Mystery Of The 'unsinkable' Yacht

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday December 3, 1988

ROBYN HARVEY and EDMUND DOOGUE

AT 1am on November 8, Ken Jones, the skipper of a 20metre yacht Patanella, radioed to Sydney that he was 10 nautical miles east of Botany Bay and had run out of fuel. He planned to tack seaward during the night before tacking back to Sydney to refuel.

That message was the last contact with the Patanella. The yacht, which was on its way from Fremantle, Western Australia to Airlie Beach, Queensland with a crew of four, has not been seen or heard from since.

On board on November 8 were Michael Calvin, 21, and John Blissett, 23, both from Taree; the skipper, Ken Jones, and his wife Noreen, from Perth. They planned to berth in Sydney, pick up the owner, Mr Alan Nicol, and then continue north to Airlie Beach, 1,200 nautical miles north of Sydney, where they would meet the owner's wife, Sue, and their two children. The Nicols bought the yacht four months ago and were very excited about a holiday in the Whitsundays.

Calvin and Blissett, both keen, adventurous sailors, met Mr Nicol while working in Fremantle in September. They had travelled to Perth by bus in February with the idea of finding some sort of work on a boat, and anticipated some extensive sailing experience. Both were trying to clock up as many sailing hours as possible in an effort to obtain their navigational certificates.

They approached Mr Nicol, after admiring the Patanella one day at Fremantle Yacht Club. Mr Nicol offered them work refitting the entire yacht. He eventually asked them to join him on the cruise to Airlie Beach.

Mr Nicol described Ken Jones, an old school friend, as one of the best skippers on the Western Australian coast. The crew he chose was certainly not inexperienced, and his yacht was fully equipped for long journeys, especially after it was refurbished.

The 20-year-old Patanella has done a number of trips around the world, including one voyage to Antarctica.

Mr Nicol was on board for the first part of the cruise from Fremantle to Port Lincoln in South Australia. He had to leave the boat there to return to Perth after his lawyer went bankrupt, causing him problems.

The Jones' daughter Ronnalee also crewed for the first part of the journey but had to return to work in Perth and also disembarked at Port Lincoln.

Frequent radio contact with shore was maintained until the disappearance. When the yacht reached Portland, Victoria, the skipper radioed that money was needed for fuel. The money was wired into an account, and then withdrawn, but it is not known whether it was used to refuel the boat's 3,500 litre tanks.

The Patanella left Portland on November 4, and was expected to arrive in Sydney a week later. Mr Jones radioed his position to shore twice in two days- the first from Wilson's Promontory on November 5, and the second from Bega, the following day.

Michael Calvin had been phoning his parents each time he went ashore, but on the afternoon of Saturday November 5, he rang his father from the boat, which seemed unusual, according to Mrs Nicol. Neither of the Taree boys had ever made phone calls from the boat before, as they usually rang from shore.

"All Michael said was 'Hello Dad', but then he was cut off," Mrs Dawn Calvin said. "But we weren't worried by that."

The Nicols have requested copies of all the radio and phone communications made from the Patanella from OTC, in the hope that they may provide much needed information. However, it is understood that OTC is refusing to supply these records on the basis that the boat is missing and such information must be passed on to the coast watch authorities.

The last knowledge of the Patanella's location was the radio message in the early hours of November 8, but the location given in this message has not been confirmed.

The yacht may not have been anywhere near Sydney at all, according to a spokesman from the Federal Sea Safety Centre (FSSC) in Canberra. "We can't be sure the boat was out of fuel, and we're not sure what it intended to do," he said.

The yacht was equipped with an E-PIRB - an emergency positioning indicating radio beacon - which is manually activated and can be picked up by any aircraft passing overhead. "This would have beeped for 48 hours if they'd set it off," the spokesman said.

As the final message did not indicate that the vessel or crew was in any distress, there would have been no real cause for concern, the spokesman said

The Calvins and the Blissetts, in fact, were only slightly worried when they had not heard from Michael and John in over a week. The initial alarm was raised by Mr Jones's 30 year-old son, Peter, in Perth, 11 days later, when he tried to phone the Patanella and could not get through.

In the meantime, Mrs Calvin, who says she is "the worrier of the family", was being consoled by husband Peter, who kept telling her that no news was good news, and by her son Scott from Perth, who assured her that it was "the best equipped boat he'd seen."

Mrs Marj Blissett's concern for her son grew slowly. "Going by what John had said, about what a good time he'd been having, I just thought: 'Little devil, he hasn't phoned me'," she said. "But now every day is worse than the last."

On November 19, the police notified the respective families that the Patanella was missing, and by November 20, the FSSC had notified the Civil Aviation Authority, the Federal Police, the Coast Watch Service, and "anyone else that could possibly give assistance".

The FSSC has calculated a search area of 200,000 square kilometres of ocean, because "no-one knows where the Patanella went."

Although a number of searches by helicopter have failed to find any trace of the yacht, the alert is still current.

None of the people connected with the Patanella has given up hope. Mr Nicol said his schooner is "a small ship" which is very safe and close to unsinkable. It has the latest satellite navigation and radar equipment, is made of steel and, in the case of an accident, can be shut off like a submarine, making it difficult to sink.

As a precaution, the deck was "like a salvage yard" with wind surfers and a dinghy prepared for any disaster, Mr Nicol said.

He said that if it had been hit by, for example a container ship, the Patanella would have sunk slowly. As the last radio message was sent from the boat about 20 kilometres from Sydney Harbour, Mr Nicol believes that, had a disaster occurred, the Patanella would have been seen by another boat or passing aircraft in the region.

He believes that the Patanella could have sailed on to the north, though he cannot explain why the crew have not made contact with him as planned.

"It could be sailing around somewhere. It's not like a small yacht that would go down," he said.

"It's a complete and utter mystery but while there is no debris or wreckage sighted, we are remaining optimistic," Mrs Nicol said.

She said it was strange how quickly the yacht reached Sydney. "Although it sails well in the right condition, it's not a racing boat. Yet it made it to Sydney in three days," Mrs Nicol said.

"If they'd been hit, wreckage would have been found by now - that's the only thing I can cling to," Mrs Calvin said.

Mrs Blissett said she felt, at first, as a distressed parent, that perhaps FSSC had not done enough, but after Mr Calvin and Mr Blissett visited the FSSC in Canberra, they accepted that as much as possible had been done.

There is enough food in the life raft on the Patanella to feed eight men for six weeks. "Half would have gone already, but I think they're all right,"Mrs Blissett said.

© 1988 Sydney Morning Herald

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