their expertise, resources and brainpower to conduct one of largest, most technologically sophisticated, privately funded searches ever undertaken for a sailor.

The group harnessed satellite imagery, drift models and the power of the Web — not to mention thousands of volunteers — in a pioneering search effort that may serve as a model for rescuers faced with searching vast areas in the future. A tribute to the respected, accomplished computer scientist will be held in May at UC Berkeley.

To date, no trace of the man who helped map the heavens by developing the world’s largest astronomy database has been found.

“We were swallowed up in the absolute common measure of history – endless unbroken darkness under a swarm of stars.”- Thor Heyerdahl