A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell about It


By Brian Murphy

With Toula Vlahou

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A story of tragedy at sea where every desperate act meant life or death

The small ship making the Liverpool-to-New York trip in the early months of 1856 carried mail, crates of dry goods, and more than one hundred passengers, mostly Irish emigrants. Suddenly an iceberg tore the ship asunder and five lifeboats were lowered. As four lifeboats drifted into the fog and icy water, never to be heard from again, the last boat wrenched away from the sinking ship with a few blankets, some water and biscuits, and thirteen souls. Only one would survive. This is his story.

As they started their nine days adrift more than four hundred miles off Newfoundland, the castaways–an Irish couple and their two boys, an English woman and her daughter, newlyweds from Ireland, and several crewmen, including Thomas W. Nye from Fairhaven, Massachusetts–began fighting over food and water. One by one, though, day by day, they died. Some from exposure, others from madness and panic. In the end, only Nye and the ship’s log survived.

Using Nye’s firsthand descriptions and later newspaper accounts, ship’s logs, assorted diaries, and family archives, Brian Murphy chronicles the horrific nine days that thirteen people suffered adrift on the cold gray Atlantic. Adrift brings readers to the edge of human limits, where every frantic decision and desperate act is a potential life saver or life taker.


Author’s Note

When my daughter was young, she and I enjoyed hunting for sea glass on beaches around Greece. For years, we filled containers and bottles with the sea-scrubbed nuggets. These castaway bits—different shapes, different textures and colors—gradually built a story. A layer of sea glass in a small cup might represent one week attached to one specific memory. A fat jam jar filled to the brim might be the remembrances of a full season.

This book is a lot like that.

I came across the first stray fragment of the story in a basement on Cape Cod, where a local historical museum had assembled a wonderful exhibit on shipwrecks. From there, and for the next three years, I collected more pieces wherever I could find them. They turned up in places such as the old waterfront in Liverpool on the River Mersey, the side streets of Fairhaven on Buzzards Bay, and the archives at Mystic Seaport on tidewaters pulled toward Long Island Sound.

Like the sea glass, the scattered shards of this story, waiting to be gathered and brought together, added up to a moment in time. This one took place far out in the cold Atlantic more than a century and a half ago.

This is a work of nonfiction. All the events occurred. I did my best with what I found, making every effort to portray, with accuracy and precision, the arc of the story and the people involved. The narrative comes together from an array of sources that include published material, family archives, civil and church records, shipping ledgers, and interviews conducted in Europe and the United States.

That was the easy part.

The more challenging task was properly conveying the thoughts, emotions, and dialogue of the people involved.

There is, of course, no way to know the exact words exchanged on the John Rutledge or among those huddled in an open lifeboat adrift in the North Atlantic. Even harder to discern are characters’ inner voices and fears. On both fronts, I relied heavily on the only person who could know: the sole survivor of the wreck. Fortunately, just after rescue he gave detailed statements to various newspapers. He also offered recollections decades later and his accounts did not vary in any significant ways. Most important, they were highly consistent in describing how those on the lifeboat interacted, battled for life, and, ultimately, died. The various retellings, however, do include some minor discrepancies, mainly in the order of events aboard the lifeboat. None of these variations change the story in any fundamental manner.

To further enhance the dialogue, I consulted experts in mid-nineteenth-century linguistics and speech patterns in New England, Ireland, and Britain.

I mention all this for an important reason:

To ask for a small indulgence. Do not look on the dialogue as verbatim. Rather, view it as a carefully considered approximation based on research. I put quotation marks around only the passages that appear in logs, newspapers, and other sources. The rest of the dialogue—exchanges among the crew and so forth—does not carry quotation marks because I don’t want to suggest that these are the exact words spoken. Instead, they are a literary reflection of what is known about how the various figures in the story interacted.

I try to recount this story in its full sweep and attempt to explore the souls and sensibilities of those involved. This is, I believe, my duty as a storyteller. I also have an obligation as a journalist. I can never turn my back on facts. I have endeavored to keep every aspect of this book aligned with what is known or what can be surmised with strong confidence.

The vagaries of recordkeeping and newspaper reporting in that era forced some decisions. A few names appear in records with different spellings. I added footnotes to further explain the choices I made. In every case, I selected the spelling most widely used in the accounts or confirmed through further documentation.

One final point of context: although this book keeps a tight focus on one tragedy in the age of sail, it strives for a greater reach. Scores of ships—carrying tens of thousands of passengers and crew—met a similar fate in the Atlantic before twentieth-century advances in communications technology enabled better notice on looming ice fields and approaching storms. The names of some lost ships are remembered. So are a few of the prominent figures who perished at sea.

But almost totally forgotten are the others who went down with them: emigrants, seamen, travelers, merchants, and envoys. Entire families. Young men and women striking out for a new life. Children too young to grasp the dangers of an Atlantic crossing.

They are the anonymous dead.

The sea is good at swallowing lives without a trace.

This is my belated elegy for them all and the risks they faced on the North Atlantic.

The Ice

The North Atlantic ice obeys its own rhythms.

Some years, the ice is sparse and sporadic. Jagged castaways drift down from the Greenland ice sheets, but not in great numbers. The next year, however, the ice can flake away from the glaciers, thick and dangerous—as if the Arctic is shrugging off its frozen skin. When the vectors of wind, currents, and other elements take over, they can, under the right circumstances, keep most of the ice safely in the far north. Or they can carry the ice floes farther south into the main sea routes between Europe and North American ports, from Newfoundland to Baltimore. In the era before satellites, radar, and mobile communication, these years of thick southern ice frightened even the most hardened sailors.

The year 1856 was a time of North Atlantic ice like few others.

Starting in January, seamen arrived in New York, Boston, and other Eastern ports bearing alarming reports. No one had seen ice this dreadful in ages. They weren’t just sighting huge icebergs—some wider than the plans for Central Park or taller than the Westminster Palace clock tower being built in London. The worries about the ice in 1856 were a culmination of everything that made mariners shudder. The bergs were bigger, the pack ice denser, and the ice field’s edges more southerly than many could recall.

“Old and experienced sea captains state that they never saw the ocean so much obstructed with ice,” said a dispatch in the New York Times.

One clever wordsmith coined the phrase “ice armada.”

The steamship Arago, en route from the French port of Le Havre to New York, was forced to take a two-hundred-mile southern detour to stay clear of the ice. The steamship Baltic reported treacherous ice as far south as 43 degrees, 30 minutes, about the same latitude as southern Maine. Other ships sighted bergs in the North Atlantic approaching the forty-second parallel, about as far south as Cape Cod Bay.

Off Newfoundland, the crew on the ship Henry Reed passed icebergs three hundred feet tall. These titans carried so much mass below the surface that they ran aground on the seamounts of the Grand Banks. In early 1856 at least a half-dozen ships arrived in American and European ports with ice damage or tales of being held tight for days in ice-locked seas.

They were the lucky ones.

Before the first three months of 1856 were out, nearly 830 passengers and crew went missing in the North Atlantic. The packet ship John Rutledge was torn open by ice and sunk. This was the presumed fate of at least three more vessels that vanished somewhere between England and New York. Meanwhile, other ships, carrying dozens more people, sailed or steamed into the Atlantic that cursed winter.

They, too, were never heard from again.


FEBRUARY 29, 1856.

Sir, you are wanted on deck. It’s urgent. We believe we see something, the second mate added quickly, the words tumbling out.

First mate of the Germania, Charles Hervey Townsend, looked up from his logbook. It was just before three in the afternoon on Leap Year day. He had just recorded a somewhat uneventful shift. That was always good for February in the North Atlantic. They were thirty days out from France and bound for New York with forty-seven passengers. For the past twenty-four hours, light winds rolled in from the west-southwest to accompany the moderate swells and steady snow. Nothing alarming. Best of all, the sea ice had eased. A day earlier it had surrounded the ship, and the captain was forced to haul in the sails. And then they waited and prayed the ice would not grow thicker.

Everyone familiar with those waters knew well how quickly the ice could change from a bothersome obstacle to a lethal danger. Even a modest iceberg could easily rip open a hull. Pack ice could crush the sturdiest vessel like a walnut. They were lucky this time. The ship had slipped through a corridor of dense ice without damage. But the angry winter weather kept the crew on guard. For days, howling gales and towering waves had roared in from the general direction of the Canadian Maritimes—it was the kind of weather that pushed the Greenland sea ice toward the Atlantic shipping lanes. But that morning the storms had finally taken a breather.

This respite on the last day of February gave Townsend a chance to look ahead. With favorable winds, the Germania could clear the most dangerous stretch through the ice fields off Newfoundland. Once safely to the south, they would then set their final course for New York, and possibly tie up before the next full moon, in late March.

Good fortune was required to pass southeast of Newfoundland, one of the busiest shipping corridors in the western Atlantic. It was impossible to predict when the ice giants would appear. About eighteen months earlier, the master of the British brig Queen reported a berg five miles around and three hundred feet tall. This monster was spotted just about where the Germania now sailed: some three hundred fifty miles southeast of Newfoundland on the eastern edge of the Grand Banks.

And there was the fog to contend with. It churned up thick and sudden along the seams where the warmer Gulf Stream brushed against the Arctic-chilled currents from the north. These were some of the densest and most persistent fog zones in the world. The Germania had been passing in and out of fog banks for days.

Townsend, in his cramped script, jotted down the ship’s coordinates. Latitude: 44 degrees, 11 minutes north. Longitude: 47 degrees, 34 minutes west.

Sir? Please hurry, the second mate urged. You are needed.

Well, what is it? Townsend asked.

Some of the crew—the ones fixing the outer jib—they think they spotted a small boat with a distress flag, sir. And…

Survivors? Townsend interrupted.

Maybe, said the mate. We think maybe.

Townsend went quickly to the deck. All he could think about was the puzzling incident from a few nights earlier. He had spoken to no one about it, but he knew the crew would be talking. That night, the helmsman swore he heard a voice crying out from the sea. The crew on deck thought they might have come across shipwreck survivors somewhere out there in the darkness. Townsend dismissed the noises as nothing more than the wind and ordered the ship to sail on.

Now this.

Keep an open mind, he told himself. It could be debris that looks like a boat. The North Atlantic was full of such flotsam.

On deck, Townsend walked along paths cleared of the more than six inches of snow that had fallen since morning. He climbed into the rigging on the foremast near the bow. Even though snow still fluttered down, the flat winter light was good, casting a nice contrast between the water and anything on it. Townsend adjusted his spyglass, a fine mariners’ model built back home in New Haven.

There it was, just as the mate had said. This was no hunk of shipwreck. There was no doubt it was a lifeboat. But what was that in the stern? It looked like a figure. A man perhaps. But alive or dead? The figure didn’t offer any clues. It sat rigid. Townsend wondered whether it was just a lifeless body rocking in the sea.

Signal flags flapped along a pole and line on the boat. Was that an oar propped upright? And what was on the line running from the oar to the stern? Were they shirts?

Townsend moved the spyglass lens slightly. Mounds of something were scattered about the tiny boat. Possibly more people. No, wait. Something was odd. Townsend studied the unnatural angles of their arms and heads and then drew a sharp breath. Could they be frozen bodies?

But hold on. The man sitting stiffly in the lifeboat seemed to stir. It looked like he was moving.

The man raised a weak arm to signal the Germania.

Townsend, hesitantly, waved back.

Chapter One


Call it a premonition.

Or perhaps a husband’s protective reflex. Then again, maybe the impulse arose from something far more obvious: an ambitious ship captain wanting to concentrate on a hard trip across the Atlantic without any distractions. Such as his wife on board.

She was fine with any of these explanations. Each one offered some comfort. At the very least, they were something to hang on to.

The way it turned out, however, was the worst of all possible outcomes for Captain Alexander Kelley’s wife. She would never know the real reason she was left behind in Liverpool that January. Later court documents never offered a clue. And she cared not to talk about it much. What was the point of revisiting a painful mystery? All she was sure about was the peculiar way the matter was decided. The captain—her husband of eight years—was unusually insistent. He had made up his mind. Almost to the point of being unreasonable.

She would stay in Liverpool, he said. And that was that.

This was a side of her husband that Irene Snow Kelley hadn’t seen before. He could, at sea, be iron-willed. She expected that and so did his crew. All ship captains had a bit of an imperious streak. But Irene never had it directed at her in any meaningful way. She considered herself more his partner and helpmate, in the model of many captains’ wives. Their bond had grown even stronger on their last trip, a December sail from New York to Liverpool.

Then, her husband made it clear she would not be making the return crossing. At least not yet. Not in winter. Irene said nothing and let him talk. She looked for a hole in his argument or a flaw in his logic. He gave her little to work with. Well then, she thought. Let’s look at this from his perspective. She couldn’t be blamed for his decision to leave her behind. She had done nothing wrong to anger him or the crew, either on the voyage over or while they were docked in Liverpool. So it must be something about the coming trip itself. There was no doubt he was caught up in the pressures of his new command.

This was a big one for him.

It was Kelley’s first transatlantic circuit—New York to Liverpool and back—as captain of the John Rutledge, a fine specimen of a packet ship with less than five years of service under its belt. The new responsibilities must be weighing on him. Why else would he want to leave her in a strange port?

He justified his case.

There was simply no reason for her to endure a winter crossing back to New York. The weather would be rough the entire way.

Wait here, Kelley said. Enjoy Liverpool. Maybe go to London. I will be back in the spring, he added, and we can return to New York together.

She thought it over.

True, she would not be lonely. Even though they were new to Liverpool, the couple already had a wide circle of acquaintances and others angling for the captain’s attention. All ship captains in the Atlantic packet business were instantly included in a network on shore as old as Liverpool’s shipping trade, made up of portside gentry, businessmen of all stripes, royal contacts, self-styled dandies, diplomatic liaisons, and various hangers-on. A constant hum of invitations occupied ship captains—and their wives, of course, if they were along—in northern England’s main port.

And Irene could not argue with her husband’s premise: setting out on the North Atlantic in mid-January—westbound, with the wind in your teeth—was guaranteed to be a nasty affair. The seas could be monstrous and the ice could close in like a pack of hungry wolves.

He would be back in the spring on the next sail of the John Rutledge, she told herself.

If nothing else, she could count on the regularity of the Atlantic packet ship fleet, which included the Rutledge and hundreds of other sailing vessels and paddle-wheel steamers. They were in constant motion: back and forth across the Atlantic on a demanding schedule carrying passengers, freight, and mail. It certainly would be more pleasant to stay in England. She could sail home in May and arrive in time for the lovely first day of summer.

So, my dear, are we in agreement? Captain Kelley said this more as a statement than a question.

Fine, she consented. But promise me one thing. Promise me you will be safe.

She knew it was an empty appeal. The sea and ice dictated the terms of the crossings, not the captains or crew. Still, it made her feel better to hear him pledge to take extra care.

I promise, he said.

Irene Kelley then let the whole thing rest.

She didn’t want to quarrel with him two days before his thirty-second birthday, which they planned to celebrate at the Waterloo Hotel, one of Liverpool’s finest. At the Waterloo, you might just bump into the American consul Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was always happy to chat with a fellow New Englander, that is, so long as they met his rather pretentious standards. Ship captains made the cut. Normal seaman, middling merchants, and average working stiffs most certainly did not merit his attention. Hawthorne liked the good life and the exclusive company who could afford it or who were welcomed in by benefactors.

Irene understood that her husband had a lot resting on his shoulders just to prepare the John Rutledge for sea. The ship was scheduled to set sail in a little more than a week and there was much left to do. The Liverpool agent was still soliciting cargo. And Kelley needed to round out the crew.

After shedding some deck hands to Liverpool’s many temptations and traps, the Rutledge was a few men short, and a ship needed a full complement in winter. There was always the chance of losing one or two crewmen along the way: swept overboard or subject to a ghastly accident. All it took was a rogue wave or a misplaced step on the rigging.

Besides that, the crew would have to deal with an unexpectedly full passenger list. Though many emigrants preferred to wait for spring, more than a hundred had booked tickets for steerage, the gloomy compartment below the main deck that would serve as their place to sleep, eat, wash, worry, battle seasickness, stave off disease, and generally hold on until the ship reached American shores. To some of the poorest folks heading to America, the hardships of a winter crossing didn’t matter all that much. Being cold and miserable at sea was not much different from being cold and miserable on land.

The steerage passengers booked on the John Rutledge were mostly Irish. No surprise there. It was once assumed the flood of Irish to America would ease up once the potato blight ran its course in Ireland. But that wasn’t proving true at all. Even though potato crops started to rebound by the mid-1850s, the number of Irish emigrants did not decrease. Irishmen with jobs in the States were like homing beacons for relatives and friends. Some dreamed of setting out for America’s western frontier, maybe making it all the way to California with the other strike-it-rich dreamers and homesteaders. The island was emptying at a frightful clip. Packet ships such as the John Rutledge crowded them in and sailed them over if they had the fare.

Spring will be here before you know it, Kelley said. You are really the lucky one, my dear. You can stay in Liverpool. I must get this ship to New York.

That evening, just before five, a strange light appeared in the southern sky.

It cut ruler-straight across the last blushes of twilight—a glowing scar of aqua blue and silver that angled down into a cloudy haze on the horizon. The streak in the heavens held there for minutes before the last shimmer was gone.

The learned classes in Liverpool knew immediately what it was. Why, a meteor was giving an uncommonly fiery farewell. “Very similar,” wrote one observer in a Royal Astronomical Society journal, “to the trace that is left by a Roman candle on a dark night.” But many common deck hands in Liverpool, hard-wired to recognize omens and specters, didn’t like it. Not one bit. This was not a promising sign for those about to head out to sea.

The compendium of sailors’ superstitions is as vast as it is baffling. It covered everything from specific days not to set sail—all Fridays included—to special seagoing curses, including ones brought on by crewmates with flat feet or ginger hair.

Seamen had no trouble interpreting a weird flash in the sky as bad juju. About a century earlier, the Scottish poet William Falconer, a seafarer who was lost rounding the Cape of Good Hope, wrote of “portentous meteors” cutting through the gloom in his epic “The Shipwreck.” The average shipmate probably never heard of Falconer, let alone delved into his work. They might not have been able to read at all. But Falconer was attuned to what set sailors’ knees knocking. And that definitely included strange lights of all kinds.

One young seaman, a thin and soft-spoken American with coal-black eyes and not much of a beard, didn’t go in for such foolishness. Thomas W. Nye was firmly rooted in a world he could see and measure and explain. The sea was complicated and dangerous enough, he figured. Why add hocus-pocus to make it more frightening?

Nye was not yet twenty-two, but he felt like he’d been partnered with the sea forever. In one sense, he was right. His education in all things nautical went back to as early as he could remember. It was part of being a New Englander of the Nye clan, which extended far and wide from its roots on Cape Cod. His pedigree included an impressive assortment of ship captains, whaling shipowners, and merchant sailors. There was always a Nye heading out to sea, returning from sea, tallying up how much he was making off the sea, or mourning someone lost at sea. Understanding the rewards and the risks of life offshore was all part of being a Nye.

The rest of Thomas’s upbringing came in the form of basic, but solid, schooling. It was the kind drilled in by no-nonsense Quaker schoolmarms along Buzzards Bay on Massachusetts’s southern coast. The classes included reading, writing, civics, and enough etiquette to get him by and spare him some embarrassments—nothing close to the polishing offered by prestigious schools to the north, like Boston Latin or Phillips Academy. Yet it was a far sight better than the spotty schooling of many of his crewmates. Nye was no scholar. He was no simpleton either.

He tried to tell his fellow seamen on the John Rutledge that the thing in the sky was just a meteor. Same as a shooting star, he said. You see those all the time, right? But this one was bigger and closer. That’s all. No harbinger. No sign from sea nymphs or Davy Jones. Simple, old science, my friends.

Some listened. Some scoffed. Nye didn’t push it.

He didn’t want to get a reputation as a nag or know-it-all. He had to live and work with these men—a stitched-together crew of Yanks, Scots, and Irish. They had come over from New York together on the Rutledge, sorting out their personalities and peculiarities along the way. It wasn’t a bad mix of gents. There were no big fights or smoldering tensions crossing from New York to Liverpool. But that leg was a smooth, twenty-one-day milk run, riding a nice late-fall tailwind and relatively easy seas. They all knew the trip back would be a far greater test. The season was later, the water colder, and the winds brasher, slamming into their faces rather than caressing their backs.

The John Rutledge had arrived in Liverpool on Christmas Eve. The weather had warmed a bit, and that brought smiles after a wicked cold snap had covered the port in a thick varnish of ice. The city’s markets, decorated by festive gaslights, weren’t slowed by any weather. Holiday geese and slabs of beef and extravagant seasonal delights such as hot chocolate packed sellers’ stalls for those who could afford them, and plenty could in Liverpool.

This was one of the world’s busiest ports. With ships came money. That meant a few coins for the lowly dockhands, but piles of cash for the traders and shippers at the highest reaches of the port city pyramid. Still, not everyone was boosted by Liverpool’s rise. Those who were sick, disabled, widowed, or orphaned and numbers of others struggled in Liverpool, like they did in any Victorian-era city on both sides of the Atlantic. The rules of the sea transposed onto land: you stayed afloat or you went under. No one was going to help you.

But once in a while, often at Christmas, guilt made an appearance. Those with means might toss a bit extra to those without. At one Liverpool workhouse, a last-chance haven for the destitute, the overseers decided that their charges should be “regaled” with roast beef and plum pudding on Christmas Day. By their own count, there were 372 more paupers this Christmas week compared with this Yuletide week in the previous year.

There was no holiday rest for the Rutledge crew. They were thrown into work the moment the ship reached port. They stowed the sails—first repairing any rips—checked the rigging, and scrubbed the deck. They took shifts keeping an eye on the Liverpool dock porters who unloaded the cargo, making sure nothing slipped into a pocket or slipped away in a sack. The crew preferred sailing for Liverpool for one important reason: usually the ship carried no passengers down in steerage on the eastbound voyage. That spared the sailors the unpleasant dockside task of cleaning and disinfecting the bunks and alcoves that acted as steerage passengers’ makeshift urinals and places for the seasick to retch. It was horrid work. Sailors said it could be worse than slithering down into the head of a giant sperm whale to scoop up that last bucket of oil.

Word spread among the crew that the ship would have an unusually full manifest of emigrants for the westbound leg. That brought some groans, especially from the cook, who would have to keep the chow coming. The Rutledge crew expected a few dozen passengers down in steerage—not the one hundred or more who had already bought their tickets for New York. This was unusual. Sometimes, a winter sail back to America could carry as many passengers as crew. That didn’t matter too much to the shipowners. The far more critical factor was keeping to the timetable and getting the mail and cargo across the Atlantic on schedule. This was where the real money was made. On its latest trip, the


  • "The dramatic story of Thomas W. Nye, the sole survivor of the John Rutledge's tragic encounter with an iceberg in 1856, is beautifully rendered, gripping, and emotionally engaging from beginning to end. Murphy and Vlahou perform a literary magic trick of sorts, transporting readers into another era and enabling them to see and feel what it was like to travel across the ice-choked north Atlantic in the depths of winter, and confront the ultimate nightmare scenario--a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean with no help in sight. Adrift is a chilling and searingly memorable tale of unimaginable suffering and one man's bittersweet triumph over the odds."--Eric Jay Dolin, author of Black Flags, Blue Waters and Leviathan
  • "Ice is a killer. It kills ships and it kills the men and women on them. Brian Murphy reminds us that for every famous ship that goes down--think Titanic--countless thousands of others have been lost at sea, nameless, forgotten. In Adrift he brings back to life the story of the John Rutledge, and of the crusty Yankee sailors and seasick Irish immigrants who were aboard, and who died when the three-master foundered in the lonely, iceberg-studded North Atlantic--all but one man, that is, Thomas Nye, who kept his wits about him in a frigid open lifeboat and, half-frozen, clung to life. Murphy writes with such authority, you can feel the cold creeping into your bones."--Will Englund, Pulitzer, Polk, and Overseas Press Club Award-winning journalist
  • "It's obvious tremendous research went into Adrift, and maritime history buffs will appreciate not only the saga of the Rutledge but also other ships in peril during the 1800s, when crossing the Atlantic in winter was literally a life-and-death gamble."--Michael J. Tougias, coauthor of So Close to Home, The Finest Hours, and Above & Beyond
  • "Murphy writes a detailed but fascinating account of the ship leaving Liverpool harbor; it sounds as if he has done so on a sailing craft himself...He has researched the era assiduously."—Internet Review of Books
  • "[Brian Murphy] almost makes readers feel as if they were passengers in the lifeboat...and skillfully weaves a story of heroism, delusion, and survival...Adrift is well-written and well-researched, and offers a valuable analysis of a tragedy that is symbolic of hundreds of similar tragedies on the open seas."—New York Journal of Books
  • "A magnificently researched telling of the sinking of the John Rutledge and subsequent nightmare endured by her passengers and crew...A gripping and informative read...Readers don't need to be able to discern a mizzen from a main or port from starboard to enjoy Murphy's tale of Thomas Nye and his fight for survival...As beach season comes to a close and hurricane season begins to come into full swing, there are few better books to remind readers of the power of the deep blue ocean than Brian Murphy's Adrift."—Shipwreckology
  • "Extensively researched and likely the best book ever written explaining the decades lasting, interlacing effects of shipwrecks on families, businesses, and even global politics...[For] both scholars and the general public alike."—
  • "A heartrending and compelling account of shipwreck and survival...Vividly recreates life and sailing in the middle of the 19th century. [Murphy's] primary purpose is to tell the story of one ship and the people aboard her, yet a secondary goal is for the book to serve as an elegy to all the forgotten men, women, and children who lost their lives. He accomplishes both with dignity and passion. Adrift is so riveting that even in the midst of summer heat, the wintry cold seeps so deeply into your bones that not even the warmest wool will dispel the bleak aloneness of being surrounded by water and ice in a small boat."—Pirates and Privateers
  • "A tale of harrowing adventure, but also a study of human nature in desperate circumstances when conventional morality and social norms are washed away."—The Literate Quilter
  • "Murphy's use of nautical terms and imagery situates readers in the boat with boatswains and horseshoe crabs, longboats and buoys and dock riggers...[A] forward-moving, wave-after-wave story...Gripping."—Washington Independent Review of Books
  • "Consider the modern-day books on boat-meets-immoveable-object: ships doomed by rogue waves (The Perfect Storm), humongous whales (In the Heart of the Sea) and wartime torpedoes (Dead Wake)...Joining this flotilla of masterful histories is Brian Murphy's Adrift."—Winnipeg Free Press
  • "Piecing together information from newspaper accounts, diaries, family records and the salvaged log, Murphy has meticulously reconstructed the events of the tragic collision at sea and its aftermath."
    Cape Cod Times
  • "Read this book now. It feels like Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm meets the sinking scenes from the movie 'Titanic'...A thrilling page-turner of a true survival tale...The best historical nonfiction you'll read this year."
    New Bedford Standard-Times
  • "Murphy combines great story telling with a detailed explanation of Nineteenth Century ocean travel...It also is a great look at how human's behave under the most stressful situations...An excellent story of one of the many tragedies that befell many transatlantic travelers."—Collected Miscellany

On Sale
Sep 4, 2018
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press

Brian Murphy

About the Author

Brian Murphy is a journalist at the Washington Post. He joined the paper after more than twenty years as an award-winning foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Associated Press in Europe and the Middle East. He has three previous books, including 81 Days Below Zero, and currently lives in Washington with his wife Toula Vlahou.

Learn more about this author