Since men first began to sail the seven seas, shipwrecks have occurred. They have often been the subject of classic novels and have made their way to the big screen on more than one occasion. One of the most notorious shipwrecks to date was on the Auckland Islands in the Southern Ocean where the schooner the Grafton washed up . These remnants help to paint a picture for historians, and tell the story of what happened to the crew of this ship and their will to survive.It is not simply shipwrecks of yesteryear that fascinate audiences though, but also those of a more contemporary style in the form of airplane crashes, such as the case in the film Cast Away. Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland undergoes a harrowing journey on a South Pacific island and the trials and tribulations of being alone for a long period of time. In fact, he portrayed his character so well he even got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. If you watch his conversation with his dear friend Wilson, you can see the mental toll being shipwrecked truly takes on a person.
Robinson Crusoe AKA Andrew Selkirk
Our interest in shipwrecks actually goes back to around 1719 with classical author Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. Even though it is a fictitious account about a man marooned on an island somewhere near Trinidad it is thought to have more substantial roots.
It has been thought to be based on Andrew Selkirk who experienced similar events portrayed in the novel during his own marooning. He was a Scotsman who managed to survive on the island, much like the character of Crusoe.
Forces of Nature
History buffs and shipwreck aficionados love learning about different wrecks through the centuries, what artifacts have been left behind, and in some cases legends of treasure. There is one particular shipwreck though, that has always captured the hearts of historians and that is the case of the Titanic. Unfortunately, the Titanic did not even complete her first voyage and hit an iceberg causing her to sink.
Accidents are not the only thing that causes shipwrecks; war and the occasional pirate attack have also had the same outcome. The Mary Rose was sunk by the French in 1945 off the coast of the United Kingdom and visitors greatly enjoy visiting the Isle of Wight to see its remains.
The Furious Fifties
Every region that has a history of seafaring or simply living next to the ocean has lore around shipwrecks and some of their causes. The Maori in New Zealand are no exception. The coasts around the islands that comprise New Zealand are littered with shipwrecks and this isn’t due to any mythical sea monster but the strong winds that suddenly blow around the island dubbed “the furious fifties.”
These winds blow in from the West and have often created harsh conditions that ships have not been able to withstand. When the winds come across the Southern Ocean sailors know that they need to be very aware of changing conditions.
The Traps and the Snares
The islands in the southern region of New Zealand, in the sub-Antarctic area are not the tropical paradise one might be imagining. In fact, known as The Traps and The Snares these two islands in particular have gained notoriety for essentially capturing ships with their rocky outcroppings along the shore, sometimes hidden from view by the changing tides.
Even further south than these terrible two are the Auckland Islands which feature winter like weather, plenty of fauna and very little flora. If one was to be shipwrecked here, there would be a lot to eat if you are a carnivore but very little in the way of natural materials to build a shelter from.
Since the Auckland Islands are known for being so treacherous, it is no wonder that at least 11 ships, as far as historians know, have been wrecked off the coast of these islands. The thing about shipwrecks that makes them so appealing is that they have great potential for treasure hunters. John McCrystal, an author whose subject is shipwrecks, says that treasure hunters who focus on shipwrecks have purposefully hidden the island location on maps, actually saying its location is 35 miles from its actual one.
Since the area is also plagued by storms, it means that ships often have trouble seeing through the soupy fog and find themselves dangerously close to shore and thus an inevitable wreck.
The Voyage of the Grafton
The focus of McCrystal’s book is the shipwreck of the Grafton in 1864. The Grafton was not a large man o’war ship, but instead a statelier schooner which had been pieced together from a Spanish warship that had been wrecked itself.
Perhaps this was foreshadowing for the Grafton’s fate. The schooner was just under 30 meters long, but she contained all of the equipment necessary for survival which is just what her crew would need to survive on the Auckland Islands.
Mining and Hunting
The Grafton wasn’t a merchant vessel like many of its time but instead was transporting a crew set on prospecting, mining, and hunting. Their goal was to reach Campbell Island and mine for argentiferous tin as well as some seal hunting.
The two co-captains, Charles Sarpry and Thomas Musgrave told potential recruits this was what they were planning. One such recruit was Francois Raynal who was persuaded to join their crew to his own detriment.
The crew of the Grafton was a rather motley bunch. Raynal was in fact a former goldminer, who had spent a swath of years in Australia. He did not feel comfortable setting off for Campbell Island without a well-seasoned crew which is why he insisted that Musgrave be the captain, as he was a seasoned sailor.
Raynal himself was also a sailor, and together they enlisted the help of a Norse sailor, Alexander Maclaren, an English sailor, George Harris and a Portuguese cook named Harry Forgés.
While the crew initially set out full of hope that their venture would see a great return in the way of profit, this was not to be. They arrived at Campbell Island only to have their main prospector – Raynal, become very ill.
There was also no trace of tin or seals on the island. But the crew could not return empty handed. So, they banded together and decided to head to the Auckland Islands to hunt for seals.
Initially the Grafton made it to the Auckland Islands successfully. They managed to sail into one of the small sounds, which they thought might provide them with some modicum of shelter.
The problem was that there was not enough room in the sound for the schooner to come about and turn to face the wind should it change direction, which winds inevitably do. As poor weather was one of the unique characteristics of these bedeviled islands it was no surprise when a storm blew in.
The hurricane-force winds that blew in on January 1, 1964 did not cease until the second day at midnight. The two anchors that had been dropped from the bow on the port and starboard sides were no longer intact.
The starboard chain separated leaving the Grafton in a precarious position. She could not weather the influx of wind and water and was pushed over on to her side and lay against the shore covered in rocky outcroppings.
When morning hit on January 3, 1964 it became apparent that the crew could no longer stay aboard their wrecked ship. They had spent the night huddled together on the wind and wave swept deck.
One brave unnamed soul, swam to the rocky beach and attached a line from ship to shore so that the men could follow it with their own dinghy and pull themselves to the beach where they hoped to find some relief from the storm.
This was not the age of radios, and the crew was truly marooned on the island. They did not have a way of informing their investors and loved ones what their location was.
In fact, nobody actually knew they were on the Auckland Islands and instead believed them to be on Campbell Island. This was when the severity of their situation truly hit home. How were they supposed to survive on this barren island and hopefully be rescued?
While the crew may not have had a sailable ship, they were smart enough to grab whatever provisions they could to aid in their survival. They had small quantities of essentials like some salted meat, tobacco, cookware, a gun, and some navigational equipment like a compass and sextant.
The most important thing they had though, besides the gun for hunting, was matches. Finally, they were able to start and fire and warm themselves up after their ordeal.
Life on the Island
The crew spent many months on the island, and during this time they stripped the ship of everything they needed to build small cabins, including glass windows. They were able to feed themselves with seal meat and other flora found on the island to stave off scurvy.
It was eventually decided that it was time to construct a vessel and set sail to Stewart Island which was 400km away. The small boat could only hold three sailors, so off they set. The two remaining sailors Forgés and Harris would spend a further 19 months on the island.
On August 24, 1865 Forgés and Harris were picked up by their crewmates and the help of the ship the Flying Scud. But, it was possible they had not been the only shipwrecked crew, as Musgrave had spotted smoke while onboard coming from another part of the island.
Upon further discovery, Musgrave now onboard the Victoria found a corpse of another shipwrecked crew from a ship named the Invercauld. The crew from this ship had clearly not been as resourceful, and they were lucky enough to be picked up by a Portuguese ship called the Julian that had briefly moored at the island.
In order to make it easier for others to survive, caches of supplies were left on the islands so that any essentials needed were available to avoid further calamity.
The sign placed above the shipwreck essentials warned any robbers that they would bring a curse on themselves if they were to steal from those who may need the supplies in the future. This is a true tale of survival of the fittest, and albeit the most resourceful.