Hell and High Water: HMS Nautilus, 1807

Part 2

At the end of Part 1 of this article (Click here to read it if you missed it) we left Captain Palmer and the remaining survivors of the brig-of-war HMS Nautilus, starving and exposed on a low and storm-lashed rocky islet close to the Greek island of Antikythera. Meanwhile, the one surviving boat, a whaler, commanded by the ship’s heroic coxswain, George Smith, had left to seek assistance.

The plight of the HMS Nautilus survivors stranded on the rocks had much in common with the suffering portrayed by Ivan Aivazovzky (1817-1900) in is painting of the Biblical Deluge.

Not knowing if this craft had survived in the stormy sea, or might ever achieve its mission, the morale of the men on the rocks deteriorated. Thirst was by now a major torment and in desperation some resorted to drinking salt water and were thereby reduced to madness during the night that followed. The storm continued unabated but it was some relief that the whaler returned in the early hours. Once more, the surf made it impossible for it to come in close. Smith called across that contact had been made with Greek fishermen and that they would arrive in daylight with larger boats.

Hope was dashed the following day, for neither the promised fishing vessel, nor the whaler, appeared.  The survivors were at the ultimate limits of exposure and privation and some were dying, among them Captain Palmer, who had been injured when escaping from HMS Nautilus, and his first lieutenant. In the desperation of their hunger, several men ate flesh taken from the body of a young seaman who had died during the previous night.

A brig-of-war, as HMS Nautilus would have looked in her days of glory

Yet another night past and on the next morning an effort was begun to construct a raft from spars and other wreckage. This fell apart on being launched but five men collected fragments and lashed an even smaller craft together. With barely room to stand on, they managed to get clear of the rocks. Borne away by a strong current, they were never seen again. Later that day, George Smith and the whaler returned again, but were still unable to come in close due to the surf. He shouted across that he had been unable to convince the Greek fishermen of Antikythera to come out in such stormy conditions. While he was speaking, a dozen men tried to swim to the whaler from the rocks. Two got close enough to be pulled on board but one was drowned and the others had to retreat.  Had all reached the craft, their combined weigh would probably have sunk it.

More died during the night that followed but the morning saw arrival of four Greek fishing boats that brought fresh water with them. By later afternoon all the survivors – some 50 – had been embarked for Antikythera. Of the 122 on board HMS Nautilus when she struck, 58 had died, of whom 34 had died of privation on the rocks.  Including those who had escaped in the whaler, some of whom had been left to spend a miserable time on another small island, while Smith had gone back to help the survivors on the rocks, a total of 64 men were landed on Antikythera.

A brig in a breeze – the happy return denied to HMS Nautilus. Painting by Samuel Atkins.

The suffering was not yet over however for, though the poverty-stricken dozen families of the Greek fishing community did their best to look after HMS Nautilus’s men, there was no medical assistance available. Food stocks were limited, but freely shared, even though the number of strangers must have been close to that of the entire island’s population. It was eleven days more before the seas had died down sufficiently for safe transfer to the island of Kythira – some twenty-five miles distant – where there was a British consul. Well treated there also, what was left of HMS Nautilus’s crew remained there for three weeks, before being taken off by a Russian warship and ultimately dropped off at Corfu, then under British control, two months to the day since the shipwreck.

One wonders what became of the hero of these events – George Smith, coxswain of HMS Nautilus, who seems to have otherwise disappeared from history. He deserves honour.

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