In 1918 the U.S.S. Cyclops, a collier carrying 11,000 tons of manganese ore, sets sail from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Headed for Baltimore, Maryland, she sends a brief message during her journey. This reads simply, “Weather fair, all well.” That is the last that’s ever heard from Cyclops and her 306-strong crew. Her location at the time of her disappearance is slap-bang in the middle of the notorious Bermuda Triangle.
Cyclops had been launched in 1910, built for the U.S. Navy as one of four Proteus-class ships. But when she disappeared sometime after March 4, 1918, America had been embroiled in World War I. So, her journey from Salvador to Baltimore was part of the war effort, delivering essential manganese ore for steel manufacture.
Cyclops had embarked from Rio de Janeiro on February 16, 1918. Two days later she’d stopped off at another Brazilian port – Salvador. From there, she was due to sail straight to Baltimore, but she then docked at the Caribbean island of Barbados. This was due to concerns that she was sitting too low in the water.
At Barbados, however, concerns about the ship seemed to have been resolved. So, she resumed her journey to Baltimore on March 4. Her journey should have taken nine days, meaning that she should have docked at the American port around March 13. But as we know, she never made it, vanishing somewhere north of Barbados in the infamous area known as the Bermuda Triangle.
Before we explore the mystery of Cyclops’ disappearance further, let’s find out a little more about the ship. Cyclops was one of four ships of the Proteus class, all of which had been designed to carry coal. The first was named Proteus, which was launched in September 1912 and commissioned into the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1913.
The other two Proteus-class vessels were Jupiter – launched in August 1912 – and Nereus, whose launch came in April 1913. Interesting, two of Cyclops’ sister ships had something specific in common with the doomed ship. These were Proteus and Nereus, but we’ll come back to exactly what bound them all a little later.
All four of the ships were named for characters from Greek or Roman mythology. Proteus was a god of the sea with the power of prophecy. Nereus was another god associated with the sea and, like Proteus, was able to foretell the future. Cyclops was a one-eyed monster who also figured in both Roman and Greek mythology. Jupiter was a god who was styled as king of all the ancient Roman deities.
The reason the Navy commissioned these four huge colliers – as well as another eight in the 20th century – was because of the dependence of much of its fleet on coal for power. The William Cramp & Sons shipyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, built Cyclops. This yard had a long history of building large vessels dating back to 1830.
Cyclops – which was launched on May 7, 1910 – was a huge vessel. In a 2018 article, The Baltimore Sun harked back to the time of her launch. The paper noted that the press of the day described Cyclops as “a floating coal mine” and “a monster collier.” Given its 542-foot length and 65-foot width, it seems these elaborate terms were quite appropriate.
Cyclops was built to carry up to 12,500 tons of coal. Yet even with that enormous load, her twin propellers could drive her through the sea at speeds of up to 15 knots. At the time of her launch, she was the largest and speediest collier sailing for the U.S. Navy. And the ship’s enormous mechanical grabbers could apparently move a couple of tons of coal in one gigantic scoop.
Service for Cyclops started in November 1910, when she went into operation with the Naval Auxiliary Service, Atlantic Fleet. Around this time, she sailed to the Baltic, where she supported Navy vessels. After arriving back in the U.S. at Norfolk, Virginia, she was assigned to cruise along the East Coast from Newport, Rhode Island, all the way south to the Caribbean.
In 1914 American forces occupied the Mexican port city of Veracruz. This, ultimately, marked a low-point in relations between the two countries. During this period, Cyclops provided fuel for the naval ships involved in the action. She was also pressed into service in the role of helping to evacuate those fleeing from the conflict.
The next major event in Cyclops’ career came in April 6, 1917, when the U.S. went to war with Germany. Now that America was an active participant in World War I, Cyclops was brought into the U.S. Navy on May 1, 1917. Her first mission was to sail across the Atlantic to Saint-Nazaire, France, as part of a naval convoy. After serving there, she was back in the States by July 1917, operating along the country’s East Coast.
Cyclops’ East Coast service continued until January 9, 1918, whereupon she was transferred to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service. With this new outfit, she headed for the seas off Brazil, where she acted as a fueler for British Royal Navy ships patrolling in the South Atlantic. It was during these duties that the vessel made her final fateful journey.
The collier had set off from Norfolk on January 8, 1918, bound for Rio de Janeiro. She was loaded with coal weighing 9,960 tons. This was earmarked to fuel the Royal Navy ships in the South Atlantic. Cyclops arrived at her Brazilian destination on January 28. Having unloaded the coal, she was now given a new cargo for her return to the U.S.
This load for transport to America comprised 11,000 tons of manganese ore, which was vital for the production of much-needed steel for America’s war effort. This was something of an unusual load for the crew of Cyclops. They were more used to carrying coal which was lighter and less dense.
After spending a fortnight in Rio unloading and re-loading, Cyclops embarked on February 15, 1918. Her final destination was Baltimore, Maryland, but she would end up making two stops on her journey. The first of these stopovers occurred on February 20, when the ship docked at the Brazilian port of Salvador.
After a two-day stop in Salvador, Cyclops went out to sea again. This time, the initial plan was to head for Baltimore with no more interruptions to the journey. However, the collier did make another stop, this time at the Caribbean island of Barbados. At the time, this was part of the British Empire.
It seems that Cyclops’ skipper, Commander Worley, made this unscheduled port call because of concerns that his ship was lying too low in the water. Indeed, it’s been reported that the water was above the Plimsoll line. This is a mark running around a ship which represents the furthest depth that the vessel may legally go underwater.
Any concerns the captain had about Cyclops seem to have been overcome during this unscheduled Barbados stop on March 3, 1918. Having taken aboard more supplies – including a ton each of flour and meat, as well as 1,000 pounds of vegetables – the collier set off again for Baltimore. The date was March 4, 1918.
Cyclops was now something over 2,000 miles from her planned final destination of Baltimore, which she was due to reach around March 13. As we saw earlier, the ship sent one final message, simply saying, “Weather fair, all well.” But there was also word that one vessel had seen Cyclops on her final journey.
That vessel was a molasses tanker, the Amolco. But her captain later completely contradicted reports that he’d seen the vessel. Indeed, the one certain and grim piece of information about Cyclops and the 306 souls aboard her was that she didn’t arrive at Baltimore as scheduled. The ship was never seen again.
Two years after Cyclops vanished seemingly into thin air, Santa Fe Magazine published an article about the mystery. The magazine’s reporter wrote, “Usually a wooden bucket or a cork life preserver identified as belonging to a lost ship is picked up after a wreck. But not so with the Cyclops.”
The Santa Fe article continued, “She just disappeared as though some gigantic monster of the sea had grabbed her, men and all, and sent her into the depths of the ocean. And the suddenness of her destruction is amplified by the absence of any wireless calls for help being picked up by any ship along the route.”
And just to add a little more spice to this intriguing mystery, Cyclops disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean, north of Barbados, in the area known as the Bermuda Triangle. This stretch of water, of course, is much loved by conspiracy theorists. Indeed, it’s been claimed that it’s seen more unexplained disappearances of vessels and planes than any other place on Earth.
The mythology of the Bermuda Triangle can be traced back to 1950. This was the year when the Miami Herald published a piece by a writer called Edward Van Winkle Jones. He listed a series of ships and planes that had disappeared without a trace in the area also referred to as the Devil’s Triangle and Hurricane Alley. In the following years, other writers piled in, adding to the sinister enigma of the place.
And if you enjoy strange mysteries, then you’ll be bowled over by the unfortunate fate of two of Cyclops’ sister ships. You’ll recall that Cyclops was one of four Proteus-class colliers built in the early 20th century. She was the second to be launched, with the other three being Proteus, Jupiter and Nereus.
Both Proteus and Nereus supposedly disappeared within the limits of the Bermuda Triangle during World War II. Proteus sank along with all 58 of her crew sometime around November 25, 1941. This is thought to have happened in the Caribbean Sea. It’s believed that she was overcome by stormy weather.
Nereus was lost a couple of weeks after Proteus, at some point past December 10, 1941. She had been sailing from St. Thomas, one of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. She’d been holding a cargo of bauxite ore when she disappeared. Like Cyclops and Proteus, no trace of the ship was ever found. The assumption was that she’d fallen victim to a German vessel, but this has never been confirmed.
Certainly, the loss of three U.S. Navy ships from a class of just four would seem to confirm something ominous about the Bermuda Triangle. But it’s worth pointing out that there are plenty of skeptics who deny that anything particularly strange happens there. And many of them are eminent researchers from prestigious organizations.
US. Coastguard records show that the number of ships lost in the Bermuda Triangle isn’t disproportionate, given the amount of traffic the area sees. And Lloyds of London, a major marine insurer, doesn’t charge higher premiums for ships traveling through there. Considering that this institution has commercial interests at stake, if it believed the Bermuda Triangle was especially dangerous it would certainly be reflected in its charges.
However, even if we discount the potentially hazardous influence of the Bermuda Triangle in the disappearance of Cyclops, we’re still left with a baffling mystery. In fact, a wide range of theories have been posited to explain the collier’s perplexing vanishing act. These theories range from the highly unlikely to the entirely plausible.
Let’s start with the least likely. That honor probably falls to the idea that the ship might’ve been attacked and sunken by a giant octopus or squid. Perhaps it would have been serendipitous for a ship named after a one-eyed giant to be lost to a sea monster. But common sense surely dictates that we dismiss the intervention of an angry cephalopod as a theory.
Next, we can turn to the Cyclops’ captain, Lieutenant Commander George W. Worley. Enquiries about him by the Office of Naval Intelligence uncovered a distinctly murky past. Worley had actually come from Germany and had initially been named Johan Frederick Wichmann. He’d deserted a ship he was a sailor on in 1878, disembarking at San Francisco. Two decades later, he had taken on the name of Worley and was running a bar in San Francisco.
Worley became a merchant ship’s captain and may have been involved in opium smuggling. Somehow, he managed to become an officer in the Naval Auxiliary Reserve in February 1917. But it wasn’t so much Worley’s colorful past that people were concerned by. Rather, it was his personality when captaining the Cyclops.
Worley was alleged to be an extremely difficult man to get along with. He was said to have an explosive temper, once supposedly chasing a junior officer around the ship with a pistol. He was also an eccentric, given to touring his ship in his underwear, sporting a hat and a walking stick. And it seems he was deeply unpopular with at least some of the men under his command. Indeed, there was reportedly a mutiny at one point. The captain, though, ruthlessly suppressed this.
One officer named Conrad A. Nervig had served with Worley on the Cyclops. He, however, survived because he left the collier at Rio. In a 1969 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute magazine Proceedings, Nervig said Worley was a “gruff, eccentric salt of the old school… He was a very indifferent seaman and a poor, overly cautious navigator. Unfriendly and taciturn, he was generally disliked by both his officers and men.”
But the really serious charge against Worley was that he was actually an enemy collaborator. Among the passengers aboard Cyclops during her last journey was the American consul-general to Rio de Janeiro, Alfred Gottschalk. This man, it’s been alleged, was a German sympathizer. So, some people believe that he and Worley handed the ship over to the Germans. No evidence, however, has ever been produced to support this theory.
Returning to more evidence-based theories, it’s worth noting that Cyclops was using only one of its two engines during her last trip. The other one was actually inoperable due to a damaged cylinder. And then there was the weight of the ship. She carried unfamiliar cargo, manganese ore rather than the usual coal. This load may have been prone to movement, unbalancing the ship.
A 2018 documentary on British TV station Channel Five drew all the threads together. One contributor, Jeffrey Poole, a Miami sea pilot, gave his take on the Cyclops sinking. Poole said, “I mean, it would be pretty scary as a mariner to be on a ship listing that much, that frequently. You could take water over the side of the ship if it’s listing that much and it could also lead to cargo moving.” So, Cyclops likely sank due to a fatal confluence of negative factors.