December 6, 2000
"In the 'Whereabouts' of Amelia Earhart's Last Radio Message" - Part II
Although still a theory, it is not hard to believe that Amelia Earhart never found Howland island because she had a faulty chart. On any chart one often sees reefs and shoals that are named after some boat-often it is a boat that was wrecked there-oftentimes because the reef or island was shown in the wrong place on some chart. What sort of irony must that be: to provide a service for chart makers by showing them where some reef actually lies by losing your boat on it? Pandora reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef system is an example: named after the naval vessel that was sent out to find the mutineers when Captain Bligh had returned to England and reported the Bounty mutiny. Indeed when the Pandora wrecked, it was carrying some of the mutineers who had already been found and were being returned to England for trial. Two of them drowned in chains in the hold-a doubly ironic end, since several mutineers who were returned safely to England for trial were not hanged but given lighter sentences, even acquitted.
We too have found chart errors, but so far without losing the Odyssey. For example, we found that the island of Malden on our chart of the Pacific is placed four miles from where it actually is (unless the satellite navigation system on which ours and so many other lives depend, was having a bad hair day-a momentary glitch while we were there, and Malden island really is, after all, where it is shown on the charts). We will report the error to the Defense Mapping agency, and think no more of it. But how many charts containing that error are already out there, stowed carefully in chart drawers, on boats and ships? And how many years or decades will it be before the last of them has been replaced with charts carrying the correct information? And in that time how many obscure reefs may be named after boats that are lost because their captains assumed, as I usually have assumed, that the chart was right.
I have learned several important lessons from Amelia Earhart. Her tragic experience shows yet another reason for vigilance on board this or any vessel-reminds all of us of another reason for insisting on keen alertness from anyone on watch-maybe the islands and reefs one is sailing among are not shown in their true places on the charts one is using. So that unless we practice eternal vigilance we may lose this boat, the entire expedition, even our lives, simply because a speck of ink was placed in the wrong position or wasn't placed at all on a single chart, in one of our impressively thick stacks of charts. When I discussed this with Odyssey's captain, Bob Wallace, he said: "Don't worry, Roger, I've never trusted any chart completely."
I regret that sometimes it takes the loss of someone's life to make a point strongly enough to drive it into the consciousness of everyone, but thank you, Amelia Earhart. Your bitter fate may have saved many others, ourselves included. But tarry aboard awhile. We'll find Howland Island for you, and take you there-and beyond as well, should you care to stay with us."
This is Roger Payne speaking, from somewhere in the South Pacific... hopefully a day from Howland Island. And hopefully, with no misplaced reefs or atols lying in wait in our path.
© 2000 - Roger Payne