things I like: shipwreck stories

My fascination with shipwrecks may seem a little morbid, but I love reading about how real people have reacted to extreme circumstances. I'm especially interested in age-of-sail wrecks. It would be bad enough to be adrift in a lifeboat in today's world, anyone in that same situation in the days before radio communication or search planes faced frighteningly long odds.

Shipwreck survivors go through a wide range of experiences. Some travel for thousands of miles in tiny boats without charts or navigational equipment, others face their harshest trials only after reaching land. You can find a few heroes and villains in these stories, but most of the participants are average people trying to take care of themselves as best they can.

JEAN LOUIS THÉODORE GÉRICAULT - La Balsa de la Medusa (Museo del Louvre, 1818-19)
One of the most infamous wrecks in history happened in 1816. A French ship, the Méduse, ran aground off the western coast of Africa. There weren't enough boats for the sailors, soldiers, and passengers aboard, so a raft was built to carry everyone else to safety. Much of the raft was underwater once it was loaded down with people, but it was thought to be sturdy enough to last the 60 miles to shore.

The lifeboats began to drop their tow lines after a few miles, they thought their chances were better on their own. The people in the boats abandoned the raft, landed on shore within a day, and walked to an outpost. Most of them survived.

They left 146 people crowded on the raft with only one bag of food and a few casks of wine. The violence started almost immediately. Some of the victims died of drowning or exposure, but others were killed while fighting over the safest spaces at the center of the raft. Later on, some of the people most weakened by the lack of food and water were thrown overboard.

When the raft was found nearly two weeks later, fifteen men were left. Five of those were so sick that they died shortly after the rescue.

This event led to a huge political scandal in France, because the shipwreck was caused by an inept captain who ignored the experienced navigators on board and was given his rank through nepotism rather than skill. The authorities also tried to cover up first-hand accounts of the wreck.

Stories like this are tragic, but they give us a view on everything from history to human behavior. Wikipedia has a good general article about the Méduse as well as information about Géricault's famous painting of the raft.

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