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SS Cotopaxi And The Bermuda Triangle

From legendary pirate treasures to the lost vessels of the Bermuda Triangle, the Atlantic Ocean yields its secrets grudgingly along the Southeast coastline where I am spending my socially distanced summer.

The twinkling lights I can see on the northeastern horizon from the beach at dusk belong, mostly, to fishing boats coming out of St. Augustine or Mayport for a long night’s work on the water. But could that shape in the haze be the shadow of the long-lost SS Cotopaxi?

Cotopaxi became part of the region’s lore on Dec. 1, 1925. It disappeared off St. Augustine while carrying coal from Charleston, South Carolina, to Havana. All 32 aboard were lost. The conventional wisdom, or the official story if you prefer to see it that way, was that Cotopaxi ran into a late-season tropical storm and took on water through poorly secured hatches. But there were other theories.

For some, Cotopaxi’s disappearance fed into the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. The supposed paranormal activity in the area – usually said to comprise the waters between Miami, Bermuda and Puerto Rico – became a popular myth in the mid-20th century. Theories for unexplained disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle include technological interference from the lost continent of Atlantis and extraterrestrial activity. In the 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Cotopaxi turns up in the middle of the Mongolian portion of the Gobi Desert, far from any sea.

The truth lay closer to home. Early this year, marine archeologists identified a wreck 35 miles off St. Augustine as that of Cotopaxi, pretty much where final distress calls from the stricken ship said it would be. (For readers unfamiliar with the geography involved, this means Cotopaxi’s final resting place is well outside the bounds of the Bermuda Triangle.)

As summer simmers toward autumn, everyone down here keeps an eye on the tropics. But navigators know that the beautiful and typically benign coastline from Cape Canaveral to Cape Fear can turn dangerous at any season. Peril can come from violent thunderstorms blowing off the mainland. It can come from classic nor’easters spinning up over the Gulf Stream. Or it can come from “local nor’easters,” a north Florida cocktail of gloom and rain created when cold dry air blows over warm Atlantic water, akin to the lake effect snow that some northerners experience.

With salt water on three sides, Florida is a pretty easy place for pilots to navigate while over land. But heaven help you if you get confused over the sea beyond radar range and without satellite navigation.

Radar could not help the young men of Flight 19, the famous “lost patrol.” The name is a misnomer; they flew out of Fort Lauderdale’s naval air station (now the city’s international airport) on a training mission, not a patrol, in December 1945. Fourteen airmen, all in their teens and 20s, were aboard the five Grumman bombers when their squadron leader, Lt. Charles Taylor, suffered a compass failure.

Investigators believe that after a practice bombing run in the Bahamas, Taylor mistakenly thought he had flown beyond the Florida Keys and out into the Gulf of Mexico. The theory holds he took the squadron north and east on what he calculated was a course for home. But in all likelihood they were headed out into the open Atlantic as the sky darkened, the weather worsened and their fuel ran low. Besides the 14 men who left Fort Lauderdale that day, another 13 died when a naval search plane out of Naval Air Station Banana River (now Patrick Air Force Base, near Cape Canaveral) also vanished. It was later determined that it exploded shortly after takeoff.

There have been several reported “findings” of the lost Grummans over the years. All have been discounted. Bermuda Triangle enthusiasts have claimed the planes’ disappearance is more evidence of the area’s paranormal activity. Some historians even point to Flight 19 as one of the primary incidents to popularize the myth.

Perhaps, one day, someone will find the final resting place of Taylor’s squadron, putting paranormal theories to rest just as the discovery of the Cotopaxi did. The usually gentle sea outside my window does sometimes yield its secrets – but only grudgingly.

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