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THE VAST OCEANS
There are few things as beautiful as the ocean. The golden rays of the rising sun breaking over an endless expanse of bright blue water, or watching that same red-orange orb sink into the western horizon over a glass-smooth tropical sea can stir emotions like nothing else.
Of course, nature is nothing if not capricious, and that same stretch of calm blue ocean can turn deadly in a matter of hours—sometimes in a matter of minutes, if the conditions are right—going from peaceful and torpid to a raging tempest that obliterates anything caught in it. And that’s just the water itself—there are plenty of other dangers out there, from aggressive whales that attack boats, hungry sharks just waiting to make a meal out of an unwary swimmer or diver, hidden, jagged reefs that tear open the keel of a sailboat, even certain areas where the age-old profession of piracy has been resurrected, making unmolested passage less and less likely each year.
Despite its dangers, thousands of people take to the oceans around the world every year, whether simply as their job, or looking for adventure. Some find much more than they bargained for, and end up watching those beautiful sunrises and sunsets in a leaky whaleboat or life raft, trapped on the endless expanse of water, sometimes for weeks or even months, subsisting on what they managed to bring aboard and what they can catch from the water until sighting land or being rescued.
The following selections of shipwrecked and castaway men and women spans more than 175 years, and shows that, whether adrift in the eighteenth century or the twentieth, survival at sea has always been a matter of proper mindset, courage, and more than a bit of luck.
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ADRIFT ON THE PACIFIC
Owen Chase (1798–1869)
From the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and
Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex
We begin our journey out into the wild ocean with an excerpt from one of the most famous survival stories ever told. The whaleship Essex, while on a two-year voyage in the Pacific Ocean, was attacked and sunk by a large sperm whale on November 20, 1820. The twenty-one sailors were left in three whaleboats in the middle of the ocean, with little food or water. So began one of the most incredible journeys of perseverance in the history of mankind. Before it was over, the survivors would resort to such measures as drinking their own urine and cannibalism to survive. First Mate Owen Chase’s account of the sailors’ plight, published in 1821, is still just as gripping to read today as it must have been at the time. It seems that I’m not the only person to think so, either, as the narrative was a source of inspiration for Herman Melville to write his epic novel Moby-Dick.
In this excerpt, we pick up the narrative a few days after the sinking of the Essex, and find the men struggling to survive in their leaking boats, with little food and even less potable water. Although this excerpt seems to have a happy ending, with the survivors reaching an island, if one reads the last few pages carefully, it becomes fairly obvious that there is more hardship in store for these poor men.
NOVEMBER 23RD. IN MY CHEST, which I was fortunate enough to preserve, I had several small articles, which we found of great service to us; among the rest, some eight or ten sheets of writing paper, a lead pencil, a suit of clothes, three small fishhooks, a jackknife, a whetstone, and a cake of soap. I commenced to keep a sort of journal with the little paper and pencil, which I had; and the knife, besides other useful purposes, served us as a razor. It was with much difficulty, however, that I could keep any sort of record, owing to the incessant rocking and unsteadiness of the boat, and the continual dashing of the spray of the sea over us. The boat contained, in addition to the articles enumerated, a lantern, tinderbox, and two or three candles, which belonged to her, and with which they are kept always supplied while engaged in taking whale. In addition to all which, the captain had saved a musket, two pistols, and a canister, containing about two pounds of gunpowder; the latter he distributed in equal proportions between the three boats, and gave the second mate and myself each a pistol. When morning came we found ourselves quite near together, and the wind had considerably increased since the day before; we were consequently obliged to reef our sails; and although we did not apprehend any very great danger from the then violence of the wind, yet it grew to be very uncomfortable in the boats from the repeated dashing of the waves that kept our bodies constantly wet with the salt spray. We, however, stood along our course until twelve o’clock, when we got an observation, as well as we were able to obtain one, while the water flew all over us, and the sea kept the boat extremely unsteady. We found ourselves this day in latitude 0°58¢ S having repassed the equator. We abandoned the idea altogether of keeping any correct longitudinal reckoning, having no glass, nor log line. The wind moderated in the course of the afternoon a little, but at night came on to blow again almost a gale. We began now to tremble for our little barque; she was so ill calculated, in point of strength, to withstand the racking of the sea, while it required the constant labors of one man to keep her free of water. We were surrounded in the afternoon with porpoises that kept playing about us in great numbers, and continued to follow us during the night.
November 24th. The wind had not abated any since the preceding day, and the sea had risen to be very large, and increased, if possible, the extreme uncomfortableness of our situation. What added more than anything else to our misfortunes was that all our efforts for the preservation of our provisions proved, in a great measure, ineffectual; a heavy sea broke suddenly into the boat, and, before we could snatch it up, damaged some part of it; by timely attention, however, and great caution, we managed to make it eatable and to preserve the rest from a similar casualty. This was a subject of extreme anxiety to us; the expectation, poor enough of itself indeed, upon which our final rescue was founded, must change at once to hopelessness, deprived of our provisions, the only means of continuing us in the exercise, not only of our manual powers, but in those of reason itself; hence, above all other things, this was the object of our utmost solicitude and pains.
We ascertained, the next day, that some of the provisions in the captain’s boat had shared a similar fate during the night; both which accidents served to arouse us to a still stronger sense of our slender reliance upon the human means at our command, and to show us our utter dependence on that divine aid, which we so much the more stood in need of.
November 25th. No change of wind had yet taken place, and we experienced the last night the same wet and disagreeable weather of the preceding one. About eight o’clock in the morning we discovered that the water began to come fast in our boat, and in a few minutes the quantity increased to such a degree as to alarm us considerably for our safety; we commenced immediately a strict search in every part of her to discover the leak, and, after tearing up the ceiling or floor of the boat near the bows, we found it proceeded from one of the streaks or outside boards having bursted off there; no time was to be lost in devising some means to repair it. The great difficulity consisted in its being in the bottom of the boat, about six inches from the surface of the water; it was necessary, therefore, to have access to the outside, to enable us to fasten it on again: the leak being to leeward, we hove about, and lay to on the other tack, which brought it then nearly out of water; the captain, who was at the time ahead of us, seeing us maneuvering to get the boat about, shortened sail, and presently tacked, and ran down to us. I informed him of our situation, and he came immediately alongside to our assistance. After directing all the men in the boat to get on one side, the other, by that means, heeled out of the water a considerable distance, and, with a little difficulty, we then managed to drive in a few nails, and secured it, much beyond our expectations. Fears of no ordinary kind were excited by this seemingly small accident. When it is recollected to what a slight vessel we had committed ourselves; our means of safety alone consisting in her capacity and endurance for many weeks, in all probability, yet to come, it will not be considered strange that this little accident should not only have damped our spirits considerably, but have thrown a great gloominess over the natural prospects of our deliverance. On this occasion, too, were we enabled to rescue ourselves from inevitable destruction by the possession of a few nails, without which (had it not been our fortune to save some from the wreck) we would, in all human calculations, have been lost: we were still liable to a recurrence of the same accident, perhaps to a still worse one, as, in the heavy and repeated racking of the swell, the progress of our voyage would serve but to increase the incapacity and weakness of our boat, and the starting of a single nail in her bottom would most assuredly prove our certain destruction. We wanted not this additional reflection, to add to the miseries of our situation.
November 26th. Our sufferings, heaven knows, were now sufficiently increased, and we looked forward, not without an extreme dread, and anxiety, to the gloomy and disheartening prospect before us. We experienced a little abatement of wind and rough weather today, and took the opportunity of drying the bread that had been wet the day previously; to our great joy and satisfaction also, the wind hauled out to ENE and enabled us to hold a much more favorable course; with these exceptions, no circumstance of any considerable interest occurred in the course of this day.
The twenty-seventh of November was alike undistinguished for any incident worthy of note; except that the wind again veered back to E and destroyed the fine prospect we had entertained of making a good run for several days to come.
November 28th. The wind hauled still further to the southward, and obliged us to fall off our course to S and commenced to blow with such violence, as to put us again under short sail; the night set in extremely dark, and tempestuous, and we began to entertain fears that we should be separated. We however, with great pains, managed to keep about a ship’s length apart, so that the white sails of our boats could be distinctly discernible. The captain’s boat was but a short distance astern of mine, and that of the second mate a few rods to leeward of his. At about eleven o’clock at night, having laid down to sleep, in the bottom of the boat, I was suddenly awakened by one of my companions, who cried out that the captain was in distress and was calling on us for assistance. I immediately aroused myself, and listened a moment, to hear if anything further should be said, when the captain’s loud voice arrested my attention. He was calling to the second mate, whose boat was nearer to him than mine. I made all haste to put about, ran down to him, and inquired what was the matter; he replied, “I have been attacked by an unknown fish, and he has stove my boat.” It appeared that some large fish had accompanied the boat for a short distance, and had suddenly made an unprovoked attack upon her, as nearly as they could determine, with his jaws; the extreme darkness of the night prevented them from distinguishing what kind of animal it was, but they judged it to be about twelve feet in length, and one of the killer-fish species. After having struck the boat once, he continued to play about her, on every side, as if manifesting a disposition to renew the attack, and did a second time strike the bows of the boat, and split her stem. They had no other instrument of violence but the sprit-pole (a long slender piece of wood, by which the peak of the sail is extended) with which, after repeated attempts to destroy the boat, they succeeded in beating him off. I arrived just as he had discontinued his operations and disappeared. He had made a considerable breach in the bows of the boat, through which the water had began to pour fast; and the captain, imagining matters to be considerably worse then they were, immediately took measures to remove his provisions into the second mate’s boat and mine, in order to lighten his own, and by that means, and constant bailing, to keep her above water until daylight should enable him to discover the extent of the damage, and to repair it. The night was spissy* darkness itself; the sky was completely overcast, and it seemed to us as if fate was wholly relentless, in pursuing us with such a cruel complication of disasters. We were not without our fears that the fish might renew his attack some time during the night upon one of the other boats, and unexpectedly destroy us; but they proved entirely groundless, as he was never afterward seen. When daylight came, the wind again favored us a little, and we all lay to, to repair the broken boat; which was effected by nailing on thin strips of boards in the inside; and, having replaced the provisions, we proceeded again on our course. Our allowance of water, which in the commencement merely served to administer to the positive demands of nature, became now to be insufficient; and we began to experience violent thirst from the consumption of the provisions that had been wet with the salt water, and dried in the sun; of these we were obliged to eat first, to prevent their spoiling; and we could not, nay, we did not dare, to make any encroachments on our stock of water. Our determination was to suffer as long as human patience and endurance would hold out, having only in view the relief that would be afforded us when the quantity of wet provisions should be exhausted. Our extreme sufferings here first commenced. The privation of water is justly ranked among the most dreadful of the miseries of our life; the violence of raving thirst has no parallel in the catalog of human calamities. It was our hard lot to have felt this in its extremest force, when necessity subsequently compelled us to seek resource from one of the offices of nature. We were not at first, aware of the consequences of eating this bread; and themselves to a degree of oppression that we could divine the cause of our extreme thirst. But, alas! It was not until the fatal effects of it had shown there was no relief. Ignorant, or instructed of the fact, it was alike immaterial; it composed a part of our subsistence, and reason imposed upon us the necessity of its immediate consumption, as otherwise it would have been lost to us entirely.
November 29th. Our boats appeared to be growing daily more frail and insufficient; the continual flowing of the water into them seemed increased, without our being able to assign it to anything else than a general weakness, arising from causes that must in a short time, without some remedy or relief, produce their total failure. We did not neglect, however, to patch up and mend them, according to our means, whenever we could discover a broken or weak part. We this day found ourselves surrounded by a shoal of dolphins; some, or one of which, we tried in vain a long time to take. We made a small line from some rigging that was in the boat, fastened on one of the fishhooks, and tied to it a small piece of white rag; they took not the least notice of it, but continued playing around us, nearly all day, mocking both our miseries and our efforts.
November 30th. This was a remarkably fine day; the weather not exceeded by any that we had experienced since we left the wreck. At one o’clock, I proposed to our boat’s crew to kill one of the turtle; two of which we had in our possession. I need not say that the proposition was hailed with the utmost enthusiasm; hunger had set its ravenous gnawings upon our stomachs, and we waited with impatience to suck the warm flowing blood of the animal. A small fire was kindled in the shell of the turtle, and after dividing the blood (of which there was about a gill) among those of us who felt disposed to drink it, we cooked the remainder, entrails and all, and enjoyed from it an unspeakably fine repast. The stomachs of two or three revolted at the sight of the blood, and refused to partake of it; not even the outrageous thirst that was upon them could induce them to taste it; for myself, I took it like a medicine, to relieve the extreme dryness of my palate, and stopped not to inquire whether it was anything else than a liquid. After this, I may say exquisite banquet, our bodies were considerably recruited, and I felt my spirits now much higher than they had been at any time before. By observation, this day we found ourselves in latitude 7°53¢ S, our distance from the wreck, as nearly as we could calculate, was then about 480 miles.
December 1st. From the first to the third of December, exclusive, there was nothing transpired of any moment. Our boats as yet kept admirably well together, and the weather was distinguished for its mildness and salubrity. We gathered consolation, too, from a favorable slant, which the wind took to NE and our situation was not at that moment, we thought, so comfortless as we had been led at first to consider it; but, in our extravagant felicitations upon the blessing of the wind and weather, we forgot our leaks, our weak boats, our own debility, our immense distance from land, the smallness of our stock of provisions; all which, when brought to mind, with the force which they deserved, were too well calculated to dishearten us, and cause us to sigh for the hardships of our lot. Up to the third of December, the raging thirst of our mouths had not been but in a small degree alleviated; had it not been for the pains which that gave us, we should have tasted, during this spell of fine weather, a species of enjoyment, derived from a momentous forgetfulness of our actual situation.
December 3rd. With great joy we hailed the last crumb of our damaged bread, and commenced this day to take our allowance of healthy provisions. The salutary and agreeable effects of this change was felt at first in so slight a degree as to give us no great satisfaction; but gradually, as we partook of our small allowance of water, the moisture began to collect in our mouths, and the parching fever of the palate imperceptibly left it. An accident here happened to us, which gave us a great momentary spell of uneasiness. The night was dark, and the sky was completely overcast, so that we could scarcely discern each other’s boats, when at about ten o’clock, that of the second mate was suddenly missing. I felt for a moment considerable alarm at her unexpected disappearance; but after a little reflection I immediately hove to, struck a light as expeditiously as possible, and hoisted it at the masthead, in a lantern. Our eyes were now directed over every part of the ocean, in search of her, when, to our great joy, we discerned an answering light, about a quarter of a mile to leeward of us; we ran down to it, and it proved to be the lost boat. Strange as the extraordinary interest, which we felt in each other’s company may appear, and much as our repugnance to separation may seem to imply of weakness, it was the subject of our continual hopes and fears. It is truly remarked that misfortune more than anything else serves to endear us to our companions. So strongly was this sentiment engrafted upon our feelings, and so closely were the destinies of all of us involuntarily linked together, that, had one of the boats been wrecked and wholly lost, with all her provisions and water, we should have felt ourselves constrained, by every tie of humanity, to have taken the surviving sufferers into the other boats, and shared our bread and water with them, while a crumb of one or a drop of the other remained. Hard, indeed, would the case have been for all, and much as I have since reflected on the subject, I have not been able to realize, had it so happened, that a sense of our necessities would have allowed us to give so magnanimous and devoted a character to our feelings. I can only speak of the impressions, which I recollect I had at the time. Subsequently, however, as our situation became more straightened and desperate, our conversation on this subject took a different turn; and it appeared to be a universal sentiment that such a course of conduct was calculated to weaken the chances of a final deliverance for some, and might be the only means of consigning every soul of us to a horrid death of starvation. There is no question but that an immediate separation, therefore, was the most politic measure that could be adopted, and that every boat should take its own separate chance: while we remained together, should any accident happen of the nature alluded to, no other course could be adopted than that of taking the survivors into the other boats, and giving up voluntarily what we were satisfied could alone prolong our hopes and multiply the chances of our safety, or unconcernedly witness their struggles in death, perhaps beat them from our boats, with weapons, back into the ocean. The expectation of reaching the land was founded upon a reasonable calculation of the distance, the means, and the subsistence; all which were scanty enough, God knows, and ill adapted to the probable exigencies of the voyage. Any addition to our own demands, in this respect, would not only injure, but actually destroy the whole system, which we had laid down, and reduce us to a slight hope, derived either from the speedy death of some of our crew, or the falling in with some vessel. With all this, however, there was a desperate instinct that bound us together; we could not reason on the subject with any degree of satisfaction to our minds, yet we continued to cling to each other with a strong and involuntary impulse. This, indeed, was a matter of no small difficulty, and it constituted, more than anything else, a source of continual watching and inquietude. We would but turn our eyes away for a few moments, during some dark nights, and presently one of the boats would be missing. There was no other remedy than to heave to immediately and set a light, by which the missing boat might be directed to us. These proceedings necessarily interfered very much with our speed, and consequently lessened our hopes; but we preferred to submit to it, while the consequences were not so immediately felt, rather than part with the consolation, which each other’s presence afforded. Nothing of importance took place on the fourth of December; and on the fifth at night, owing to the extreme darkness, and a strong wind, I again separated from the other boats. Finding they were not to be seen in any direction, I loaded my pistol and fired it twice; soon after the second discharge they made their appearance a short distance to windward, and we joined company, and again kept on our course, in which we continued without any remarkable occurrence through the sixth and seventh of December. The wind during this period blew very strong, and much more unfavorably. Our boats continued to leak, and to take in a good deal of water over the gunwales.