How a Legendary Terror of the Ocean Came to be Understood by Science
At 3:10am on 12 December 1978 two cargo ships and a French coastal radio station at Bordeaux-Arcachon picked up a garbled distress call from the German freighter MS München, then just north of the Azores in the North Atlantic.
On one hand, it was unsurprising that a ship should be in trouble. A massive storm front was sweeping across the ocean from Newfoundland to the Bay of Biscay, with 150 kilometre-per-hour (94 mph) winds and 15-metre (50 ft) waves. It seemed impossible, though, that the ship in distress could be the München. She was a modern freighter, built in Belgium only six years previously and fitted with all the latest electronic navigation and safety equipment. She was a behemoth, 261 metres (856 ft) long, 32 metres (105 ft) wide, powered by a massive 26,000 horsepower engine, and designed to withstand the worst that the sea could throw at a ship. She had made sixty-one crossings of the North Atlantic in all seasons with good speed and without incident, and was then in her sixty-second. She was operated by Hapag-Lloyd, a reputable and professional shipping company, and manned by an experienced crew of twenty-eight. Nonetheless, the French radio operators couldn’t reach her. At 6:00am, they put a call through to the headquarters of Hapag-Lloyd in Hamburg to report that the ship was missing.
Within hours, the search had begun. British and French planes took off to fly to the München’s last reported position. Ships in the area diverted their courses to steam there. With the storm still raging, 13 aircraft and 110 vessels joined in the operation.
At around 11:00 am on December 13, about thirty hours after the distress call, the rescuers picked up the signal from München’s EPIRB, a radio beacon which marks the location a ship has sunk. This confirmed the worst — she was lost. Her final position was wrong, explaining why the rescuers hadn’t reached her. They continued to comb the area, but found nothing except for a single container and some empty life rafts. Shockingly, the massive, modern freighter had sunk with all hands, almost without a trace.
There was only ever one clue to the München’s fate. On 16 February, two months after her disappearance, the car transporter Don Carlos…