The Upside Down Under
Message in a bottle from the Patanela


The Patanela vanished without a trace while approaching Sydney Harbour in calm seas in November 1988, leaving behind only a barnacle-encrusted lifebuoy and a message in a bottle.

The Patanela was a 19 metre (62 foot) steel schooner that was known to be incredibly sturdy -- having undertaken a number of Antarctic voyages and global circumnavigations under difficult conditions. Michael Calvin was one of the crewmen aboard the yacht, and the last communication from the vessel came in the form of a letter posted by Calvin at Port Lincoln, sent to his twin sister.

A 1964 newsreel video showing the Patanella preparing for an Antarctic voyage

On October 16, 1988, the Patanela set out from Fremantle, Australia for its intended destination of Airlie Beach, Queensland. The schooner was carrying the owner, a businessman named Alan Nicol, skipper Ken Jones, and two passengers, Ken's wife Noreen and their daughter Ronnalee. The yacht was in excellent condition and well suited for long journeys.

Also on board were two sailors, John Blissett and Michael Calvin. They had happened to see the Patanela when it was in the harbor at Fremantle, and so admired the yacht that they asked Nicol for a job. They were both trying to accumulate as many sailing hours as possible in order to get their navigational certificates. Nicol agreed, and took them on as crew.

Nicol only remained aboard for the first leg of the trip. At Esperance, he left the ship to attend to some business. For similar reasons, Ronnalee Jones also disembarked.

The Patanela and its four remaining occupants continued on its way, periodically radioing its position. The trip appeared to be completely placid and uneventful until November 8. At about 1 a.m., a radio operator at the Overseas Telecommunications Commission received a message from the yacht. Ken Jones reported that the ship was 10 miles east of Sydney's Botany Bay. He said they appeared to have run out of fuel. They intended to "tack out" for a couple of hours, then tack back in. He added that in the morning, they may need assistance to get back into Sydney harbor. Jones sounded calm and unconcerned. It was not uncommon for ships to run out of fuel, and the night was calm. Everything seemed routine.

The Patanela under full sail prior to her disappearance in 1988
The Patanela under full sail prior to her disappearance in 1988

At least, it seemed routine until Jones called a second time about an hour later. Still sounding untroubled, he asked for a weather report, saying that he didn't want to be too far out before coming into the harbor. Then,for reasons no one has been able to understand, he asked for directions to the town of Moruya, on the New South Wales coast. The radio operator replied that the town was about five hours away, and warned Jones that there was a wind warning in his area.

Shortly past 2 a.m., the operator received a third call from the Patanela. This time, there was so much static on the line that it was difficult to make out what Jones was saying. All that could be made out was the skipper saying...

"Three hundred kilometers south? Is it south? Is it? South..."

Then his voice faded away completely. Those enigmatic words were the last anyone heard of the Patanela. No mayday call was received and no distress flares were sighted, no debris nor bodies turned up on Sydney’s shores – it simply vanished without a trace.

Patanela oil painting
Patanela oil painting 'Oil on Board'

The mystery of the Patanela's whereabouts only deepened when Michael Calvin's father told reporters that three days before the yacht disappeared, he got an unsettling radio call from his son. Michael said only "Hello, Dad." Then the line suddenly went dead. It was also pointed out that the Patanela's large fuel tanks had been filled completely before it set sail, making it extremely unlikely that it could have run out of gas. Could Jones' message that the yacht was out of fuel have been made against his will? Or as a coded plea for help?

There was no evidence pointing to any collision. All 48 vessels known to have been in the area at the time were checked for damage, and none of them carried any sign that they had run into anything. The yacht was made of steel, with several watertight compartments, which made it exceptionally difficult to sink. Also, the yacht was equipped with an emergency radio beacon. If turned on, it could have been picked up by any passing aircraft. It would have beeped for 48 hours after being set off. There was no sign this signal was ever used. The suspicion quickly grew that the yacht was the victim of a hijacking, although that still did not answer the central question: Where was the Patanela?

Nothing more was heard about the yacht until May 9, 1989, when a fisherman off the coast of Terrigal (about thirty miles north of Sydney,) discovered a barnacle-covered lifebuoy. It bore the name "Patanela." Tests determined that the buoy could not have been in the water longer than a month, suggesting that the yacht was still afloat somewhere six months after it had disappeared.

The inquest into the disappearance failed to shed any light on the mystery. No evidence was found to support the idea that the Patanela had been hijacked. Although there was an equal lack of proof (other than the lifebuoy) that the yacht had sunk, officials could only propose that the Patanela was the victim of a maritime "hit-and-run": it had gone to the bottom of the ocean after colliding with a tanker or some equally large vessel. However, they admitted that this still did not explain the lack of any wreckage and the puzzling calls made by the skipper and Michael Calvin.

The Patanela at Constitution Dock Hobart
The Patanela at Constitution Dock Hobart

Message in a bottle

On New Year’s Eve 2007, Sheryl Waideman, her husband, and her brother set off to the beach near Eucla to ring in the new year with swimming and beachcombing. Waideman was strolling along the beach looking for “treasure” when she saw a bottle stuck upside-down in the sand. Seeing that there was a note with writing on it inside the bottle, Waideman took it back home with her and found the following written on it...

"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."

The note gave a phone number for the finder to call and claim their prize.  It's somewhat ironic that the note closed with a lighthearted...

"See ya soon!"

Message in a bottle
Message in a bottle from the Patanela, which disappeared in mysterious circumstances off the coast of Sydney. The bottle was found on a WA beach by Sheryl Waideman. PIC COURTESY SHERYL WAIDEMAN.

In an email to the Blissett family, Mrs Waideman described stumbling across the bottle while wandering on a secluded section of the coastline between Mundrabilla and Eucla.

"We had a great time as it's very isolated and we love beachcombing, fishing and collecting old bottles,'' she said.

"The bottle did not look very old but I was still very excited and we decided to open it at home. We were all extremely upset after finding out the story to know these people were missing.''

The note included John Blissett’s telephone number as well as the Patanela’s position in the ocean at the time. It indicated that foul play could be ruled out as a possible cause for the boat’s disappearance, but the mystery of what exactly happened out at sea in 1988 remains.

The only other trace of the Patanela that has otherwise been found was a barnacle-encrusted lifebuoy that was found floating off Terrigal almost seven months after the disappearance. Predictably, there has been no shortage of theories. Was it accidentally sunk by a collision with a Russian spy submarine? Or by an uncharted reef? Was it hijacked by arms dealers, drug-runners, or other types of modern pirates?

Despite the numerous rumoured and unconfirmed sightings, nothing was ever confirmed about the fate of the Patanela and her crew.

The name of the Patanela adds to the mystery

A post by Undine at gives this last note...

The yacht's name only adds to the eerieness of this story. The name was chosen by the ship's original owner, Phil Waterworth, who assumed it was an Aboriginal word for a protective god. Then, in 1964, a group of scientists who were chartering the Patanela for an expedition did a little research and concluded that the name actually meant "Storm Spirit."

As it happened, they were all wrong. "Patanela" is really another word for "Devil."


10 Unsolved Sea Mysteries

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