4,300 Miles: The Clipper Hornet and Her Survivors

Hornet Courtesy Wikipedia

The clipper Hornet had been made famous by her race with the Flying Cloud back in 1853. A race which she had won. Now in 1866 she was on a voyage from New York to San Francisco. Her captain, Josiah Mitchell, was well-liked and respected. On May 3, Chief Mate Samuel Hardy went below into the candle and kerosene filled hold to fetch some varnish. Hardy normally would have had  the barrel of varnish brought up on deck. But he had decided to save the crewmen the backbreaking task and fetch the varnish straight from the hold. Unfortunately, this was a terrible mistake. The lantern he was holding tipped into the barrel, igniting the varnish. The fire quickly spread as Hardy called for water. Mitchell instead ordered the hatches closed to allow the fire to put its self out. But before this could be done the fire roared up on the deck, quickly spreading. With no other alternative, Mitchell gave the order for the crew and two passengers to abandon ship. The two passengers were the Fergusons. Samuel was dying of tuberculosis and had been headed to California with is younger brother, Henry. The crew would loath the pair who they believed arrogant.

Before abandoning his command, Mitchell grabbed his navigational tools and had his crew load up the Hornet’s longboat with supplies (food, water, sails, etc.). Once in the water the longboat and two quarterboats tied up together. Everyone had gotten away. Once away from the Hornet, Mitchell held out hope a passing ship would see the smoke from the burning Hornet and come to their rescue. As they began their wait, Mitchell immediately set to rationing the food. The next morning the Hornet sunk and the lifeboats sailed away. Mitchell remained at the tiller of the longboat and faithfully kept track of their position. Not long after a squall hit the boats, filling them with water.

A Longboat Courtesy Library of Congress

With only tidbits of rationed food, the survivors grew hungrier by the day. Weakness, salt boils, cramps, bowel trouble, mirages and more would plague the survivors. Hardy, in command of one of the quarterboats, suffered from guilt although no one blamed him. In Second Mate John Parr’s boat, the crew didn‘t respect Parr nor obey him. In the days to come Parr began to lose control.

On May 16, the boats were hit by a storm and the next morning outmaneuvered a waterspout. On May 19, Mitchell made the decision to cut Parr’s boat loose. The longboat had a better chance at surviving with one less quarterboat in tow. Parr adamantly refused, so Hardy stepped in and offered to switch places with Parr. Before separating Mitchell split the food up equally with Hardy’s boat. With one boat gone, the longboat sped away with the one quarterboat.Three days later the two boats sighted a sail. They made it for it, but were disappointed to find they had stumbled on Hardy’s boat. Hardy and Mitchell talked a little before parting ways. Hardy and his crew would never be seen again. That same day Mitchell decided to cut Parr’s boat loose too. Parr was furious. His crew tried to get into the longboat, but were stopped. Before splitting up, Mitchell again divided the food up between the two boats. Apprentice Jimmy Cox in Parr’s boat began to beg Mitchell not to leave them. Parr was prepared to slap the boy when Mitchell intervened. At the urging of his crew, Mitchell brought Cox aboard his own boat. The longboat left the quarterboat in an uproar as Parr and his men yelled angrily at one another.

A Clipper Courtesy Library of Congress

The day after a storm hit, the longboat found one of the quarterboats’ spar. Which one it was they didn’t know. By May 31 tensions ran high when it was learned someone had stole some of the food. The conversation eventually turned to cannibalism. Mitchell didn’t like it one bit. By June, sailor Harry Morris was planning to kill Mitchell. He stirred up discontentment among the crew as the days passed and Cox secretly confided to Henry Ferguson the trouble brewing.

On June 8 they ran completely out of food. The crew were reduced to chewing on leather and wood. To make matters worse ,the water had also run very low. On June 11, Cox told Henry of an absurd story Morris was spreading. Morris had said Mitchell and the Fergusons had saved a million in gold and it was hidden in the longboat that very moment. Morris wanted to throw Mitchell overboard and seize the gold. It was just a matter of time before Morris made his move. On June 13 Morris made his move, confronting Mitchell about the imaginary gold. Mitchell had Fred Clough, trusted by everyone, come up and inspect the area for the gold. Clough’s search turned up nothing as he knew it would. Morris and his cronies kept quiet and mutiny was quelled. The next day Mitchell estimated they would reach Hawaii on June 15. By now they were terribly weak and could barely muster up enough strength to do a simple chore. Henry had been sharing his water rations with Samuel, who was the weakest of them all. That day Henry begged the others for their evening water ration to give to Samuel. Having been refused, he came to Clough. Clough grudgingly gave up his ration for Samuel.

News of the Survivors Courtesy Library of Congress

The morning of June 15, Hawaii was sighted. It was the same day Morris and his friends had planned to draw lots for a victim (cannibalism). Joy and relief spread through the boat. But their troubles weren’t over. They had to find a safe place to land. As they weakly tried to row for the shore, the survivors spotted a dangerous reef. It was too late to turn back. From the shore two men swam out and boarded the boat in the nick of time. They brought the boat safely onto the shore where the survivors were immediately cared for.

The men of the longboat had come 4,300 miles in 43 days in a boat. Mitchell held out hope for Parr and Hardy, but they never appeared. The crewmen who planned mutiny feared for their futures, but Mitchell remained silent on the subject. Samuel Ferguson would succumb to death on October 1 and Mitchell returned home to be at his wife’s deathbed. She died on October 31. Mitchell himself lived a less than pleasant life dying in 1876.

Source: Jackson, Joe. A Furnace Afloat: The Wreck of the Hornet and the Harrowing 4,300-mile Voyage of Its Survivors