An abandoned lifeboat at world’s end

Breaking news: a credible solution to the Bouvet Island lifeboat mystery has been found. See comments for 22-27 May 2011, 12 November 2011, 17-20 March and 9 April 2016.

The unidentified whaler or ship's lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

The unidentified whaler or ship’s lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

LongreadsThere is no more forbidding place on earth.

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.

[Gould p.136]

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]

Sea-cliffs on the north coast of Bouvet Island.

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]

Map of Bouvet Island as it is today. The Nyrøysa, where the mysterious lifeboat was discovered, can be seen on the north-west portion of the coast. Click to enlarge

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.

[Crawford pp.182-3]

Geological map of the Nyrøysa by Peter Baker. The lifeboat was found in the larger and most northerly of the two small lagoons (shaded black) on the new lava platform. Click to enlarge

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