An Atlantic Shipwreck Seen Through its Sole Survivor

Book review: Adrift, by Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou

Adrift tells the story of the packet ship John Rutledge, which in 1856 crossed the North Atlantic from Liverpool to New York with a cargo consisting mostly of mail and around 100 passengers, many of them emigrating from Ireland. The ship navigated turbulent winter conditions before ultimately hitting an iceberg somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland, and quickly sinking despite the crew’s best efforts. Four of its five lifeboats were lost in the foggy, frequently stormy weather after drifting apart from each other shortly after launching. The fate of the passengers of those four lifeboats remains unknown. All we know of the rest of the ship’s fate comes from the sole survivor of the fifth lifeboat’s thirteen passengers.

The book’s sources are primarily records stemming from and related to this survivor, Thomas Nye, including his personal journals and accounts given after the tragedy to newspapers, as well as from the ship’s logbook which he’d managed to save. An experienced sailor from the Bedford, Massachusetts whaling community, Nye may have been able to survive by resisting the common urge to drink seawater that occurs when suffering extreme thirst, which many others onboard the lifeboat fell victim to. Nye had been adrift in the icy, stormy waters for nine days before rescue came in the form of a passing ship. He wouldn’t have lasted long beyond the moment he was rescused.

I was interested because I was surprised how much I loved In the Heart of the Sea (super cheap paperback alert if you don’t mind the awful movie tie-in cover!). I’ve been open to shipwreck narratives, not my usual reading material go-to, since then. Adrift isn’t as comprehensive a narrative as that book, which also has that special combination of adventure, threatening event, background of the world at the time it occurred, and elements of science and psychology, but it makes a good effort and has some high points despite not having the kind of it-factor that made In the Heart of the Sea so magic.

Its strongest sections are those depicting the course of events as they played out on Nye’s lifeboat. They’re devastating too, as one by one the twelve passengers aside from Nye succumb to the elements, starvation, dehydration, and the maddening, dangerous aftereffects of drinking seawater in desperation. One of the hardest parts of this is that an almost-rabid type of insanity settled in in several of the cases, leading the sufferers to lash out against their loved ones and others in the boat. All this happened in addition to squabbles over the extremely limited water supply and a few dry biscuits that were their only provisions. Murphy and Vlahou are adept at vividly depicting this bleak, ever-worsening scenario.

I’ll never forget some of these stories, it’s one of the most horrible ends I could imagine. And to think this was no uncommon story either – we know what happened only because Nye survived to tell it. There were four more lifeboats from this ship alone, and the same tragedy transpired countless other times. The authors also have a strength for portraying the tensions that must have plagued the shipwreck’s survivors in their last days.

It also has some excellent contextual history, about the economics of ship ownership (readable and not as dry as it might sound) and the culture of emigration that led so many to brave the often-dangerous ocean crossings in search of a better life in America. And elsewhere some historical segues were less interesting and felt more like padding to stretch the narrative of the shipwreck and its aftermath, about which only so much material is available.

A bigger problem with the structure was imagined dialogue inserted throughout, particularly as the story covers the days on the lifeboat. Murphy takes care to clarify that he extensively researched the speech patterns and vocabulary as well as basing the content on what’s known of events from Nye’s stories but it didn’t sit right with me. It was extremely bland (out of necessity, obviously). I dislike this kind of fictionalization in what’s supposed to be nonfiction. The dialogue wasn’t inaccurate or unlikely by any means, in fact it was so generic that it couldn’t have been far off from the gist of what was said, but the generalization ended up being dull and distracting, on top of not necessarily being true.

So the wandering narrative doesn’t always hit the most fascinating topics and some reimagined dialogue is frustrating. Otherwise a harrowing narrative account of the harsh conditions and harsher ends met by the passengers of the sunken John Rutledge, and some interesting background of the logistics and economics of ocean travel in the 1800s, along with the quiet dignity of the tragedy’s only survivor. 2.5/5

Adrift:
A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic
and the One Who Lived to Tell About It

by Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou
published September 4, 2018 by Da Capo Press (Perseus)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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23 thoughts on “An Atlantic Shipwreck Seen Through its Sole Survivor

  1. great and excellent review Ren
    it is stereotypical or that most shipwrecking happened a lot in Atlantic ocean more than any other ocean.
    the other thing i wanted to ask is whether this book depends solely on Thomas Nye memoirs or does the author discover also other survivors memoirs

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Ina! It does feel like a pretty typical story of what could happen at the time, he includes some statistics/background about some other incidents but not too much in detail. And it’s really just based on Thomas Nye’s writings and interviews and he backs up those stories with what’s known of other survivors (like about drinking seawater) but nothing much about other survivor stories. Just a little bit of info for context. It’s an interesting enough story for what it is, but just didn’t quite capture me.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. When I saw your post, I was so hoping this would be more compelling than it turned out to be. The subject is of extreme interest to me and I’m always on the hunt for non fiction accounts. Despite your low rating, was it worth your time? Your review is outstanding!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!! I was hoping it would be a bit more compelling too, and when it was, it was truly gripping, but it dragged elsewhere.

      Have you read In the Heart of the Sea? I think it’s exceptional, a wild piece of history and the writing is completely page-turning.

      This one could be worth the time as long as you’re really interested in the subject, especially because it’s not too long so it’s not a major time sink! And I’m really glad to know the story, so it’s worth it for that. I would say that the dialogue parts on the lifeboats are skimmable, just enough to get the gist but not worth spending the full time on.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been more open to shipwreck stories after being surprised how much I loved In the Heart of the Sea, but this one didn’t really do it for me. Are there others you’ve enjoyed that you can recommend?

      Like

  3. Have you read Endurance by Alfred Lansing? It’s an account of Shackleton’s disastrous voyage to the South Pole and is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read. He quotes extensively from journals and records of the crew, so any bits of dialogue you get aren’t invented, but based on contemporaneous accounts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so glad to hear that from you because I bought a copy of Endurance forever ago and it’s been a long time lingerer on my to-read list! Hearing it’s one of the best nonfiction books you’ve read is a great motivator, I really need to get to that one! Thanks for such a solid recommendation, I’m bumping it up the list.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Definitely sounds harrowing. I’ve always had an irrational fear of being trapped adrift in a lifeboat with no almost no hope of rescue (I live in the desert). Terrible way to go, suffering from thirst surrounded by undrinkable water. I remember reading an account of a ship sinking in the 19th century and four or five survivors huddled in a lifeboat and finally reaching a point where they drew straws to see which one would be killed so the others could drink his blood. Nightmarish stuff.

    Anyway, I think the artificial dialogue in a nonfiction book would have bothered me as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely get you on the irrational fear of being stuck on a boat, I have the Natalie Wood intense fear of dark water so the idea of this kind of disaster freaked me out completely just reading about it! A lot of what they describe is nightmarish as you say, although I think not as bad as the account you’ve read…gives me chills!

      Like

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