Worse things happen at sea is probably the most appropriate book title ever. Whatever catastrophe happens on land you can crank up the Richter scale of disaster if it happens out on the briny. Flood, fire, psychopath, injury, grandstanding, storm, starvation, getting lost – put a ship in the background of any of these and they become so, so much worse.
John McCrystal is a gentle bloke, softly spoken, intelligent. You wouldn’t know, to look at him, that his head is full of shipwrecks and disaster. Talk to him and he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every wreck you’ve ever heard of, and many dozen more.
He did a series of wonderful radio shows for Radio Live in 2018, all still available here: Shipwreck Tales with John McCrystal, but I seriously do not recommend listening to them before going to sleep. Some of these stories and many new ones form the basis of this new book, which is divided into three sections: ‘Misery’; ‘Mishap’; ‘Mystery’. Not feel-good bedtime reading on the face of it, but extraordinarily dramatic.
My favourite in the ‘Misery’ section (if you can have a favourite misery) is the contrasting stories of the Grafton and the Invercauld, both wrecked in 1864 on opposite ends of the Auckland Islands, two years before the General Grant went down. The Grafton’s five men, with Thomas Musgrave and the ingenious François Raynal leading, had access to their wreck, they worked together and looked after each other. They self-rescued after eighteen months and all survived. Miserable times, happy ending. The Invercauld was not so lucky. It was the usual Auckland Islands story, fog, sudden drop in the wind, a night-time smash into the rocks. Nineteen made it to shore, scrambled the towering cliffs, and McCrystal describes their coming apart like a nursery rhyme: one dies on the beach, the cook dies of causes unknown and then there were seventeen, seven return to the ship and are never seen again, and then there were ten. Five go north, two die and then there are eight. One falls down dead and is partially eaten by another. Two more die. Miserable yet? The worst is when there are three: Captain Dalgarno, mate Smith and Holding, who lacked rank and therefore was ordered to build huts for the officers and one for himself ‘at some remove from theirs’. It’s about as miserable as the human condition can get. There are seven other shipwreck stories in the ‘Misery’ section. Wallow in them all! Moving on.
The wrecks in the ‘Mishaps’ section don’t have the length of misery of the Auckland Island castaways above, and many may have mistakes at the wheel. Some are decidedly odd. The Ventnor had the proverbial drunken captain at the helm, plus the strange tale of sending to the deep those already dead. In 1901 a mass exhumation of the mortal remains of Chinese immigrants from across the country was arranged so the bodies could return to their descendants for burial and prevent the dead becoming, without the proper rites performed, ‘hungry ghosts’, or damned. As in all these stories, John McCrystal gives us characters; in this case Choie Sew Hoy, a miner turned merchant, who was preparing the bodies for transport when he, himself, died, and his body placed in a rimu casket. The Ventnor dropped sugar from Java at the Chelsea Sugar Works, went on to Wellington for the boxed bodies of 499 Chinese and some Westport coal, and headed for Hong Kong. Somewhere south of Taranaki she struck a reef, sprang a leak and the next day she sunk off the Hokianga. Three of her boats made it ashore with crew, but the fourth boat, in which Captain Ferry floated, drifted ashore unmanned. And then the boxed dead bodies began washing up. A decidedly spooky mishap.
‘Mystery’ is my favourite section: seven stories – seven riddles that need answers. One I’ve figured out already, of course, and Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant has the story though I will give nothing away because if you happen to know where the sunken treasure lies the first rule is: don’t tell. McCrystal also ponders human folly here with two epic show-off fails: the first when the Mikhail Lermontov came to grief in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986 (and the conspiracy theorists go wild!) and with the Costa Concordia in 2012, where Captain Stupid Schettino decides on a ‘sail-by salute’ to impress his mistress and ends up giving her a prime view of a catastrophically sinking ship. The mystery here is: why are men so stupid?
The Penguin, the Rifleman and the Marie Celeste are shipwrecks I know (but with magical retelling here). And then there is a final wreck, which John McCrystal calls, enigmatically, ‘Mystery Wreck’. Discovered in 1846 by my favourite explorer, Charles Heaphy, Thomas Brunner and their guide Kehu, along the coast north of Westport, were ‘pieces of Baltic deal and English oak, copper fastened’, and further along the ‘broken masts and main top of ship…’. McCrystal hunts out a story of shipwreck, then ‘massacre, escape, survival and then more massacre’, but on searching for the truth finds crossed-wires, cloudy waters and potentially two ships. More investigation and technology and archeologists follow but in the way of the best mysteries, this one still remains to be solved.
All these tales are about the terrible catastrophe that happens when ships hit the rocks, but all have people at their hearts and these are their stories: the heroes, the cowards, those castaway and those adrift, the captains and the crew and the passengers and those researchers that come after, like John McCrystal, to make sense of them all and offer up such rich and enthralling history.