The Last Voyage of Daniel Collins
The true story of how a U.S. mariner survived a shipwreck, a pirate attack and an epic journey home.
In November 1824, 15 months after trapper Hugh Glass endured the grizzly bear attack portrayed in The Revenant, and four years after whaler Owen Chase saw his ship smashed to pieces by the giant beast that inspired Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea, a mariner named Daniel Collins set off on an extraordinary voyage that would become another survival adventure for the ages.
Collins sailed out of Wiscasset, Maine, for Matanzas, Cuba. He was 23 years old. It was his first voyage as a merchant seaman, and it would also be his last. His ship, the Betsey, was wrecked in a terrible storm, and Collins and his crewmates were left adrift in a leaking lifeboat, in shark-infested waters, a hundred miles from land. After a torturous few days with no water or provisions, they reached a remote island, where they were brutally attacked by a savage band of pirates. Collins was horribly injured, but he escaped, alone, through water “colored with blood”. Then, with astonishing courage and determination, Collins began an epic journey across land and sea in a desperate effort to escape from the pirates, to reach civilization, and to find a way home.
Paul Brown’s book, From A Blood-Red Sea, tells the full true story of the last voyage of Daniel Collins. This extract finds Collins and his crewmates lost and adrift in their sinking lifeboat. The book is available on Amazon.
Daniel Collins was a hundred miles from anywhere, in a small wooden boat that pitched and rolled in a furious sea. It was the middle of the night, and the scene was enveloped in blackness, the soundtrack filled with the roar of a storm. Tossed onto crests and sucked into troughs, the boat was entirely at the mercy of the waves. Towers of water climbed up into the sky, and crashed down onto the boat and its occupants. Mother Nature, Neptune and Poseidon were all unleashing their fury, and Collins and his crewmates were helpless in the face of such combined wrath.
There were seven men huddled in the boat, plus a dog that cowered from the wet and cold. In the pitch-dark there was nothing to be seen in any direction. The raging storm and swirling currents made it impossible to properly determine exactly where they were. The men were bruised and exhausted, saturated by crashing waves, and salt-whipped by driving winds. Their boat was damaged and flooded, with seawater gushing through the hull and spilling over the gunwale. The men bailed with their hats at the standing water to keep themselves afloat.
Collins knew their efforts could give them only a slim chance of survival. Even if they outlasted the storm, they were so far from land that they would likely be adrift for several days. They had no provisions: no food; no water. All had been lost when their merchant ship, the Betsey, smashed against a black rock, splintered into matchwood, and disappeared beneath the surface of the sea. The men escaped with only the damaged boat, a set of oars, a water bucket, a few pieces of rope, and their lives.
They had little energy to speak, and in any case their voices could hardly be heard above the crashing of the stormy sea. They could not know anything of the horrors that were to come, but they did know that to have any chance of survival their immediate priority had to be to prevent the boat from sinking. So they bailed with their hats and held on to their oars and waited for the storm to subside.
Some sailors would have considered Collins to be a “Jonah” — a maritime jinx — whose ship was wrecked during his very first voyage as a merchant seaman. Collins may have considered that possibility himself. The violent shipwreck was not the first misfortune he had encountered at sea. He had fought in the U.S. Navy while still a boy, and suffered terribly in battle, his ship pummeled by cannon shot, and his leg badly broken. But Collins recovered, and his suffering seemed to make him stronger.
He was from tough stock. His late grandfather was a mariner who sailed these same waters, and his father was a soldier during the Revolutionary War. His brothers were militia men who helped repel the British invasion during the War of 1812. His father and six brothers and sisters — one sister named Betsey, like his lost ship — were at home in Maine. It was six days before Christmas, 1824. In his holed wooden boat, on a wretched sea, in a relentless storm, Collins must have thought of his family, and of his desire to return home.
If he was to make it home, Collins would need to overcome a series of almost unimaginable challenges. The ship had been wrecked in shark-infested waters, some considerable distance from a dangerous coastline that was surrounded by treacherous reefs and patrolled by vicious bands of pirates. And that not-so-safe haven of coastline was still several hundred miles from civilization, separated by a seemingly-endless panorama of open water, fetid swamps, and arid terrain.
It was a desperate situation, but Collins — a religious man with a crucifix inked on his arm — may have sought some solace from the fact that the biblical Jonah, after being swallowed by his great fish, ultimately survived. Perhaps the seemingly luckless Collins could find similar fortune. The first thing he had to do was ride out the storm. So Collins crouched low in the lifeboat, held tight to the ship’s water bucket, and continued to bail…
From A Blood-Red Sea: The Last Voyage of Daniel Collins by Paul Brown is available on Amazon.
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