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From A Blood-Red Sea


The Last Voyage of Daniel Collins


Paul Brown


A Superelastic Single Shot

Longer than a magazine article

Shorter than a full-length book

12,000 words = approx 70 mins reading time



Copyright © Paul Brown 2016


Paul Brown has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.


This eBook is licensed for personal use only. It may not be reproduced, re-sold or given away. Thank you for respecting the work of the author and others involved in producing the eBook.


Published by Superelastic



Also available from the same publisher and author:


Sins Dyed In Blood

The Lost Pirate of Blackbeard’s Golden Age


The Rocketbelt Caper

A True Tale of Invention, Obsession and Murder


Messages from the Sea

Letters and Notes from a Lost Era Found in Bottles and on Beaches Around the World


Read an extract from Sins Dyed In Blood at the end of this book


You can find more books and extracts on our website:


www.superelasticbooks.com



Contents


Prologue

Act I.

Act II.

Act III.

Notes

Sources

Read more

Extract from Sins Dyed in Blood



Prologue


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 animalistic 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.



Act I.


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.


By daylight, the Betsey was gone, and its crew were left floating in the longboat. All seven men had survived, but they were bruised and exhausted, and had no fresh water or provisions. The longboat was damaged, a plank from its hull having spilt during the escape. Collins stripped some leashing, and pushed the rope strands into the split, but couldn’t plug the gap. The boat was taking in water, and constant bailing with the bucket and two hats could only barely keep it afloat among the still-seething waves.

Sitting alongside the men in the longboat, “the seaman’s last ark of refuge,” was the captain’s dog, described by Collins as “a companion by no means unwelcome to those who, without provision or water, might have been compelled to depend on this faithful animal for the preservation of their lives.” The ship’s cat was not accounted for.


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