Avast and arggh: another in a recent string of stories of things gone awry at sea—though with a smart spin that makes it better than most of the lot.
The Hornet, writes Jackson (Leavenworth Train, 2001, etc.), was a marvel of 19th-century clipper technology, capable of easy long-distance hauls from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn. A thousand-odd miles off the Galapagos Islands on May 3, 1866, it caught fire, blazing “like a giant lamp, fueled by the 20,000 gallons of kerosene and 6,000 boxes of candles stored in her hold.” The captain, whom Mark Twain, no friend of bosses, characterized as “a New Englander of the best seagoing stock of the old capable times,” reluctantly ordered that the ship be abandoned and put out onto the open sea with crew and passengers in three dangerously overloaded boats. Immediately, writes Jackson, other perils loomed, and of many kinds, from passing marine predators to class warfare among officers and hands. The second was the more dangerous, for though the captain was a mild and fair man, his second officer was “partial to the colt, the single-coiled whip used to beat careless crewmen.” After only nine days at sea, Jackson writes, the mate’s crew was “poised for murder,” and that was before the real hard times set in, when the food and water began to run out and the doldrums-stalled, near-mutinous survivors set about contemplating which of their company they would dine on first. In all this Jackson has an improbably fine time, writing of the nutritional value of human flesh (not much, as it turns out, if it’s been starved of fat), the ecology of islands and ships, and the tangled class structure of Victorian America; his narrative sputters, and then only a little, only when the Hornet’s crew eventually makes land to be greeted by said Mark Twain, who would gain at least some of his early fame through the reports he filed of their grim adventure.
Good stuff for those who like their disaster-at-sea tales flavored with ideas.