Saturday, February 23, 2008

BOOK: Richard Winer, "The Devil's Triangle"

Richard Winer: The Devil's Triangle. New York: Bantam Books, 1974. (First ed.: Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1972.) 0552094307. 336 pp.

When I saw the super-lurid blurbs on the front and back cover of this book (a dinky trade paperback, of course), I expected it would be a typical Bermuda Triangle volume, with emphasis on sensationalist coverage of the disappearances and probably with lots of efforts to explain them as the workings of this or that paranormal phenomenon. And the publisher's blurb on p. i cites the “Danger like dagger now” from the Raifuku Maru case, which seems to have been apocryphal, to judge by the description in Larry Kusche's The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved. [Winer suggests that the ‘dagger’ may have been the crew's effort to describe a waterspout, which they might not have seen before; p. 78.]

Anyway, I was very pleasantly surprised. The book strikes an impressive balance. It describes the events in the Triangle in an interesting and fairly detailed way, but without falling into excessive sensationalism; and it never espouses any paranormal theories about the Triangle, and in fact the author always makes an effort to point out possible natural explanations, even in cases where such explanations admittedly seem unlikely. Unlike J. W. Spencer, who wrote soberly most of the time but then mentioned matter-of-factly that it must all have been due to UFOs that are kidnapping the planes and boats, Winer here really doesn't seem to be defending any paranormal theory about the Triangle. This is about as sober a book as one can write unless one decides to become a hard-core debunker (like Kusche) dead set on explaining away each and every case as something unremarkable. See e.g. p. 10 for a nice statement of Winer's moderate but open-minded skepticism. And on p. 53: “without doubt, the greatest single cause [of plane disappearances] is running out of fuel after becoming lost or disoriented. [. . .] And if a pilot is lost, how does he radio the position where he is ditching?”

Flight 19

The first chapter is about Flight 19 and contains some interesting things that were new for me (or maybe I'd forgotten about them if I'd heard them already somewhere else). He cites a letter from Lt. Cox (the Wikipedia page about Flight 19 refers to him as Fox — I'm not sure which is correct), a pilot who communicated with Flight 19 for a while soon after they first reported being lost; Cox says quite refreshingly that “there is no mystery at all”, just a “chain of unfortunate events and plain human frailty” (p. 10).

Winer also cites a very interesting letter from Melvin Baker, a radio operator at Port Everglades who was in contact with Flight 19 throughout that fateful afternoon (pp. 12–16). Baker describes his efforts to estimate the position of Flight 19, by changing the power of his signals and testing at which point the planes became unable to hear him. However, he was unable to convince Lt. Taylor, the leader of Flight 19, to follow his directions: “I think that I never convinced him that I knew what I was doing. I pleaded with his superiors at the Lauderdale NAS [Naval Air Station] to please issue him orders to fly by my signals. They would not come on the air. They did not ever come on the air. [. . .] He finally told me he was going to change course, which he did. [. . .] The leader became more faint by the second. [. . .] He continued on in the same direction and went to his fuel exhaustion.” (Pp. 15–16.)

Baker also says (p. 14) that he and Taylor switched to the emergency radio frequency, but the rest of Flight 19 probably didn't; this might explain (p. 18) why people listening to the other plains thought that one of the other pilots took over the command of the group. From Kusche's book I had the impression that Taylor never switched to the emergency frequency, so I'm somewhat confused about what exactly the facts are about this.

The Cyclops

Chapter 5 is about the Cyclops and is wonderfully detailed, more so than in any other Bermuda Triangle book that I've read so far. However, I still think that Gian Quasar's account of the Cyclops is a bit better. Winer writes (p. 115) that the Cyclops was last heard of one day after it left Barbados, when it exchanged radio messages with some other ship and reported that the weather was fair. However, Quasar writes that “[i]nvestigation by the Navy did turn up that Cyclops was seen two days after she left Barbados. This is not commonly known. A British patrol boat on 2 occasions sighted her far off course, both on the 5th and 6th of March, and guided her back.” But Winer also has a few details that I don't remember from Quasar's account, e.g. that the Cyclops was seen leaving Barbados in a southern direction initially (as reported by the son of the British consul there, whom Capt. Worley of the Cyclos had visited during his stay on Barbados); pp. 113, 117.

Winer also mentions a few amusing coincidences regarding the name Cyclops. “It was ascertained that the Cyclops never reached Germany” (as some people had speculated); “[h]owever, a more thorough examination of the archives did reveal the name Cyclops. Far up in the North Atlantic, a U-boat commanded by a Lieutenant Doenitz, who would one day become Hitler's grand admiral, sank a Britishs hip with all hands: her name was Cyclops.” (P. 117.) I really like it how he writes this so dramatically, as if it had anything at all to do with the Cyclops that disappeared in the western Atlantic :) And later, in 1941, when the Cyclops's sister ships, the Proteus and the Nereus, disappeared (probably sunk by German subs): “once again there was mention of the Cyclops. In January, 1941, off Cape Sable in the North Atlantic, a British ship was torpedoed and sunk, taking all ninety-four aboard down with her. The ship's name was Cyclops.” Well, I guess the message is clear. Don't name your ships Cyclops, folks, or if you do, at least make sure that you insure them well and don't travel on them personally, and that there isn't a major war going on!

Joshua Slocum

There's a short chapter about the disappearance of Joshua Slocum (ch. 6), the first man to single-handedly sail around the world. He mentions an excellent tall tale from a book by Slocum. At some point during his solo voyage round the world, Slocum became sick to the point of delirium, and what is worse, a storm started at the same time. “He passed out. Sometime later he awakened. [. . .] he saw, to his astonishment, a man at the helm holding the Spray on a steady course in spite of the turbulence of the sea. The man was dressed in clothing of centuries past. The stranger introduced himself as being a member of Columbus's crew, the pilot of the Pinta. He said that he had come to guide Slocum's ship that night.” (P. 127.) The next morning, “[t]he strange helmsman was nowhere to be seen. [. . .] The sails that he [= Slocum] had been too sick to furl were sill set and pulling. They should have been ripped to shreds. [. . .] the Spray had made a good ninety miles right on course during the night. Only a helmsman could make that possible.” :)))

Incidentally, it appears that Slocum could not swim (p. 128).

The Witchcraft

Winer also mentions the well-known case of the Witchcraft, which disappeared one night in December 1967. The two men on board had sailed about a mile away from the shore to watch the lights of Miami. At some point the owner radioed that his propellers had struck something under the water and he would need a tow back to the shore; but when the Coast Guard came to the location of his boat just 18 minutes later, the boat and its occupants was nowhere to be found. Winer reports one or two curious details that I don't remember seeing in other versions of the story. In particular: “After being fully cooperative with the press throughout the first five days of the search, the coast guard suddenly refused to release any information as to exactly what was radioed by Burrack during his first and only message. A coast guard spokesman said only that Burrack sounded like he was in an ‘unusual’ situation. A coast guard legal offucer said they were not at liberty to divulge the information.” (P. 143.) “Burrack's last words, or at least the last ones that the coast guard released, were, ‘It's pretty odd. I've never seen one lie this!’ ” (P. 147.)

Now admittedly it's also worth pointing out a few things from Larry Kusche's much more skeptical portrayal of the case (The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved, pp. 200–2): “in reality, the weather was rather rough”, not really calm as it's usually said to be in the Triangle legend; and “[t]he boat was not at a specified location, as the Legend goes, but was supposed to fire a flare to show the Coast Guard where it was”; should this fail for any reason, e.g. if the boat had been swamped by water, “[o]n a dark night with the sea ‘whipped into a carpet of white foam’, the chances of finding a white boat in an unknown location would be almost nil” (p. 201). And: “Many of the statements attributed to the Coast Guard and the Navy in accounts of the Bermuda Triangle mystery have proved to be untrue in the cases where accident reports are available. Unfortunately, no such report is available for this incident” (p. 202). Incidentally, Kusche doesn't mention the Coast Guard's supposed reluctance to divulge more information, but he does mention claims of some Triangle authors that the Coast Guard supposedly said that “the boat was ‘presumed missing, but not lost at sea’ ” (p. 202).

Incidentally, Kusche spells the owner's name “Burack” rather than “Burrack”. He cites several newspaper articles about the case, so I would guess that he got the spelling right and that Winer's version is perhaps less trustworthy.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Shake that ass!

Here's an auction bound for the anals annals of eBay hilarity:

Shakespeare Ass Facsimiles 11
'Work for Chimny-sweepers


Imagining an ass so filthy that it requires the attention of a chimney-sweeper is left as an exercise for the reader :)