The Custom of the Sea


Genre Prose

Year 2018

ISBN: 978-0-385-60083-5

Volume book: Full version

As Tom Dudley took his turn on watch, he looked with horror on the bodies of his crew. Their ribs and hip bones were already showing through their wasting flesh. There were angry, ulcerating sores on their elbows, knees and feet, their lips were cracked and their tongues blackened and swollen. They had continued to live on the turtle-flesh for a week, even though some of the fat became putrid in the fierce heat. Tom cut out the worst parts and threw them overboard, but they devoured the rest, and when the flesh was finished they chewed the bones and leathery skin. They ate the last rancid scraps of it on the evening of 17 July. Tom looked at the others. ‘If no boat comes soon, something must be done…’ On 5 July 1884 the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton bound for Sydney. Halfway through their voyage, Captain Tom Dudley and his crew of three men were beset by a monstrous storm off the coast of Africa. After four days of battling towering seas and hurricane gales, their yacht was finally crushed by a ferocious forty-foot wave. The survivors were cast adrift a thousand miles from the nearest landfall in an open thirteen-foot dinghy, without provisions, water or shelter from the scorching sun. When, after twenty-four days, they were finally rescued by a passing yacht, the Moctezuma, only three men were left and they were in an appalling condition. The ordeal they endured and the trial that followed their eventual return to England held the whole nation — from the lowliest ship’s deckhand to Queen Victoria herself — spellbound during the following winter. From yellowing newspaper files, personal letters and diaries, and first-person accounts of the principals, Neil Hanson has pieced together the extraordinary tale of Captain Tom Dudley, the Mignonette and her crew. Their routine voyage culminated in unimaginable hardship and horror, during which the survivors of the storm had to make some impossible decisions. This is the true story of the voyage and the subsequent court case that outlawed for ever a practice followed since men first put to the ocean in boats: the custom of the sea.

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