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On the morning of Thursday, May 3rd, 1866, the clipper ship Hornet, was struggling through the doldrums a thousand miles west of the Galapagos Islands when an accident in the hold ignited a barrel of varnish. Soon the whole ship, whose cargo included 20,000 gallons of kerosene, was engulfed in flame. The crew and their two passengers, Samuel and Henry Ferguson – the sons of a wealthy East Coast merchant banker – escaped into the three ship’s boats with only ten days of food and twelve gallons of water to support the 31 men.
After more than 40 days adrift the fourteen starving dehydrated men on the sole surviving boat were about to start drawing straws when they reached Hawaii after an epic journey across the liquid desert of the North Pacific. They had survived the ocean, the heat, starvation, illness, madness and near mutiny. A young writer who called himself Mark Twain was on hand to bear testament to their ordeal in the newspapers of the day.
Mr Jackson has written a rich and compelling narrative which ranks right up there with the very best accounts of shipwreck survival literature. Meticulously researched, written and presented the story draws comparison with other extreme open boat odysseys such at Captain Bligh’s epic 1789 voyage after the Bounty mutiny (3618 miles in 41 days) and the survivors of the Essex, two of whose boats travelled over 4500 miles in 95 days in 1820 after their ship was sunk by a whale.
Without firsthand experience is all but impossible to imagine the suffering endured by the survivors but Jackson does make you feel like you are right there in the boat. You can almost smell the salt and hear the tubercular rattle of Samuel Ferguson’s failing lungs and the whispers of the crew as they plan the details of his death and consumption.
Bruce concludes by saying that A Furnace Afloat is a gripping highly readable story for anyone interested in the human condition.