Telling the true story of two similar shipwreck tragedies that have drastically different outcomes, award-winning maritime historian Druett tells a gripping cautionary tale about leadership, endurance, human ingenuity, and the tenuous line between order and chaos.
In January 1864 the Grafton was wrecked in a violent storm off the coast of the Aukland Islands, there were five survivors who made it ashore. The Islands had no settled population and the five men became castaways for eighteen months. In May of the same year The Invercauld was wrecked at the opposite end of the Islands and nineteen men made it ashore. Appalling weather and a mountainous terrain kept the two groups of castaways far apart. The Invercauld group spent 12 months on the islands but only three of the nineteen survived, whereas all five of the Grafton group made it back to civilisation.
Joan Druett has written a sort of documentary of the shipwrecks and by contrasting the two groups and moving from one story to the other she has highlighted why the small group were more successful than the larger group. Reading her account of the Grafton group is very much like reading Robinson Crusoe. Hard work, a never say die attitude and an ability to adapt and make the most of their surroundings along with their Christian ideals were the backbone to their survival. It was significant also that they managed to work together with a certain amount of camaraderie and a democratically elected leader. The Invercauld group by contrast could not overcome their reliance on the hierarchy of their naval rankings and when this failed to provide leadership the group fell apart.
These are not earth shattering events on the world’s stage, but are full of human interest. Reading about people coping with extreme conditions is fascinating to many of us and in this case knowing that the events described happened more or less as Druitt tells us, gives us a feeling of authenticity that we get when reading an extraordinary story in the newspapers. A real life adventure, although one few of us would wish to share is told brilliantly by an author who has painstakingly researched her subject and come up with an angle that is entertaining and enlightening. I was just glad to have experienced this from the comfort of my warm weatherproof study. 4 stars.
Auckland Island is a godforsaken place in the middle of the Southern Ocean, 285 miles south of New Zealand. With year-round freezing rain and howling winds, it is one of the most forbidding places in the world. To be shipwrecked there means almost certain death.”
-Island of the Lost
So begins Joan Druett’s book, Island of the Lost – Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World. It is a tale that would seem implausible, if not for the fact that it is all absolutely true. In 1864, near the end of the age of sail, two separate ships did indeed wreck along the coast of Auckland Island – a tiny sliver of land sticking out of the forbidding Southern Ocean – a place that remains uninhabited to this day. By piecing together logbooks, memoirs, newspaper accounts and Druett’s own personal trips to the desolate island, she is able to create a vivid account of two divergent stories of survival. The schooner Grafton and its crew of five wrecks at the southern end of the island. Through inspired leadership and the camaraderie of the whole crew, they are able to eke out an existence in spite of the vast hardships. At almost the same time, the Invercauld wrecks at the north end of the island. In contrast to the Grafton, most of the 19 surviving crew of the Invercauld quickly succumb to the elements, infighting and a leadership vacuum.
Druett does an excellent job of weaving the two stories together, contrasting a crew working together with a crew in shambles. Her credentials as a historian insure an exhaustive level of research, while her award-winning skills as a novelist ensure that the text is entirely readable. The story moves along nicely and never fails to give the reader a sense of just how precarious the castaways’ plight is. While the book spends perhaps a little too much time describing the multitude of ways to kill a seal and not quite enough time discussing the lives of the castaways after their ordeal, as a whole it is a wonderful effort at delivering a look into a place and time not widely understood. There is also a thorough collection of notes at the end that provide many more factual details. However, its greatest attribute is the way it shines a spotlight on a teachable moment of history – how survival is often determinant on who you are with and how well you work together. If you have any interest in sailing history or stories of survival in the remote reaches of the world, this is a great book to have.
The Auckland Islands are a harsh place. The main island has immense cliffs the entire western coast, it is cold, wet and tremendous storms batter it winter-long. The forest is gnarly, boggy and virtually impenetrable. The survivors faced the most shocking conditions as they wintered over, and, frequently on the brink of starvation, spent their days foraging, hunting, and trying as they could to improve their shelter.
There area many amazing things about this story, but one of the most incredible is that during their "stay", another ship wrecked at the other end of the island, a mere 20 miles away, and the parallel story of those survivors is also told. Each group knew nothing of the other. The most recent castaways faced even harsher circumstances. We come to see the value in having organisation and good leadership, the fortune of having a wrecked ship to salvage, and the importance of those first few days in getting food and shelter fast. I think this book is rare(ish),but find it if you can as it is a rollicking story- and true at that.
Her easy style balances journalistic integrity with the need to captivate the reader, and holds you from the first paragraph and never lags.
Overall, the stories of these two groups of shipwrecked sailors is a keen contrast between the higher ideals and purposes of humans, and our more base, predatory instincts. In fact, the actions of these real, historical people will both astonish and disgust you.
Oh, and now Auckland Islands is now the second place on earth I would never wish to visit unless I had a death-wish.
This book could have been 4+ stars except that it was bogged down with too much detail (for me) in the tedious such as how they shaved wood and made planks, etc. The author is a maritime historian and perhaps if someone else, such as Erik Larsen had written this book it would have been more exciting. All in all, though, it was a solid, average read. 284 pages 3 1 /2 stars (for the seal section)
This page-turner is well-researched and well-written, full of details culled from the survivors' diaries and notes and newspaper articles. It also includes vast amounts of information about the region, weather patterns, sealing, and sailing ships of the 1800s...not to mention how power hierarchies determined by birthright as opposed to competence and experience can be fatal structures.
This book was a bit outside my realm of research--which was shipwrecks of the early days of the East Indies companies--but the story of the double shipwreck with its radically different endings drew me in as fast as the winds and reefs that scuttled these two ships.
Recommended for anyone interested in 1800s adventure, sealing, survival, and the human condition...plus any 14 year-old boys on my birthday list.