Hell and High Water: HMS Nautilus, 1807

Part 1

In November 1806 a Royal Navy squadron commanded by Admiral Sir John Duckworth (1748 – 1817) was sent to reconnoitre the Dardanelles as a preliminary for a move against Constantinople (now Istanbul) in what would be the Anglo-Turkish War of 1807-1809. Attached to the force was an 18-gun sloop, HMS Nautilus, launched in 1804 and captained by a twenty-six year old officer named Palmer (Does anybody know more about him?)

Though this painting by Antoine Roux (1765-1835) is of a French brig, HMS Nautilus would have looked generally similar

On January 3rd 1807 HMS Nautilus was sent to Britain with despatches. Driven by a strong north-easterly and guided by a Greek pilot, she safely navigated through the cluster of Aegean Islands between Greece and Anatolia. When the pilot stated however that the had now passed his point of knowledge of the area, Palmer himself now took charge. By this stage he seemed to have been exhausted, having hardly slept for three nights, and, after setting a course on the chart for his coxswain, George Smith, to follow, went to bed. The wind was beginning to strengthen but, though the night was very dark, Palmer had been satisfied that constant lightning on the horizon provided sufficient illumination to identify any land ahead.

HMS Zebra – a typical Royal Navy brig of war, by Giovanni Schranz (1794-1882) 

Under light sail, and with a following sea, HMS Nautilus was estimated to be making over nine knots. Around two-thirty in the morning, high land was detected ahead, and believed to be the island of Antikythera, between Crete and Peloponnese. HMS Nautilus’s course was altered to pass and she drove on for two hours until a lookout warned of breakers ahead. It was too late – the ship struck violently. Those below hurried on deck – water was already surging into the aftermost part of the hull.

Captain Palmer appeared, ensured calm, and went with his second lieutenant to inspect the damage. He saw that the situation was hopeless and he returned to his cabin to burn his papers and private signals. The sea was now lifting the hull and smashing it down again repeatedly on the rocks so that the decks became untenable and the crew – HMS Nautilus carried a total of  122 officers and men – were forced up the rigging to survive.

The lightning had ceased by now and the darkness was almost total. It was only a matter of time before the ship would break up completely. All boats were smashed but a whaler (whale-boat in American parlance) hanging over the quarter survived. In this, an officer, George Smith the coxswain, and nine men, got away. For those left on board HMS Nautilus, the only hope of survival lay in getting to the exposed rocks.  Just before daybreak, the mainmast fell over, falling towards the rocks, and this provided a bridge across which to scramble. By this stage, several men had been drowned, and others were injured, but Palmer refused to cross until the last man had left. He was injured in the attempt and was dragged over by several seamen who came to his rescue.

The rock on which they found themselves was likely to be overwhelmed by the waves and safety now lay in wading to a larger rock. The first lieutenant managed to get across the intervening channel and encouraged the remainder to follow, the passage being made all the more dangerous by wreckage from the ship being carried through the channel by the waves.  Many were injured while crossing and those not wearing shoes – this was an era when seamen worked barefoot – had their feet lacerated.

The survivors found with daylight that they were on a rocky outcrop, some 400 yards long and 200 wide, barely above water level.  No other land was visible and the only hope now was that the whaler that had got away had survived, and the possibility that it might fetch assistance from a nearby Greek island.

The horror of shipwreck, as overcame HMS Nautilus,  by Franciszek Ksawery Lampi (1782 – 1852)

Cold was now a major problem – there had been ice on the deck the previous day – but by using a flint and steel, and some damp gunpowder from a washed-up barrel, a fire was got going. A shelter was constructed of scraps of canvas and other flotsam. A signal was hoisted on a pole in the hope that a passing vessel would spot it.

The whaler had indeed survived and, despite a high sea, managed to reach what proved to be the island of Pera. Just a mile across, it was uninhabited but for a few sheep and goats belonging to the people of the nearby island of Kythira who came across in summer to take their young away. No fresh water could be found other than a small accumulation of rain. While the whaler had been underway, its occupants had seen the fire lit by the other survivors and the coxswain, George Smith, persuaded four of those with him to go back to them. (The 19th Century account on which this article is  based makes no mention of what became of the officer in the whaler).

On the second morning after the shipwreck, Smith and the whaler reached the survivors on the rock. The surf was still too high to get in close but Smith hoped to take few men off. He called Captain Palmer to make the attempt but he refused, saying, “No, Smith, save your unfortunate shipmates, never mind me.” He asked however that the Greek pilot should be taken on board in the hope that he could help Smith reach Kythira, where he knew some families of fishermen. The pilot did manage to reach the whaler, and all hope now depended on it as it departed.

Escaping a wreck – like HMS Nautilus’s whaler did – painting by Hendrik Adolf Schaep (1826 – 1870)

The wind was rising again and dark clouds indicated a gathering storm. When it struck, it was with fury, lashing waves over much of the rock and dousing the fire. The survivors – approximately ninety of them – moved to the highest point but even here the surf threatened to drag them away despite by passing a rope around a protrusion to hang on to.  Starving, many were by now at the end of their strength and became delirious and could hold on no longer. Others died through the following night of cold and of injuries sustained earlier.

Hope rose at daybreak when a ship under sail was seen heading towards the rock. Identifying the signals of distress, it hove to and dropped a boat. The survivors tried to fashion rafts to carry them through the surf to it. The boat “came within pistol-shot, full of men dressed in the European fashion, who after having gazed at them a few minutes, the person who steered, waved his hat to them and then rowed off to his ship,”  thereby abandoning them.  The disappointment was made yet more bitter when the unknown ship was seen picking up pieces of HMS Nautilus’s wreckage from the water before sailing away. The identity of the ship, and its nationality, has never been established. It is clear however that it was not a British vessel.

And here, at the end of Part 1, we leave Captain Palmer and the remaining survivors starving and dying of exposure on the rock, and the valiant whaler seeking assistance. What happened next will be told in Part 2 of this article, Click here to read it.

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