In the tradition of Nathaniel Philbrick's bestselling In the Heart of the Sea, Joe Jackson's A Furnace Afloat tells of the American clipper ship Hornet, which went down in flames, casting its crew adrift for forty-three days on the open ocean. ...
days on the open ocean. Along with the stories of the Bounty and the whaleship Essex, the Hornet disaster was once one of the country's most infamous naval disasters.
Over the years, a handful of famous shipwrecks have become symbols of something greater, their accounts a floating opera of sudden disaster, wasted life, and privations endured by survivors. One of these was the 1866 saga of the clipper ship Hornet, the crew of which barely survived for six weeks on ten days' worth of rations and shoe leather, drifting 4,300 miles in a single lifeboat as they all slowly weakened and became delirious or mad.
The American clipper ship Hornet left her homeport of New York City on January 15, 1866, and embarked on what was considered a routine voyage to San Francisco around Cape Horn. She enjoyed an exceptionally smooth passage until the morning of May 3, when the ship ghosted gently a thousand miles west of the Galápagos Islands. On that day, the first mate went below to draw some varnish from a cask and accidentally set the cask afire. Within minutes, the entire ship was engulfed.
The ship's company of thirty-one men escaped into three small boats, set adrift under the burning sun of the Pacific Ocean to watch helplessly as the Hornet became a floating bonfire and sank beneath the waves.
The Hornet's complement -- twenty-nine officers and crew, and two aristocratic passengers -- mirrored all the prejudices and nuances of Industrial Age America. Their ordeal was harrowing: half of the Hornet's crew disappeared; the survivors were stalked by sharks and waterspouts, desiccated by heat, driven mad by lack of food and water. Soon the social divisions in the boat erupted into class war.
The crewmen accused the captain of hoarding food, water, and even gold, and they plotted mutiny. Their only salvation was to land on the "American group," a mythical set of islands said to exist somewhere in the Pacific. But the islands never materialized, and with no hope left, the men planned the details of cannibalism. On the day they were to draw straws, they reached Hawaii. By chance, a young, little-known Samuel Langhorne Clemens was in Hawaii. He wrote an account of the voyage that would make the crew famous, and Mark Twain (Clemens' nom de plume) a household name.
Drawing on extensive primary sources, including survivors' diaries and letters, as well as newspaper accounts and Twain's reporting, Jackson has created a gripping narrative of the horrors and triumphs of men against the sea.