In 1917, the French port of Cherbourg, in the English Channel, was made aware that a ship had run around at Rozel Point, just to the south. The ship, a large three masted sailing vessel, was identified as the Zebrina.
Ships are occasionally found adrift or abandoned, but generally some evidence can be found aboard to allow investigators to piece together what happened. But nothing could be found on Zebrina. Even stranger, she had only been at sea for two days.
No trace of her crew was ever found. What happened to the ship in those two days, and how did the crew of Zebrina vanish?
A Seasoned and Reliable Vessel
Zebrina was a three-masted schooner weighing 189 tons (171 metric tonnes) which was launched 1873 at Whitstable. She was originally designed and built to transport meat from the River Plate area of South America, between Argentina and Uruguay.
The ship had a distinctive hull design with flat bottom similar to a barge, and it was rigged to be run with few hands: only five people were needed to operate the ship. This enabled the ship to sail up the shallow River Plate waters to reach the town of Fray Bentos, the world’s largest slaughterhouse at that time.
Zebrina was 100 feet long, and could transport a large cargo of salted or iced meat compared to other sailing ships. But the original owner’s plan to import meat failed due to the ship’s slow speed and lack of onboard refrigeration.
The owners decided to repurpose her, and utilize Zebrina for Mediterranean trade trips that were much shorter in comparison with the previous proposed route. For a time, the ship worked across different ports around Europe under multiple owners, until by 1917 she was operating out of Falmouth, in the United Kingdom.
Commanded by Captain Martin, Zebrina left Falmouth on September 15, 1917 with a cargo of coal for Saint-Brieuc in France. Only two days later, Zebrina was found ashore near Cherbourg: the flat bottom had prevented any damage to the hull.
When the French coastguard boarded the ship, they saw no one there. The surprising thing was the good condition of the ship where there were no crew members, and no evidence as to why they would leave. The only damage was some disarrangement of the rigging, and the last entry revealed that the ship had left Falmouth: there was nothing further.
The Mystery of the Two Days
While this may, at first glance, appear to be inexplicable, it is important to place the journey of the Zebrina into context. Europe in 1917 was at war and Zebrina was delivering fuel to northern France, which would make her a legitimate military target.
But a German attack, most likely from an Unterseaboot or U-boat, would not explain how the crew alone were targeted, or where they went, or indeed why the French were able to salvage the valuable cargo themselves. What weapon could the Germans be using which would remove the crew while leaving the boat intact?
These questions remain unanswered and all that is left is speculation. One prominent theory is that the boat was indeed attacked and launched torpedoes, but that they passed underneath the flat and unusually shallow bottom of the ship without damaging it.
The boat was travelling with more people on board than was usual, with 23 crew rather than the typical six. This may have prompted the Germans to consider Zebrina to be a Q-boat, an armed merchant vessel, rather than a simple cargo ship.
The common theory is that a submarine appeared next to the ship and removed all the crew members from it. For this theory to explain the facts, the submarine must have been disturbed by an Allied threat before it could sink the Zebrina, leaving her a ghost ship, adrift.
Too Many Questions Unanswered
However, this does not explain the crew. Were they taken prisoner, a very unusual decision for a U-Boat commander to make? Were they murdered, with not a single body washing ashore?
Furthermore, no record of an attack on Zebrina has ever surfaced. The Germans after the war were as mystified to what happened to her as the Allies.
Perhaps the U-Boat was itself destroyed before it could make it back to port, or even report in. By this point the plausibility of the necessary sequence of events to explain the mystery is stretched thin indeed.
U-boat captains would take the log of the vessel they attacked with them to confirm the kill. But the log was present on the Zebrina, and the ship was completely untouched: the crew of Zebrina must have surrendered without the slightest resistance.
So did a mystery U-Boat accost the Zebrina, capture her undamaged, imprison her crew and then leave her afloat? Did this U-Boat then also disappear without trace or record, taking the Zebrina’s crew with her?
Nothing can be said for certain.
Top Image: The Zebrina was found abandoned, beached in northern France. Source: Danielegay / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri