Ghostly 'Message in Bottle' from Vanished Schooner

Patanela sailing past Heard Island in happier times, by Jack Woods
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One of the South Pacific's greatest sea mysteries was the disappearance of the Patanela, a 19-metre steel schooner, which vanished without trace while approaching Sydney Harbour in November 1988. Now, just under 20 years later, a ghostly 'message in a bottle' has been found from one of the crew on a beach in the Great Australian Bight by a beachcomber.

Patanela was one of the sturdiest yachts afloat and was famous for her Antarctic voyages and circumnavigations of the globe. She was considered by those who sailed her, and by the man who built her, to be virtually unsinkable. Instructed of steel with four watertight bulkheads, Patanela carried the latest safety and navigational equipment. During her three decades sailing the roughest seas in the world, Patanela did not falter.

She disappeared on a calm November night, within sight of the lights of Botany Bay. There was no mayday call, no distress flares sighted, no debris, and no bodies as evidence of her sinking.

The 'message in a bottle' is from Patanela crewman John Blissett. In faded blue handwriting inside a Bacardi bottle, it was found on a secluded beach near Eucla on the southern coast of Western Australia, by Esperance woman Sheryl Waideman on New Year’s Eve.

It was written by John Blissett, 23, of Taree, NSW, as he and three others sailed Patanela from Fremantle across the great Australian Bight on October 26, 1988.

Less than two weeks later, Patanela simply vanished as she sailed some 18km off Botany Bay in the early hours of November 8, 1988. The crew planned to enter the harbour at dawn. The solitary trace was a barnacle-encrusted lifebuoy found floating off Terrigal seven months later.

The note in a bottle sheds no light on what happened. Rather, it offers a sailing holiday to the lucky finder.

“Hi there - out here in the lonely Southern Ocean and thought we would give away a free holiday in the Whitsunday Islands in north Queensland, Australia,” John wrote.

“Our ship is travelling from Fremantle, Western Aust, to Queensland to work as a charter vessel.”

The note invites the finder to call one of a pair of phone numbers to claim the prize.

It gives Patanela’s position as 34 degrees, 26 minutes, 20 seconds south, 129 degrees, 18 minutes, 54 seconds east in the Great Australia Bight.

That’s south of Eucla - raising the possibility that the bottle drifted ashore and has sat undiscovered since.

John’s mother Marj, of Taree, said she was stunned to receive a message from Mrs Waideman revealing the discovery.

“It was totally unexpected. It is not going to solve the mystery but it is a little piece of John we never had,” she said. “It showed what an enjoyable and interesting trip they were having. They were two young blokes having a good time and they wanted to give somebody else a good time to enjoy the experience of sailing on such a magnificent vessel.”

In an email to the Blissett family, Mrs Waideman described stumbling across the bottle while wandering on a secluded section of the coastline between Mundrabilla and Eucla.

“We had a great time as it’s very isolated and we love beachcombing, fishing and collecting old bottles,” she said. “The bottle did not look very old but I was still very excited and we decided to open it at home. We were all extremely upset after finding out the story to know these people were missing.”

Aboard Patanela, a 19-metre steel-hulled schooner, was John Blissett and his friend Michael Calvin, both from Taree, plus the skipper, Perth businessman Ken Jones and his wife Noreen. None have been sighted since Patanela departed Portland, Victoria, in early November.

An inquest which started in 1992 concluded that Patanela foundered in the early hours of November 8, 1988 some time after a final radio contact with Sydney Harbour. Nothing remained to explain the vessel’s fate.

The disappearance sparked wide speculation and a variety of conspiracy theories including claims of piracy and drug running. There is no evidence to either substantiate or disprove any such claims.

Patanela book cover
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The coroner concluded the most likely explanation for such a sudden disappearance was that Patanela was run over by a large commercial vessel - although there was a complete absence of any floating wreckage such a short distance off Sydney.

Later Paul Whittaker and Robert Reid spent three years investigating Patanela's disappearance, and wrote the book 'The Patanela is Missing'.

Their startling conclusions show that truth is often stranger than fiction. This is a conundrum yet unsolved, one that seems to defy a definitive answer. It is truly one of the greatest sea mysteries of all time.

To see more of Jack Wood's magnificent sea paintings, one of which, of the Patanela, tops this article, go to his website