Disappearing Ships — Cape Hatteras & The Atlantic Coast

Most of us are familiar with the unexplained disappearances of aircraft and ships in the Bermuda Triangle, but there is another fascinating story of two ships lost off Cape Hatteras in 1921. Hurricanes and storms have always been prevalent in this area, and the Cape serves as a navigational point about 25 miles off the North Carolina coast for ships sailing the Atlantic Ocean.

The Hewitt, originally named the Pacific, was one of two ships owned by the Union Sulphur Company. Its twin, named the Atlantic, was torpedoed in 1917, an interesting omen in itself. The Hewitt left Sabine, Texas on January 20th enroute to Portland, Maine, and radioed in her location somewhere off the coast of Georgia on the 25th of January. A 5-mast wooden schooner, the Carroll A. Deering, was traveling the same northern route, returning to its homeport of Bath, Maine. It is believed that both ships encountered turbulent weather near the Cape, and somehow, the Deering ran aground on Diamond Shoals, with sails full set, on January 31. This may not have been an unusual occurrence in the midst of a storm, but it is here that the mystery begins.

Coast Guard boats and rescuers, unable to reach the ship until February 4th when the storm abated, found a strange scene onboard. It appeared that some sort of mutiny might have taken place, as some personal belongings were missing, as well as navigational charts and instruments. The handwriting in the ship’s chart appeared to be different from that of the captain’s at the beginning of the journey. The lifeboats were also gone, which indicated a possible planned escape from the schooner. Further investigation of the ship’s papers revealed that that there had been a confrontation between the first mate and the captain after leaving Barbados. The lighthouse keeper at Cape Lookout, NC recalled a message from the Deering on January 29th saying that the ship had lost its anchor near Cape Fear and to alert the ship’s owner of their location. This seemed odd to him, as the group of men sending the message did not appear to be officers, and ordinarily, such a group would not be assembled on the quarterdeck. To add to the mystery, a passing ship heading south at the same time did not respond to his radio signal and appeared to have no name or identification.

Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, the hull of the Deering was dynamited, supposedly to prevent it from becoming a navigational hazard, and more evidence was lost. We don’t know if the Hewitt had rescued any of the Deering survivors – there were no radio communications to that effect, as might be expected. Further search on shore and at sea revealed nothing of the 11 crewmen from the Deering.

About 2 a.m., on February 1, a strange light was seen from the Absecon Lighthouse at Atlantic City, and as far as 20 miles up the coast. The Coast Guard quickly dispatched patrol boats to the area thinking there might have been an explosion on a ship, possibly the Hewitt. It was possible that the cargo of sulphur, not generally considered hazardous, had ignited and caused the explosion. However, the Hewitt had regularly carried cargoes of sulphur to chemical and ammunition industries for use during the war without incident. The location raised another question too, as the distance traveled from their last radio contact would probably not correlate with the ship being in this spot at the time. A seaplane also explored a 30-mile area from 5,000 feet and detected no sign of debris or other evidence of a missing ship, nor were any radio messages received from a ship in distress. A more plausible explanation might be that mines planted in the Atlantic Ocean before 1921 caused an explosion, and like the Atlantic, it too became another casualty of war.

More rumors circulated and speculation arose, as interest in the disappearance of the two ships increased. The media including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times were quick to offer their own opinions. The Times attributed the disappearances to either piracy or a deliberate attempt by the Soviets to confiscate another U.S. ship, a common practice at the time. Russia was a known enemy, and piracy had been a part of history for years and still is; both were certainly a consideration. Lloyds of London disagreed, however, stating these disappearances were not an unusual occurrence at all considering the weather conditions that prevail around the Cape.

As Lula Wormell, daughter of the missing captain of the Deering, continued her search, another possible clue to the mystery emerged. A bottle found by a local fisherman, Christopher Gray, in April 1921 contained a message with the following excerpt: ”Deering captured by oil-burning boat…crew hiding…handcuffed…no chance to escape…finder to notify Deering headqtrs.” Initially, handwriting experts determined that the message had probably been written by Bates, the engine man of the schooner. This discovery encouraged a determined Lula Wormell to use her influence and gain the support of Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce. Hoover enlisted other agencies including the Navy, State, and Justice Departments to join the search, and consulates around the world were alerted to possible piracy attempts. Soon, the FBI was brought in to investigate the validity of the discovery and the message in the bottle. They concluded that the whole thing was indeed a hoax, perpetrated by Gray in an effort to impress the people at the Cape Hatteras lighthouse where he was seeking employment.

Subsequently, some effort was made to locate any of the 40 seamen from the Hewitt that may have survived its disappearance. One man and possible survivor had aroused the suspicion of the Consulate in Istanbul because of passport discrepancies. The FBI discovered upon questioning Raney that he had indeed signed on with the Hewitt, but an unfortunate accident onboard just 20 minutes before the ship was scheduled to leave Sabine had put him in the hospital and he was unable to sail. In Raney’s opinion, the ship had simply broken up because of overloading, which was often the case. Whether this was true or not is hard to say, but the FBI accepted his explanation.

Considering the perseverance of Lula Wormell in seeking an answer to the disappearance of the Deering, the lack of interest by the Bureau of Inspection and Navigation and the Steamboat Investigation Service in finding the Hewitt or its survivors, if any, was deplorable. Unfortunately, with no ship or cargo to provide revenue, the courts and insurance companies refused at the time to provide compensation for the seamen’s families. The settlement amount paid to Union Sulphur is unknown, but it is doubtful that it covered the full value of the Hewitt at $1,200,000 and its cargo worth $175,000. If the families of the missing members of the merchant marine were ever compensated for their loss, it was certainly not nearly enough. Regrettably, seamen’s rights were not widely recognized, and members of the merchant marine had little influence in the 1920’s.

Whether the Bolsheviks, pirates, weather, or other circumstances were the cause, the mysterious disappearances of the Hewitt and the Deering have never been explained. Although it is presumed the Hewitt was somewhere near the area of Cape Hatteras and Diamond Shoals, based on their last radio contact, this too may be incorrect. In fact, the ship may never have reached the coast off Atlantic City, and sailed no further than Jupiter Inlet in Florida. In any event, it is strange that with all the numerous diving expeditions off the Atlantic coast, no further evidence of either ship or its survivors has ever been found.

Sharon Slayton

Filed Under: Travel mysteries

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  1. Range says:

    Very interesting and well written. Enjoyed the article.

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