The Columbia was lost at the Abrolhos in a cyclone in 1921. The missing mate presents a mystery, which might be solved by a mermaid.
On the weekend of the 19-20 February 1921, a cyclone hit the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. A large portion of the old stone jetty was swept away and guano awaiting transport was damaged or swept away completely.
The fishing boat Columbia broke free of her moorings off Rat Island in the cyclone, with two men aboard.
One man tried to swim ashore with a rope, hoping he could get a line ashore, so he could save himself, his boat and his companion, who was still aboard. Some sources report this brave man was the skipper, whilst some report that it was the mate.
The rope was lost and the boat overturned in the swell. Both men tried to swim for shore, but only the skipper made it. The mate disappeared.
The cyclone passed, but the stormy sea took a few days to calm down enough for a search party to venture out in search of the missing mate. They didn't find him and gave up the search, assuming the mate had drowned in the storm.
On the 7 March 1921, one of the guano miners looked over the cliff near his camp. He saw a body, wedged between two rocks at the bottom of the the cliff. When he and some of the fishermen climbed down to examine the body, they realised it was the missing mate.
The unusual thing about the mate's body was his broken leg, which had been bandaged with cloth torn from his clothes. One of the stories circulating at the Abrolhos at the time suggested that the mate had swum to shore on Little Sandy Island, one of the small, deserted islands at the Abrolhos, bandaged his leg and died of exposure or thirst, two weeks after he was shipwrecked. There are two problems with this:
- Little Sandy Island is in clear view of neighbouring Rat Island. How could he have lain on the sand there and gone unnoticed?
- How did he manage to die of thirst and then swim back to Rat Island? Or, how did his corpse drift to Rat Island, when the currents run in the opposite direction?
The Columbia‘s mate was buried on Rat Island, where his grave can be seen today.
The shore on Little Sandy Island is pictured on the cover of Ocean's Gift and it's also where part of the prologue of the book takes place.
Of course, the events in Ocean's Gift are fictional. A mermaid couldn't have bandaged the mate's broken leg, because there are no mermaids at the Abrolhos. And they'll kill me if I tell you otherwise.