Twin shipwrecks

In 1864 two ships were wrecked on the same desert island. Despite sharing the island for an entire year, the crews never met and had no idea they were not alone.

Satellite photo of the Auckland Islands
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Auckland Islands are a small set of rather barren volcanic outcroppings 465 kilometres south of New Zealand. The Clipper route sometimes passes right by the Auckland Islands, so in the 19th century the area was awash in shipwrecks.

On January 3, 1864, the schooner Grafton was anchored in a sound of the Auckland Islands. A gale broke the ship’s anchor chain and it soon crashed into the rocky shoreline. The crew salvaged what they could from the wreck (a gun, a dinghy, food, four tools, wood and canvas) and then set up on the southern end of the island. They built shelters, hunted seals, and waited for rescue.

May 11, 1864; four months after the wreck of the Grafton. Another ship, the Invercauld, wrecked on the same island in the middle of the night. The survivors struggled to shore but were unable to salvage anything save a little food, some wood from the wreck, and two boxes of matches. The Invercauld castaways landed on the northern end of the island, built shelters, and waited for rescue.

It seems incredible that two castaway crews should be on the same small island and not know about each other. But the Auckland Islands are fiercely inhospitable, with rugged cliffs and nearly impenetrable scrub. Both crews focused on survival rather than exploration. And the crews had very different fates.

Much has been written about the contrasts between the Grafton castaways and the Invercauld castaways. The crew from the Grafton had tools and weapons, and supplies for two months. The southern part of the island was home to a large seal colony which provided them with food and the raw materials for clothing. The crew from the Invercauld had almost nothing. They lost all their matches in an accident; they were trying to dry them out and instead set them all on fire. And the northern end of the island had little in the way of food. But that wasn’t the biggest difference.

From the start, much of the crew of the Invercauld were “every man for himself.” The sick and injured were left to die (and, in at least one case, to be eaten by another survivor). Even after they discovered the remains of an old abandoned settlement, the lack of food killed many. In contrast, the Grafton castaways pulled together, caring for the sick and injured and keeping each other’s spirits up. One of the crew even managed to brew a simple beer and construct a chess set!

(Side note: apparently that same crew member eventually destroyed the chess set; the captain was a sore loser and it was causing problems.)

The crew of the Invercauld were rescued first – a passing ship picked them up on May 20, 1865. They had spent one year and nine days on the island. Of the twenty-five crew, only three survived.

The Grafton crew, despairing of ever being rescued, built up their dingy for a desperate gambit. In July of 1865, three of the five crew set off on an impossible voyage: they would try to sail the 465 kilometres north to New Zealand, in the middle of winter, in the middle of one of the most inhospitable oceans in the world.

They made it to Stewart Island, the southernmost of NZ’s three main islands. The Grafton’s captain then chartered a ship to return to rescue the remaining two crew members. All of the Grafton castaways survived.

It was this ship, the Flying Scud, that finally connected the two shipwrecks: they found one of the Invercauld dead huddled up beside a hut. The two crews had been on the same island for more than a year without ever once meeting.

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