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 whale that inspired Moby Dick, a mariner named Daniel Collins set off on an extraordinary voyage that would become another survival adventure for the ages. This is an excerpt from From A Blood-Red Sea: The Last Voyage of Daniel Collins by Paul Brown
The merchant ship Betsey sailed out of Wiscasset, Maine, on November 28, 1824. It was a Sunday, considered by superstitious sailors to be the luckiest day to begin a voyage. “Sunday sail, never fail,” was their popular, if misguided, adage. Wiscasset was primarily a lumber port, and the Betsey was laden with two hundred tons of timber. The ship had a small crew of seven, led by Captain Ellis Hilton. Its destination was Matanzas, Cuba, around 1,800 miles to the south. The Betsey was expected in Matanzas before Christmas. It would never arrive.
Wiscasset, to the north-east of then-state capital Portland, was a busy deep-harbor trading port on the tidal Sheepscot River, which flows into the Atlantic. Around two thousand townsfolk lived on the tree-covered banks around the harbor. Horse-drawn carts trundled down sloping streets, passing churches, taverns, and the Lincoln County post office. Warehouses, workshops and stores butted against each other along the waterfront, and sailors, fishermen and longshoremen swarmed around the Fore Street wharves. Above them, the tall masts of the town’s fleet of sailing ships reached up into the late-fall sky.
The Betsey was owned by Wiscasset merchant and councilor Abiel Wood. Built on the Sheepscot in 1803, it was a hermaphrodite brig, or brigantine, no more than eighty feet long, with a low deck, two square-rigged masts and a main topsail. In previous service, the Betsey had crossed the Atlantic, to Liverpool, England. Its current purpose was to sail to the West Indies with oak and pine for colonial construction, and return with molasses, sugar and coffee. Ships that sailed this route were known as West Indiamen. The return of a West Indiaman was always keenly anticipated, particularly by the town’s children, who craved the crunchy sugarcanes the sailors brought home.
The voyage to Matanzas was Ellis Hilton’s third as the Betsey’s captain, after long-standing service as a mate. Hilton was a Wiscasset man. He was married with a daughter, and his family was well-known in the town. First mate Joshua Merry, described as “innocent and youthful”, was from Edgecomb, just across the Sheepscot River. Twenty-three-year-old second mate Daniel Collins lived in the nearby town of Industry. Also on board the Betsey were seamen Seth Russell, an “old man”, of Wiscasset, Benjamin Bridge of nearby Dresden, the Portuguese Charles Manuel, plus the ship’s cook, named as Detrey Jeome.
On that lucky Sunday, as the Betsey and its crew left the harbor, the sea was calm and the weather was clear. But the North Atlantic was a cold and temperamental beast. The town still talked of a previous Wiscasset ship, also named the Betsey, that was caught in a terrible storm in 1797. It was found drifting in the ocean, its crew lashed to their posts and dead from exposure. The warmer waters of the West Indies were also treacherous. Returned sailors regaled Wiscasset taverns with tales of vicious pirates, including much-feared “vampire of the ocean” Antonio Ripol, known as “El Majorcan”, a former Spanish naval officer who terrorized the coast of Cuba. Seafaring was dangerous, and Wiscasset was accustomed to losses. Once a vessel disappeared over the horizon, its fate became unknown. Some Wiscasset homes had roof-top platforms that served as lookout points for those awaiting the return of their loved ones. These platforms were known as widow’s walks.
In early February 1825, Abiel Wood received a letter from another of his merchant captains in Matanzas. The letter advised Wood that the Betsey had been lost in a shipwreck. Wood called an urgent town meeting and delivered to shocked citizens the news that the crew had survived the wreck but had subsequently been murdered by pirates, with the exception of a single survivor — second mate Daniel Collins. What emerged, through letters, naval reports, and then Collins’ own account, was one of the most remarkable tales of survival ever recorded.
The Betsey was sunk on the night of December 19, twenty-two days into its journey, and just a day or so from its destination. After an uneventful voyage in tranquil conditions, the ship was caught in a rising storm off the Double-Headed Shot Keys (or Cays), a series of shallow reefs midway between Florida and Cuba. Captain Hilton had been sick for much of the journey, and was confined below deck, but he sent orders to his crew, prescribing a course to keep the ship away from the dangerous keys.
Daniel Collins was at watch at the helm as a strengthening wind drove the ship through increasingly rough waters. In his written account of the voyage, Collins described how the sea-going conditions had changed over the course of the day. In the morning, he wrote, conditions had been “so calm and clear that even the lengthened billows of the Gulf Stream seemed sleeping around us.” By noon, however, a fresh northerly breeze had whipped up, and the crew had unfurled the Betsey’s sails, which, “swelling with a fair wind, were as buoyant as our own spirits at the increasing prospect of reaching our port of destination.”
Collins was twenty-three years old, and this was his first trip on board the Betsey, and his first voyage as a merchant seaman. But he was a seasoned mariner, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, and with seawater in his blood. His father, Lemuel, was a block-maker who provided the Wiscasset fleet with pulleys for their lines and riggings. His grandfather, also Lemuel, had been a mariner of English descent who had sailed on West Indiamen during the mid-18th century. But the fate of his grandfather could have served as a warning. On his final voyage to the West Indies, Lemuel Collins Sr. contracted yellow fever and died at sea.
As the sun went down, with the storm building around them, Collins went to Captain Hilton and suggested they shorten sail and reduce the Betsey’s speed. The captain, hoping to reach Matanzas on the following day, refused. That night, with the moon obscured by storm clouds, Collins could not see beyond the length of the ship. But calculations showed the Betsey was more than eighteen miles windward of the keys. At 2:30 a.m. Collins finished his watch shift, reassured a crewmate “there is no fear of you”, and climbed down the companionway ladder to his cabin.
Around thirty minutes later Collins felt a huge jolt, which threw boxes, barrels and equipment into the air and down on top of him. Water began to pour through the stern and into the cabin. The ship had been involved in a catastrophic collision. Clearing a path through the fallen debris, Collins ran for the companionway. It was gone, torn away in the smash. Instead, he hoisted himself up through a skylight onto the deck, where he found a desperate scene.
The Betsey was in a deep hollow of sea, surrounded by mountainous waves. Looming out of the darkness was a huge black rock, which the ship had struck head-on. Two of the crew were at the pumps, attempting to abate the incoming flood of water. But Collins saw this was pointless. Most of the bow and part of the stern were gone, and the deck was groaning under intense pressure. The cargo had broken loose and planks of lumber were sliding and crashing in all directions. The captain’s dog, seemingly oblivious to the impending danger, leapt from plank to plank in pursuit of the ship’s cat.
The helmsman who had taken over the watch had failed to spot the black rock, which Collins assumed must have been hidden from view by the mainsail. “It was a careless watch for a dark night, even at our supposed distance from the Keys,” Collins later wrote, “but we were now in no situation to complain.” Collins ran toward what remained of the bow in order to clear the anchors, looking to prevent the ship from ranging on another rock, but the anchors were gone.
Captain Hilton, freed from his cabin, was by the ship’s longboat, attempting to cut its leashes. No voice could be heard over the thunderous sounds of crashing waves and smashing timber, but the message was clear: abandon ship. Collins grabbed a compass, a water bucket, and a set of oars, as the rest of the crew made for the longboat. Then the masts and rigging came crashing down. The Betsey was finished.
“She arose for the last time on the crest of another sea nearly to the top of the rock, quivering like a bird under its death-wound,” recalled Collins in his written account. Then the ship crashed down onto the rock, splitting open like a walnut shell, and spilling its cargo — and its crew — into the ocean…♦
Excerpted from From A Blood-Red Sea: The Last Voyage of Daniel Collins by Paul Brown.
From A Blood-Red Sea: The Last Voyage of Daniel Collins by Paul Brown is available as an ebook from Amazon.
“For fans of The Revenant and In the Heart of the Sea, From a Blood-Red Sea is one of the most remarkable survival stories ever told.”