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Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett

April 4, 2014

NOTE: I read this book in 2008. I wanted to post the review because I just finished In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, another shipwreck story.


 

In January of 1864, the Australian schooner, Grafton, wrecked on Auckland Island, an inhospitable and inclement land mass in the South Pacific, with a five-man crew. Half of this book is their story of survival. Under the leadership of captain Thomas Musgrave and the well-rounded ingenuity of the French prospector Francois Raynal, the crew used everything at their disposal. They built an impressive shelter, made clothes, shoes, tools for hunting seals, and even a working forge so they could create nails to build a small boat.

By unimaginable coincidence, five months after the Grafton wrecked, the freighter Invercauld, on its way from Melbourne to Callao, also crashed off the coast of Auckland Island with its 25-man crew. Nineteen survivors swam ashore on the northern coast of the island. There, they hunkered down in a state of panic. Their captain, George Delgarno, showed exceptionally inept leadership. Instead of encouraging teamwork among his men, he insisted on the same strict ranked hierarchy as was followed on the ship. Soon there was infighting. Men broke off from the group. In strict contrast to the Grafton situation, there was very little in the way of an organized effort for survival. The situation quickly deteriorated, with men dying of illness and starvation. The situation grew so dire, and so ill-equiped were the survivors, that some resorted to cannibalization of their dead comrades.

Because a mountainous region separated the two groups, neither group knew, at any time, of the other’s existence. In that way, the simultaneous shipwrecks set up a fascinating social experiment. While the castaways from Grafton were fortunate in that their location was slightly more hospitable, with more edible vegetation and seals nearby, they also showed heroic resolve and resourcefulness. Their story alone would have been an amazing survival story, culminating in a desperate, five-day suicide mission in a boat of their own construction—an undersized and ill-equipped vessel that they optimistically dubbed Rescue—from Auckland Island to Stewart Island in New Zealand. In the end, all five crewmen survived the ordeal, which lasted nearly two years.

The other side of the tale is much more grim. Of the Invercauld crew, only three survived—the captain, first mate, and crewman Robert Holding—and then only thanks to Holding’s resourcefulness and the good luck of a ship passing the island.

This is a fascinating book. Druett’s extensive research and analysis are paid off in a story that is both enthralling and full of lessons about teamwork, leadership, and what it takes to survive in one of the more inhospitable corners of the sea.

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