Epic Small Boat Voyages

I love the story of Bligh’s open boat voyage. I’ve studied a lot of accounts of open boat voyages. With lifeboats in the tropics, people start dying quickly at about the 11-day mark. The root cause is exposure, exacerbating dehydration. Yet Bligh’s crew lasted 47-days.

The longest I can find of any mariners existing in a lifeboat (a somewhat different thing than Bligh’s jolly boat) is 70-days (S.S. Anglo-Saxon), but all but two of the castaways perished on the voyage. (If anyone can find a longer lifeboat journey, please let me know).

Mariners last much longer in inflatable liferafts. And the record for living in a survival craft (133-days) was made by a lowly steward alone on a raft cobbled together from oil drums, in WW2. The difference in these cases is a simple covering, to prevent exposure. Even the cobbled-together raft had a sun screen.

There are the cases of disabled boats, usually fishing boats, drifting for much longer times, but these vessels have cabins, which greatly reduce exposure, and usually begin with more supplies, clothing, blankets, and means to catch fish.

The irony, of course is, that lifeboats (until recently) and longboats, jolly boats, etc, were supposedly designed to make long ocean voyages, but were deficient in one of the most important things: shade.

So how did Bligh and his men manage to last 47-days, when most mariners in similar craft start dying like flies after 11-days? The distance traveled is secondary to the days endured.

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While not as long as many, Shackleton’s crew on the lifeboat James Caird has to be among the most amazing stories of survival.


Capt. Ole Brude and his crew of three sailed from Aalesund, Norway to near Boston, USA to prove the seaworthiness and survivability of his design, the first covered lifeboat in the world.

Here is a short article (in English) about his invention and the 5 month trip across the Atlantic in the winter of 1904-05:

(Second part)

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That’s an amazing case, in a class of its own, because of the extreme cold. I don’t think that any crew that didn’t spend months camped on an ice floe would have survived those journeys.

There were two boat journeys, as you know. The first, from the ice floes 5 days and 350 miles to Elephant Island. This, I believe, is the more remarkable of the two boat voyages, because there was no boat covering. The men were completely exposed for five days in sub-freezing weather and wet.

The longer James Caird voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia took 16 days and 720 miles. But the Caird was decked over by then. Most of the crew stayed under cover, and they could fire up the stove for hot food. Still amazing of course.

These guys gave it a hell of a shot on the Essex but they had the pit stop on Henderson Island. In a real twist it says if they hit Pitcairn instead they’d have run into the Bounty crew descendants.

Cannibalism is cheating. :face_with_monocle:

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And tying two threads and oBugg’s post all together I heard if you resort to cannibalism you might Schat Harding.

Poon Lim. A guy from SUNY was telling me about this guy in the 80’s never thought to look it up till now.

A great read.

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Ever read Survive the Savage Sea? It is poorly written, but the subject matter is utterly harrowing, and the story still makes me shudder. I really would love to buy the student a beer and hear his take, given how he is bad mouthed by the author. I’m not at all sure that I would have survived in his position.


Particularly when you consider that the trip was not over when they landed on South Georgia Island, they still had mountains and glaciers to cross.

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It is rather amazing, Essex crew and Shackletons bunch made it at all way back when.

Yes, I have. IMO the writing is fine. It’s pretty frank as to the emotional atmosphere in that tiny raft and dinghy. The mother, Lyn Robertson, has my admiration. She seemed more determined than even her capable husband to make sure everyone lived.

I remember she was a nurse, and she discovered that while brackish water was unfit to drink because of the salt, if it was administered as an enema, using rubber tubing from a spear gun, I think. The colon would absorb the water but filter out the salt. Icky to think about, but she probably save several people’s lives that way because she was clever and determined.

The Roberston’s family is the first account of long-term survival (69 days) in a modern (1972) inflatable liferaft. The other well-known accounts comes later:

Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, 117 days in 1973.

Steve Callahan, 76 days in 1982.

In each case the cause of the yacht’s sinking was being rammed by whales! You can’t blame the whales, I suppose. We’ve been killing them for centuries.

After Callahan’s trip accounts of long liferaft voyages seem to disappear. EPIRB technology, I suppose (or maybe whales have called a truce).

Of any kind of survival craft story, I think the award for most amazing goes to Louis Zamperini. He was the subject of the book and movie Unbroken. When his plane crashed in WW2, he and two other fliers lasted for 47-days in two tiny primitive inflatable life rafts, without cover. One man perished after 33 days, but Zamperini and the other man washed ashore in the Marshall Islands and, were promptly captured by the Japanese.

Poon Lim on his cobbled together raft in WW2 lasted much longer, but he had shade, and his raft was bigger.

Because the entire story of Zamperini’s long life is so amazing, and the liferaft part is short in comparison, few survival experts talk about it. But given how little the fliers had, it is amazing that they survived more than a few days.

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I’m less impressed by the survival than I am by the navigation involved in the boat journey. The overall story, from getting stuck in the ice all the way to being rescued, is an epic story of survival but that boat journey is one of the most impressive feats of navigation I’ve heard about.


The navigation was by Frank Worsley, a New Zealander. He was a master mariner and a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. He served in both WW I and WW 2.

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I agree.
You may have seen it already, but for those who haven’t, there is a great PBS show following a reinactment of the Shacklton/Worsely boat journey. You should be able to get a download/CD somewhere easily.

A groups of adventurers made an exact copy of the James Caird, wore the same clothing, etc. and made the same journey. Even crossed the same mountains on South Georgia. Some things I remembered from the show:

  1. I never really understood how cramped the crew was belowdecks on the Caird. Even with the fish-eye of a Hero camera, belowdecks looks like three men jammed in a phone booth knocked over on its side (note to young people–a phone booth was a little building you made phone calls from).

  2. The modern crew could hardly stomach the food the original crew ate. Turns out pemmican “hoosh” tastes pretty much like lard, salt, and the stuff you scrape off a roast beef pan. Three meals a day!

  3. You can’t really replicate the danger of the trip, because of the world we live in. The Australian government required a safety boat be following just over the horizon. The Caird crew kept in contact with them via radio/sat coms. If the weather got too rough, the plan was for the safety boat to take the Caird crew off. That’s the world we live in now.

Regardless, if you are a nut for the Shackleton expedition, get the video.

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RE: Steve Callahan’s 76-day liferaft journey and navigation.
His yacht was wrecked by whales somewhere on the east side of the Atlantic. The trade winds tended to blow him west. If he could live long enough, there was a chance he could survive the 1,800 miles to the Caribbean islands, and wash ashore, or be seen by a boat. But the longer it took, the greater the chance he would die of thirst and starvation.

A liferaft has no propulsion to speak of, of course. It drifts with wind and current. But Callahan had a chart, pencils and a plastic protractor. He made a sextant out of the pencil and protector, and used it to find his latitude. Why was that important?

He knew that to make the earliest landfall in the Caribbean he would need to stay between 18 degrees and 19 degrees latitude. Father north or south would add days to the journey, when he was already near death.

The trade winds weren’t always in his favor. Sometimes they would blow against him, or blow him north or south. When the wind was in his favor he kept his sea anchor up, to drift faster. When the winds were adverse, he kept the sea anchors out, to slow the raft. His sextant gave him the information to set the sea anchor at the right time.

He believes the navigation helped him survive the 1,800 mile voyage.

Does our former ‘French Friend in the Barrel’ (from 2018) fit into this thread?

I dont know if that counts as a boat.