After Being Shipwrecked On A Sub-Antarctic Island, Five Men Survived As Castaways For Over A Year

Image: Charles Chilton

If you were to brave the ferocious Southern Ocean and sail to the Auckland Islands near New Zealand today, you would come across the last of the remains of the Grafton shipwreck on the beach. As a poignant reminder of the crew’s time on the island, these artifacts form part of an incredible story of survival.

Image: via IMDb

Shipwrecks have fascinated us for centuries, and they crop up in popular culture all too regularly. Case in point is the 2000 film Cast Away, which sees Tom Hanks play the part of Chuck Noland, who found himself stranded on an island in the middle of the South Pacific after his plane had crashed. As well as capturing the imagination of viewers across the globe, it also enjoyed critical success: with Hanks getting an Academy Award nod for Best Actor.

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But our fascination with shipwrecks goes back much further. Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe, for example, details the story of the eponymous character’s adventures as a castaway on an island near Trinidad. Indeed, the fictional book is thought to be based on the life of the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk.

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Museum-goers and historians alike are also often captivated by tales of long-lost shipwrecks. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Titanic. Believed to be the world’s most advanced ship at the time, the cruise liner tragically sank during her maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg, killing more than 1,500 people.

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Of course, it’s not only natural factors that cause shipwrecks: many vessels have also sunk as a result of war. Take the famous Tudor battleship The Mary Rose, for instance, which French forces sunk in 1545 off the coast of the Isle of Wight in England. Centuries later experts salvaged the shipwreck, and visitors now flock to see its remnants at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

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Meanwhile, the Maori of New Zealand have stories about sunken ships in the region. Indeed, the latitude there earned it the nickname “the furious fifties” – and not by accident. Due to the harsh westerly winds that roar across the Southern Ocean, many ships have fallen foul of the seas and not completed their voyages.

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But the islands south of New Zealand, deep in the sub-Antarctic zone, are even more brutal. Two land masses, known as The Traps and The Snares, got their names due to the dangers they presented to sailors. But an even bigger threat came from the Auckland Islands further south.

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The Auckland Islands are bitterly cold and barren, featuring stunted trees and shrieking winds. They are also home to a plethora of bird life, and sea lions bask on their cold shores. And with near constant hail, sleet, snow and rain, along with the devastating winds that regularly rip into the island, it is deeply inhospitable for humans.

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Indeed, there’s a reason why 11 ships lie wrecked on the Auckland Islands. According to the author John McCrystal, marine hunters obscured the islands’ position on maps, charting it 35 miles out of position. And the area’s notoriously limited visibility meant sailors often got stuck there, expecting to be on the open seas, and with the vicious winds pushing them closer to the rock face. And, as their boats could not “sail to the weather,” they couldn’t correct their course.

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Sadly, this was the fate that befell the Grafton in 1864. The ship had been assembled out of the wreckage of a Spanish man o’war, according to McCrystal, and the schooner apparently weighed in at 56 tonnes. Being a small vessel, she was only around 24 to 27 meters long. But, despite her small size, the materials that the Grafton’s crew would be able to salvage from their ship once they were marooned would be a crucial element of their survival.

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Indeed, the collection of prospectors, sailors and businessmen who had hired out the Grafton hadn’t expected to travel anywhere near the Auckland Islands. Instead, the crew planned to sail to the Campbell Islands to mine argentiferous tin and hunt seals. Or at least that’s what draper Charles Sarpry and his partner captain Thomas Musgrave apparently told Francois Raynal when they convinced him to join their plan.

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In fact, Frenchman Raynal had spent over a decade in Australian goldfields. And for the journey to the island, he had requested a suitable captain be found, despite also being a sailor himself. Thus Musgrave came to helm the Grafton. Alexander ‘Alick’ Maclaren, a Norwegian seaman, Englishman George Harris, another seaman, and Portugueuse cook Henry ‘Harry’ Forgés made up the rest of the crew.

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However, once the group arrived at Campbell Islands, their plan went awry. That’s because Raynal fell ill while surveying for tin, and they couldn’t find a hint of the previous metal, nor many seals. So the group devised a new plan: to hunt seals on the Auckland Islands.

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On 31 December, 1863, the Grafton dropped anchor on the Auckland Islands. They had arrived at one of the island’s sounds, and dropped the schooner’s two anchors. But with little swinging room, Musgrave knew the Grafton was in a precarious position. So when hurricane-force winds swept in, they had no chance of weathering the storm safely.

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The gale blew in on New Year’s Day 1864, and did not let up until midnight of 2 January, when the anchor chains came off. And by 7:00 p.m. the following day, the starboard chain had parted. A few hours later, a powerful wind struck the boat, leaving her sprawled sideways on the rocky beach with the sea washing over.

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Until the sun’s rays hit them the next morning, the men had scrunched together on the sodden deck. And once light came, the men found their way ashore. Indeed, one brave man bravely had swam ahead with the ship’s 12-foot dinghy and set up a line behind him, so the others could make their way onto the island.

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Once safely off the Grafton, the crew then began to despair. Not only were they stranded, nobody knew they were even there. Even if their loved ones did send out a rescue party, they’d be looking in the wrong place: everybody thought that they were still on Campbell’s Island.

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But the crew had a lifeline, because they’d salvaged some critical supplies from the ship. They now had paltry rations of biscuits, flour, salt meat and tobacco. They also possessed cooking utensils, assorted navigation equipment and Raynal’s gun. And they had one more thing: a box of matches. Soaked through from their first night spent on the foundered Grafton, they wouldn’t catch until the fifth match – but now they had fire.

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But even with a heat source, the men still needed shelter. The crew used the ship’s sail cloth and spars to create a rudimentary hut. But exposed to the Auckland’s harsh elements, rain often soaked through the cloth, dripping freezing water onto the men. Indeed, something would have to be done.

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So the crew decided to construct a proper shelter that could withstand the harsh winter. Built using timber from the Grafton and nearby stone, the hut would sit close to the beach and measure approximately seven meters by five. As well as sleeping quarters and a communal area in the center, the shelter’s pièce de résistance would be a large stone chimney. All they needed now was mortar for it.

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Amazingly, Raynal was able to manufacture homemade mortar from crushed seashells. But despite their ingenuity, with only an axe, an adze, a hammer and a gimlet, the hut still took a long time to complete. So when, on 5 March, 1864, the men finally finished the hut, you can imagine their excitement.

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But the men’s new home had major flaws. Raynal and Musgrove wrote in their journals that the hut let in the wind, as the walls had been originally only canvas stretched over a timber and lathe frame. The men then thatched the walls with tussock grass, to keep the wind and wet at bay.

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Indeed, the thatched walls were by no means the only addition to ‘Epigwaitt,’ as the men called their home. As well as a two-meter long dining table, the hut also boasted a writing desk, stretchers and bookshelves for the group’s four books. They even installed glass salvaged from the Grafton to make windows.

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Meanwhile, the men needed food. Indeed, the rations that they’d salvaged from the ship would last them only two months. The seals that had brought the group to the Auckland Islands initially featured heavily in their diet, and Raynal turned their skins into clothes and shoes for the men to wear. In his journal, Musgrave recorded that the crew’s diet also consisted of “widgeon,” which they shot.

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But a diet of predominantly meat wouldn’t do their digestive tracts any favours. Luckily, the group also found Stilbocarpa polaris: a root that grew on the island. As well as keeping scurvy at bay, the crew even used it to make beer.

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Meanwhile, despite their food needs being met, the group also had to contend with the psychological elements of being marooned too. According to author John McCrystal, Musgrave suffered from depression. Indeed, he was the only one of the five with a wife and children.

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And with so much time on their hands, the crew amused each other. Those who couldn’t read sought lessons in exchange for their knowledge of foreign languages, and Raynal constructed various games including a chess set, dominoes and a pack of cards. However, the men destroyed the latter as Musgrave reportedly proved such a bad sport. For a time, the group also kept pet parakeets, and one of them even learned how to speak.

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But the men struggled with island living, especially when winter set in. And during those long winter months, the worst of the group’s problems wasn’t the weather – it was food. That’s because the majority of the sea lions had left the Auckland Islands. Indeed, on some days the men would brave the freezing conditions and walk for up to ten miles without seeing one.

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Thankfully, spring saw the return of food – as well as the onset of the anniversary of their arrival at the island. But summer came and went, and no rescue was in sight. Raynal then apparently decided that the men would have to take matters into their hands.

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After much discussion, the group planned to construct a new boat. But to achieve this, they would need tools. Raynal set up a forge, and impressively created a set of blacksmith’s bellows from sealskin, wood and salvaged metal. He also forged a variety of hammers, as well as every nail and bolt that would be required for the new ship. However, their plan fell apart at a crucial stage: manufacturing an auger, a type of drill, proved too much even for Raynal.

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Nevertheless, the crew persevered. Instead, they decided they would fortify the boat and rename her the Rescue. But to make the the 400-kilometer journey to the closest settlement, Stewart Island, on one of the world’s most tempestuous oceans, required some serious building work. They added a keel, raised the dinghy’s gunwales by a couple of feet and constructed sails from Epigwaitt’s roof. And after dumping around a tonne of ballast onto the boat to provide stability, they were ready to set sail.

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But again, disaster struck. When all five crew members got on board, the vessel would barely float, let alone sail. They worked out that only three of them could make the journey – which meant that two men would have to stay behind.

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In the end, Musgrave, Raynal and MacLaren set out across the ocean for Stewart Island, leaving Harris and Forgés ashore to await their return. And with the boat – their main way of finding seals – gone, surviving on the Aucklands would suddenly become much more difficult.

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Meanwhile, despite these unfavourable odds, the three men left their compatriots behind and set sail for Stewart Island on 19 July, 1865. But once they got past the northern part of the islands and onto open water, they hit a gale-force storm. This bad weather lasted for several days and became so dangerous that the Rescue’s crew had to lay-to and wait for the winds to subside. Several days later, however, they arrived at Stewart Island.

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Musgrave, Raynal and MacLaren arrived at Fort Adventure on July 24. And here, the group met a man called Captain Cross, who took in the trio and transported them to Invercargill in his vessel the Flying Scud. And after public fundraising there, the men generated enough money to pay Cross to return with Musgrave to the Auckland Islands and pick up the remaining men.

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However, although the rescue party departed from Invercargill on July 30, they did not drop anchor in the Aucklands until August 23. These delays, apparently due to bad weather and malfunctioning navigational instruments, meant that the remaining two crew members had been confined to the Auckland Islands for 19 months.

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Image: via Museum Of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Meanwhile, when Cross and Musgrave arrived at Epigwaitt, Harris and Forgés were both in a bad state. Harris, who had been standing outside the hut, reportedly went white and couldn’t speak at the sight of his captain, nearly collapsing in shock. The Portuguese cook was lying down inside, but when he saw Musgrave he jumped to his feet and touched the man’s arm repeatedly, asking him how he was.

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But Musgrave wasn’t content with only trying to rescue his crewmates. Indeed, on their voyage to rescue Harris and Forgés, the Captain had spotted smoke from somewhere on the island. Haunted by what he’d seen, Musgrave later accompanied the Victoria, a steam corvette sent to the island to look for signs of other castaways. Although they found no survivors, they did come across a corpse. And the identity of this cadaver was part of an even more intriguing part of the tale.

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You see, it wasn’t only the Grafton that had been shipwrecked on the Aucklands. Another ship, the Invercauld, had got stuck there only four months after Musgrave and his crew did. But the two parties paths had never crossed, and the Invercauld group had not fared as well as their compatriots. Only three crew members survived, and they escaped the Aucklands by chance when Portuguese ship the Julian docked at the island to try and repair a leak.

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Meanwhile, after the crew of the Grafton and Invercauld left the island, depots were set up so any future castaways would hopefully have some means of survival. The sign on one of these stores allegedly cursed pilferers who stole supplies when they had a working ship available: the very thing that those marooned in this desolate place would long for most.

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