The mysterious disappearance of the Patanela

One of the more recent and more mysterious disappearances at sea concerns the schooner Panatela, which disappeared just off the coast of Sydney on the 8th of November, 1988.

The voyage into oblivion began on the other side of the country, on the 16th of October 1988. The elegant steel-hulled Panatela, 20 metres long and lavishly equipped, set out from Fremantle’s harbour for Airlie Beach in Queensland. On board were the schooner’s owner, wealthy businessman Alan Nicol, his skipper, the commercial pilot and Admiral’s Cup sailor Ken Jones, Mrs Noreen Jones, daughter Ronnalee, and two young sailors, John Blissett and Michael Calvin.

The latter pair had so admired the magnificent boat moored in the harbour that they approached Nicol to ask if they could work aboard her. Nicol hired them as crew for the voyage to the Whitsunday Islands. Now they were enjoying themselves and accumulating a generous block of sailing time that would count towards their navigation certificates.

The Panatela was fitted with more than enough safety devices – radar, satellite navigation, watertight components, lifeboats and an electronic radio beacon that would signal the Panatela’s position for 48 hours in case of an emergency.


The first leg of the journey ended at Esperance, where Alan Nicol disembarked, as he had business committments back in Perth. Ronnalee left the yacht at Port Eyre, South Australia, also due to work commitments. Panatela continued eastwards, regularly radioing her position along the way.

At 12.57 am on the 8th of November, Keith McLennan, a radio operator with the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC), received the first of what would be three radio messages from the Panatela. In a voice which seemed relaxed and calm, Ken Jones gave the schooner’s callsign (Victor Mike Papa Tango), and reported their position was 10 nautical miles east of Botany Bay. He then said:

“I believe we’ve run  out of fuel…we’ve hoisted our sails and were tacking out to the east, tracking about zero-eight-zero…our intention is to tack out for a couple of hours, then tack back in. We may need some assistance in the morning to get back into Sydney Harbour.”

The night was overcast, with a light north-east wind and a moderate swell which the schooner would easily have been able to ride. McLennan subsequently testified that Patanela’s seemingly routine message set off no alarm bells. It was quite common for vessels to run out of fuel – and in calm weather like this, there appeared to be nothing to worry about. The schooner would have been within sight of the lights of Botany Bay.

Ken Jones made his second call at 1.58 am. This time he asked for a weather report, explaining that with the wind abating he didn’t want to be caught too far out before sailing into harbour. He then requested directions to the coastal town of Moruya. This was puzzling, as Moruya is located on the south coast of New South Wales, which was a few hours sailing time away from where the Panatela was. McLennan told Jones that there was a strong wind in the area, and recalled that there again appeared to be no sign of distress in Jones’ voice.

Just after 2.00 am, OTC picked up a third call from Jones. The skipper’s voice faded and crackled. He could just be heard saying “Three hundred kilometres south? Is it? South…”  His words were then drowned out in static. No further messages would be received from the Panatela.

When Keith McLennan ended his shift at 3.40 am, he mentioned the three calls to his relief operator. No-one at this stage was concerned, as it was not unknown for skippers to radio that they would be entering Sydney heads, only to change their minds and sail elsewhere – without advising the shore radio operators. No-one expected that Jones would need to contact the Sydney OTC station again.

Alan Nicol, the schooner’s owner, believed that Jones had made a late decision to bypass Sydney and travel up the NSW coast to Airlie Beach. However, as the days passed, Nicol, along with relatives and friends of the four people aboard, began to worry. Of particular concern was Jones’ son Peter, who had been unable to contact his father via ship-to-shore radio.

By the 18th of November, the day on which the Patanela should have reached Airlie Beach, a full alert was sounded. The families wanted the Federal Sea Safety and Surveillance Unit to mount a major search for the schooner, but it was too late. After 10 days the Panatela could have been anywhere. At least 100 aircraft would have been needed to scour 200,000 kilometres of coastline and ocean, and even then, the rescuers could have not exactly known where the schooner was. The Panatela could have sailed straight out sea, headed for another country, assuming that the schooner had not sunk.

If the Panatela has sunk off Botany Bay, it would have been impossible to find the wreckage, as the water 10 miles of the coast is 140 metres deep – way to deep for divers or a ship with tracking equipment to find anything.

The parents of the two young crewman, Blissett and Calvin, talked to the media, and two disturbing facts emerged.

On the afternoon of the 5th of November, Michael Calvin called his father, who lived in Taree, on the NSW mid-north coast. He uttered two words “G’day Dad”, before the line went dead.

In a remarkable coincidence Calvin had been employed as a set rigger on the Australian movie Dead Calm, which starred Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman. The film tells the story of a couple holidaying aboard a yacht in the Whitsunday Islands, who are terrorized by a crazed stranger. Some scenes of the movie were shot at Airlie Beach – the destination of the Patanella.

Peter Jones believed that something sinister had happened to his parents, and that his father was making the radio calls under duress:

“It’s certainly my father’s voice on the tape. But it doesn’t seem to be his words. I don’t think he’d ever say he ‘believed’ that he had run out of fuel. He’s too experienced to be so vague. I think his radio calls were veiled calls for help.”

Both Peter Jones and Alan Nicol believe that the Patanela was not short of fuel – the fuel tanks were filled to capacity at the start of the voyage, while additional diesel had been added at stops along the way.

A search was done in the area from where Ken Jones said he was calling from, but no debris were found. Authorities checked all 48 vessels that were in the area in the early hours of the 8th of November, and could find no damage on any them, which suggests that the Patanela did not collide with another vessel. Even if the schooner did have a collision, the watertight components would have made it very difficult for the Patanela to sink if her hull had been holed. A previous collision in 1958 with a submerged rock off the Tasmanian coast had ripped a 1.5 metre long hole in the hull, but the schooner was able to travel 200 kilometres to a port for repairs.

Police were skeptical about those three final messages. They speculated that the schooner may have been hundreds of kilometres away from Botany bay when they were transmitted, and that the messages were a ruse, designed to confuse rescuers while the schooner’s hijackers made their escape.

The first solid evidence of the possible fate of the Patanela came on the 9th of May, 1989. A fisherman at Terrigal, on the NSW Central Coast, just north of Sydney, hauled in a barnacle-encrusted lifebuoy. Seeing that there were words printed on the buoy, he scraped away some of the barnacles, which revealed “Patanela, Fremantle”.

Despite having some key evidence removed when the fisherman scraped away the barnacles, the buoy was examined by a marine biologist, who determined that the buoy could not have been in the ocean for more than four weeks. Based on this analysis, it seems that the schooner was afloat six months after her “final” radio message.

Hundreds of sightings of yachts that looked similar to the Patanela were reported from all over the world – Australia, South America and South-East Asia. Some of the theories regarding the Panatela’s fate included:

  • A Russian submarine on a spying mission collided with the Patanela, before fleeing the scene
  • Arms dealers, smugglers or drug dealers had seized control of the the schooner and killed all aboard. They had then refitted and renamed the vessel, and used it for their illegal activities far away from Australia.
  • The schooner had hit an uncharted reef or half-submerged container which had fallen from a freighter. It had then sunk, killing all on board.

The inquest at the Glebe Coroner’s Court in Sydney lasted for four days. As there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the yacht had been hijacked, a finding of accidental sinking was declared by the NSW Deputy Coroner, Derrick Hand.

There is an interesting postscript to the disappearance twenty years later.  On New Years Eve 2007, Sheryl Waideman, husband Gary and brother Doug had driven to a remote beach near Eucla at the West Australian-South Australian border for a swim.

Ms Waideman was taken aback when she found a rum bottle half-buried, upside down in the sand, with a note inside. It was only after returning home to Esperance, nine hours by car, that the trio carefully removed the note.

The crewmen's message.
The crewmen’s message.

The note read: “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. Our ship is travelling from Fremantle, Western Aust, to Queensland to work as a charter vessel.”  It was written by John Blissett, one of the crew members of the Panatela, and thrown overboard, a week before he, his fellow crew members and the schooner mysteriously disappeared.

The following sources were used for the creation of this blog entry:

John Pinkney, “Great Australian Mysteries”, Five Mile Press, Rowville, VIC, 2004