Breaking news: a credible solution to the Bouvet Island lifeboat mystery has been found. See comments for 22-27 May 2011, 12 November 2011, and 17-20 March 2016.
Bouvet Island lies in the furthest reaches of the storm-wracked Southern Ocean, far south even of the Roaring Forties. It is a speck of ice in the middle of a freezing fastness: a few square miles of uninhabited volcanic basalt groaning under several hundred feet of glacier, scraped raw by gales, shrouded by drifts of sea-fog, and utterly devoid of trees, shelter, or landing places.
What it does have is a mystery.
Let us begin this tale at its beginning. Bouvet is appallingly isolated; the nearest land is the coast of Antarctica, a further 1,750km south, and it is slightly further than that to Cape Town and Tristan da Cunha. Indeed, as Rupert Gould put it in characteristic style:
It is the most isolated spot in the whole world – a fact which anyone who cares to spend an instructive five minutes with a pair of dividers and a good globe can easily verify. Around Bouvet Island, it is possible to draw a circle of one thousand miles radius (having an area of 3,146,000 square miles, or very nearly that of Europe) which contains no other land whatever. No other point of land on the earth’s surface has this peculiarity.
Yet, for all this, the island has a rather interesting history. It was first discovered at a remarkably early date: on 1 January 1739, by the earliest of all polar explorers, the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Bouvet de Lozier, after whom it is named. After that, however, the place remained lost for the next sixty-nine years – Bouvet had fixed its position incorrectly in an era in which navigation was still largely by dead reckoning. The island eluded the efforts of even Captain Cook to find it, and it only turned up again in 1808, when it was relocated several hundred miles from the spot where its discoverers had placed it. There remained considerable doubt, for the rest of the nineteenth century, as to whether the islands of 1739 and 1808 were even the same place, for not even the highly competent James Ross – in 1843 and again in 1845 – could locate Bouvet in the prevailing foul conditions, which include a semi-permanent shrouding of thick sea-mist, and storms 300 days a year. The isle was not fixed on the nautical charts until 1898, when it was definitively relocated by the splendidly-named Kapitan Krech of the German survey ship Valdivia. [Gould pp.138-46; Stommel pp.98-9]
The Germans were the first to actually circumnavigate the island (Bouvet had believed that it was simply the northern cape of the sought-for Terra Australis, the gigantic but illusory southern continent it was long imagined must exist in the southern hemisphere in order to counterbalance Eurasia). They reported that it was no more than five miles long by three miles wide, that at least nine-tenths of it was under ice, and that it was almost entirely surrounded by unscalable ice cliffs which rose out of the sea well-nigh vertically to heights of up to 1,600 feet. [Muller et al p.260] But the Valdivia‘s men, like most explorers who make their way to this most inhospitable of places, found it impossible to land. Heavy seas, soaring cliffs, and the absence of any coves or inlets make it too dangerous to approach Bouvet Island by boat in any but the calmest weather.
The first explorers to actually make it ashore were Norwegians from the survey vessel Norvegia in 1927. Led by a worthy successor to Kapitan Krech, the equally alliterative Harald Horntvedt, they were also the first to venture onto Bouvet’s central plateau, which rises to about 2,500 feet (780m) above sea level and consists of a pair of glaciers covering the remains of a still-active volcano. Horntvedt took possession of the island in the name of King Haakon VII, renamed it Bouvetøya (which just means “Bouvet Island” in Norwegian), roughly mapped it, and left a small cache of provisions on shore for the benefit of any shipwrecked mariners. [Baker pp.72-3] The Norwegians returned in 1929 and again a few years later (when it was discovered that both their supply huts had been destroyed by the unremittingly hostile local weather), but after that Bouvet was left pretty much in peace until 1955, when the South African government expressed interest in the possibility of establishing a weather station there. To find out the answer to this question, the frigate Transvaal was sent south and she arrived off Bouvet on 30 January. [Crawford p.159]
It is here that the puzzle that concerns us comes gradually into focus. The South Africans sailed right around the island without finding any sign of the sort of large, flat platform on which a weather station might be built, but three years later – when the American icebreaker Westwind called at Bouvet on 1 January 1958 – it discovered that a small volcanic eruption had apparently taken place since 1955, and vented lava into the sea on the north-westernmost part of the island. The eruption had resulted in the formation of a low-lying lava plateau measuring perhaps 400 yards long by 200 yards wide. [Baker p.76; Crawford pp.162-4]
Bouvet Island had grown. And though the Norwegians, with a certain lack of poetry, named the plateau the Nyrøysa – meaning “New Mound” – they did so by scribbling the name onto their maps. No-one actually went all the way to Bouvet to investigate.
Fast forward six more years to 1964. The South Africans, who had finally got around to dispatching an expedition to take a look at the Nyrøysa, sent two vessels to rendezvous at Bouvet on Easter Sunday: their own supply ship R.S.A. and the Royal Navy’s Antarctic ice vessel HMS Protector. The expedition waited for three long days for the chill winds howling across the Nyrøysa to drop below their customary 50 knots (90 km/h; 57mph) until, on 2 April, it was finally judged safe to attempt a landing by helicopter. One of the Protector‘s pair of Westland Whirlwinds then dropped a survey team on the Nyrøysa. The man in charge was Lieutenant Commander Allan Crawford, a British-born veteran of the South Atlantic [Crawford pp.45-114], and it was he who made an unexpected find only a few moments after landing. There, wallowing in a small lagoon and guarded by a colony of fur seals, lay an abandoned boat: half-swamped, its gunwales awash, but still in good enough condition to be seaworthy.
What drama, we wondered, was attached to this strange discovery. There were no markings to identify its origin or nationality. On the rocks a hundred yards away was a forty-four gallon drum and a pair of oars, with pieces of wood and a copper flotation or buoyancy tank opened out flat for some purpose. Thinking castaways might have landed, we made a brief search but found no human remains.
It was a mystery worthy of a Sherlock Holmes adventure. The boat, which Crawford described as “a whaler or ship’s lifeboat,” must have come from some larger ship. But no trade route ran within a thousand miles of Bouvet. If it really was a lifeboat, then, what ship had it come from? What spectacular feat of navigation had brought it across many miles of sea? How could it have survived a crossing of the Southern Ocean? There was no sign it had ever borne a mast and sail, or engine, but the solitary pair of oars that Crawford found would barely have been adequate to steer a heavy, 20-foot boat. Most unnervingly of all, what had become of the crew?
It’s unfortunate that the shore party had practically no time to investigate their peculiar discovery. They were on Bouvet for only a short while – about 45 minutes, according to Crawford – and in that time the men had to conduct a survey of the platform, collect rock samples and fend off the attentions of aggressive male sea-elephants who resented their intrusion. There was no time to explore the Nyrøysa properly or to hunt for any further signs of life. Given those constraints, it is very unlikely that the “brief search” Crawford mentioned consisted of much more than walking a few yards from the lagoon in either direction and scouting for the most obvious signs of bodies or habitation. Nor does it appear that any subsequent visitors to the island continued the investigation. There is, in fact, no further mention of the mysterious boat, though Bouvet was visited again two years later, in 1966, by a biological survey team whose members paid considerable attention to the lagoon. This group established that it was shallow, thick with algae, alkaline – thanks to seal excreta – and fed by meltwater from the surrounding cliffs. [Muller et al p.262] But if the lifeboat was still there, they did not mention it.
In fact, nobody but Allan Crawford seems to have taken the least interest in the mystery. There was no contemporary newspaper coverage of the story, nor have I been able to find any further details of the boat itself, nor of the items found on shore. One or two further brief contemporary accounts of the landing do exist, apparently, but in a publication so obscure that I have not so far found copies of it.¹ No one, in short, seems to have asked how the boat came to be there; no one searched for any members of its crew. And no one attempted to explain what Crawford found.
Pretty much all we have to go on, then, are a few scant lines of Crawford’s, a sketchy knowledge of Bouvet Island’s history, and some common sense conclusions regarding the likely behaviour of shipwrecked mariners. With these, nonetheless, it is possible to construct at least three possible hypotheses that might explain the presence of the whaler.
We’ll begin by setting out the facts we can establish. First, it is clear that the boat must have arrived on Bouvet at some point in the nine years between January 1955, when the Nyrøysa did not exist, and April 1964, when it did. That is a reasonably restricted timeframe, and if the whaler really was a lifeboat, it ought to be possible to establish which ship it came from. Second, the Protector‘s shore party saw no sign of any camp or shelter, fire or food. Third, the presence of a heavy boat in a lagoon located at least 30 yards from the shore suggests either that it reached the island with a full crew, enough to man-haul it over some pretty rough ground, or that it was put there by a smaller group who didn’t plan to leave the island for some time. Beyond that, though, all is speculation – and perhaps the strangest thing about this extremely strange incident is that the handful of facts we have don’t fully support any of the obvious theories.
Let’s look first at the possibility that the boat was what it appeared to be: a lifeboat from a shipwreck. That would certainly be the most dramatic and romantic explanation, and it explains some of the things that Crawford noted: why the whaler was in the lagoon (it was put there by men who had no way of tying it up securely on shore, and who weren’t certain if they would need it again) and why a small pile of equipment was found close by. Who knows why Crawford’s “copper flotation or buoyancy tank” had been “opened out flat” – but it sounds like the sort of thing a group of desperate men with very limited resources might do. The lifeboat theory probably also offers the best explanation for the presence of only a single pair of oars on shore: perhaps there had originally been others, but they were lost overboard in the course of a terrible voyage.
There are, however, plenty of things that don’t fit the lifeboat hypothesis, and the most obvious is the lack of much equipment and the absence of either bodies or a camp. There would be no good reason for a group of survivors to move away from the Nyrøysa; it is clear of snow, at least during the southern summer, and is the only large, flat area of ground on the entire island. But if a party of survivors did stay put in this small area, and died there, then some trace of a campsite, not to mention signs of their bodies, ought to have been discovered in even the most hasty search.
Might a small group have moved on and died elsewhere on the island, though? Unlikely. Bouvet’s ice cliffs are high and highly prone to avalanche, so it would be very dangerous to attempt to move inland or to camp too close to any of the vertiginous rock faces that abound on the island. On top of that, the most obvious sources of food – Bouvet’s seals and sea-elephants – congregate on the Nyrøysa. There would be no real need to hunt elsewhere, unless the survivors had been on the island for so long that they had wiped out the local animal population – and if that was the case, signs of a campsite ought to have been doubly obvious. The men would surely have left the remains of fires and sea-elephant suppers.
Just how likely is it, anyway, that any group of shipwrecked seamen would have made their way to Bouvet? Not only is the island remarkably hard to locate in even the best of circumstances; it also lies so far off the normal trade routes, and is so notoriously barren, that it’s hard to imagine any group of men with any alternative would have made for it in any but the most desperate of circumstances. Only a ship that went down to the west of Bouvet (so that the prevailing currents would have swept lifeboats towards the island), and which did so within a few hundred miles of it, at most, would be a likely candidate, and any hypothetical wreck would certainly require that a competent navigator equipped with charts, instruments and a huge degree of fortune was among the unhappy survivors. If the men in the lifeboat had had time to find their charts and sextants, however, they ought to have had time to have brought a good deal more equipment with them than Crawford discovered on the island. What sort of castaways, after all, make it to shore armed with nothing more than a barrel of water, a pair of oars, and an empty copper tank?
Finally – and to my mind most significantly of all – why would any party of survivors, however well equipped, have left their boat floating in the lagoon? It was the only readily available source of shelter that they had on an island where, even in summer, the mean temperature hovers around zero. When one remembers what Ernest Shackleton’s men did when they were stranded on Elephant Island a few years earlier (they upended their boats and turned them into living quarters), it has to be admitted that the discovery of the boat in the lagoon is perhaps the strongest evidence that wherever the whaler came from, it was not the sole survivor of some grisly shipwreck.
What, then, of other explanations? Less likely, but not altogether impossible, is the suggestion that the boat found its way to Bouvet without any men on board. It might have been lost during a shipwreck, overturned and ditched its crew, or simply been washed overboard in a storm, and then drifted about the Southern Ocean, perhaps for years, before being washed up on the island. This theory has the virtue of simplicity, and it certainly explains why the boat appeared so worn – “there were no markings,” remember, “to identify its origin or nationality” – not to mention the absence of any signs of life on shore.
Other than that, though, the “derelict” hypothesis has little to recommend it. It certainly does not explain why Crawford found equipment left on shore, and it frankly strains credulity to suggest that, after making an ocean voyage of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles, a waterlogged hulk was washed ashore (in a storm presumably) in such a way that it avoided being dashed to pieces against Bouvet’s cliffs, was left pretty much undamaged, and then came to rest in the one spot on the coast of a small and remote island where it would not have been washed back out to sea again. It’s not as if that part of the island’s coast is knee deep in flotsam and jetsam, either; the men of the 1966 biological survey noted “the absence of practically any washed-up marine life this exposed western side of the island.” [Muller et al p.262]
A third possibility is that the boat might have come from an unknown ship that called at Bouvet between 1955 and 1964, and was, for some reason, abandoned there. This suggestion most convincingly explains the presence of the whaler; it is precisely the sort of general purpose craft used to make a landing, and in fact the Transvaal, when she called at Bouvet in 1955, had put her men briefly ashore in a very similar craft. If the abandoned boat had reached the island on a ship, moreover, there would have been no need for any implausible feat of navigation by its crew – and be in no doubt that a long voyage across the Southern Ocean in an open boat certainly is implausible, given the prevailing weather conditions. Ernest Shackleton’s voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia, across 800 miles of the same seas, is routinely lauded as one of the greatest of all feats of seamanship, after all – and it was accomplished by men who were properly supplied, fully equipped, and who sailed, moreover, in an enclosed boat provided with a deck casing that prevented waves from slopping onboard.
The suggestion that the abandoned boat had belonged to a landing party has another advantage: it explains the absence of bodies, a campsite and significant quantities of equipment. Suppose, for example, that a group of men made a landing in two boats, but left the island in one, taking their gear (and any bodies, I suppose) with them when they went. Or perhaps they landed in the boat, and were later evacuated by helicopter. If the landing had taken place during the 1950s, moreover, it doesn’t seem all that unlikely that five or six harsh Bouvet Island winters would have been sufficient to erase any names or other markings that the boat once had.
Yet even this explanation, attractive though it is, has substantial holes in it. What sort of expedition would be planning to stay so long on the island that its men would go to the trouble of man-hauling a big boat into the lagoon – Crawford’s team, after all, did what they needed to do in less than an hour? What sort of expedition goes ashore carrying a copper flotation tank? And what sort of expedition would be so poorly equipped that it was forced to improvise, while briefly on shore, by hammering flat said tank?
Indeed, the more one tries to think through this superficially attractive solution to the problem, the more questions it raises. Perhaps the most important one is this: why would any shore party abandon such a valuable boat when they left? Whalers are pretty expensive items, and need to be accounted for. Yes, one might suggest that the boat had to be left because of some sort of emergency – but if the weather was so bad that there was no possibility of launching it again, it would surely have also been too bad for any shore party to get off in a second boat, or to be evacuated by helicopter. And if one imagines, say, an accident that required the immediate heli-borne evacuation of an injured man – leaving not enough men ashore to handle the boat – why would the party have taken all their usable equipment with them, but left a single pair of oars? Why not go back later for the oars and the whaler? Why, indeed – if there was a helicopter available all along – land by boat in the first place?Plainly more research is needed if we are to grope towards the right solution. Most of the materials do exist, but they require work; there are directories, for instance, of all the known shipwrecks and marine disasters that occurred during the years 1955-64. But these books, when consulted, turn out to be most unhelpfully organised – alphabetically, by name of ship, without any system of cross-referencing by date or place. This means that the only way of locating a likely wreck is to read through the whole of three large volumes, all the way from A to Z. [Hocking; Hooke] Thanks to this hopeless limitation – and my own ingrained unwillingness to devote a couple of days to ploughing through about 800 pages of close type in search of something that is very possibly not there – the most that I can say, after going through the business end of just one of the three volumes, is that any shipwreck capable of leaving a party of men struggling across the Southern Ocean in a lifeboat must have taken place before the end of 1962. None of the wrecks that occurred between January 1963 and March 1964 remotely fits the bill.
One other obvious area for additional research remains, and that is to look into who else might possibly have been on Bouvet between 1955 and 1964. At first glance it appears unlikely that any such unknown expeditions ever took place – the island, after all, commonly went years without seeing human beings. But in fact traces of at least two possible visits do exist, and – in theory, at least – either might have abandoned a whaler in the lagoon.
The first, and by a distance the least likely, is also the most mysterious, for when Allan Crawford was working in Cape Town in May 1959, he received a visit from an Italian calling himself Count Major Giorgio Costanzo Beccaria, who asked his advice about chartering a ship to go to Bouvet. The Count’s purpose, it was explained, was to help a Professor Silvio Zavatti go ashore on the island to conduct scientific research.
Crawford did what he could to help the Italian locate a suitable vessel, but without success, and the Count returned to Italy. In June 1960, though, Crawford received an odd letter from Professor Zavatti himself in which he claimed not only to have gone to Bouvet, but to have ventured ashore, landing in March 1959.
The letter took Crawford by surprise, since he knew of no ship in any South African port that the Italians could have chartered, and when he wrote to Costanzo he received a letter denying an expedition as described had ever taken place. Zavatti, however, supplied further details, and even published a book, Viaggo All ‘Isola Bouvet, in which he described his adventures. This volume, Crawford drily notes, was written for children and illustrated by only a single photograph – “of seals, which could have been taken in any zoo” – and he eventually concluded that the entire episode was a hoax. [Crawford pp.172-6] If the Zavetti expedition did take place, moreover, there is nothing in any of Crawford’s evidence to suggest that it abandoned a whaler on the island.
Altogether more promising, however, is a brief reference to another visit that I turned up in a bibliography of scientific research on Bouvet Island. [Watkins et al] This suggests that in 1959 – five years before the South Africans arrived, which certainly fits well with Crawford’s observation of a worn and scoured-clean whaler bearing no identifying marks – a Soviet expedition including one G.A. Solyanik made some ornithological observations on Bouvet Island. That much, at least, is certainly implied by the title of Solyanik’s paper (which I have not yet seen), since it is called “Some bird observations on Bouvet Island.” It appeared in the second volume of a regrettably hard-to-find journal called the Soviet Antarctic Expedition Information Bulletin, published in 1964.
A brief poke about online confirms that Solyanik was real enough – he was a researcher at the Odessa Biological Station – and that he took part in the four-year First Soviet Antarctic Expedition (1955-58), organised to coincide with the International Geophysical Year of 1957. This expedition sailed on board the icebreaker Ob’, which was certainly large enough to carry whalers, and rendezvoused with a pair of Russian whaling ships, the Slava and the Ivan Nosenko, establishing two shore stations in Antarctica. Like the likely-mythical Italian expedition to Bouvet, the timing looks about right to account for a weatherbeaten whaler, left over from the visit, to have been found without identifying marks six or eight years later. And, given the secrecy that attached to most things the Soviets attempted at the height of the Cold War, it would not be much of a surprise to find that they did a lot of things in the Antarctic that the British and South Africans were unaware of at the time.
This is all still fantastically hypothetical. Further research is needed here. The Soviet theory certainly doesn’t answer all the questions I posed earlier in this post, and it’s not yet at all clear to me whether the Russians really did go ashore on Bouvet Island – and, if they did, whether some mishap resulted in them abandoning equipment there. Put a gun to my head right now, however, and I’d suggest that the most likely explanation for Allan Crawford’s mysterious discovery of 2 April 1964 may lie in the memories of some ageing Russian ornithologists, or in a long-forgotten audit of equipment supplied to the icebreaker Ob’, lying in some obscure ex-Soviet archive.
1. The Newsletter of the South African Weather Bureau.
P.E. Baker. ‘Historical and geological notes on Bouvetoya.’ British Antarctic Survey Bulletin 13 (1967).
Allan Crawford. Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties. Edinburgh: Charles Skilton, 1982.
Rupert Gould. ‘The Auroras, and Other Doubtful Islands.’ In Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944.
Charles Hocking. Dictionary of Disasters at Sea During the Age of Steam, Including Sailing Ships and Ships of War Lost in Action, 1824-1962. London: London Stamp Exchange, 1989.
Norman Hooke. Maritime casualties, 1963-1996. London: Lloyd’s of London Press, 1997.
D.B. Muller, F.R. Schoeman and E.M. Van Zinderen Bakker Sr. ‘Some notes on a biological reconnaissance of Bouvetøya (Antarctic)’. South African Journal of Science, June 1967.
Henry Stommel. Lost Islands: The Story of Islands That Have Vanished from the Nautical Charts. Victoria [BC]: University of British Columbia Pess, 1984.
EM Van Zinderen Bakker. ‘The South African biological and geological survey of the Marion and Prince Edward Islands and the meteorological expedition to Bouvet Island.’ South African Journal of Science 63 (1967).
BP Watkins et al. ‘Scientific research at Bouvet Island, 1785-1983: a bibliography.’ South African Journal of Antarctic Research 25 (1984).