Bligh’s Epic Open-Boat Voyage

The Mutineers turning Lieut. Bligh and part of the officers and crew adrift from his Majesty’s Ship the Bounty / painted and engraved by Robert Dodd, 1790 London

On 28 April 1789 Lt William Bligh was startled awake by the presence in his cabin of his first mate, Fletcher Christian, and several other HMS Bounty sailors threatening his life if he did not do as they ordered.   He along with 18 members of his crew who wanted nothing to do with the unfolding mutiny would soon be unceremoniously herded into a launch and set adrift.   So began one of the great open-boat voyages in maritime history.

To say the launch was overcrowded is an understatement.   Measuring 23 feet (7 metres) in length there was room for just half those onboard.   But, in addition to Bligh and his men, space had to be made for their provisions.   

The mutineers allowed them 70kgs of sea biscuits, 10kgs of salted pork, 7 litres of rum, 6 bottles of wine, and 130 litres of water.   For navigation, they were given a quadrant, and a compass but no chronometer or charts of any kind.   A few clothes were thrown into the launch shortly before it was cut loose as were four cutlasses for personal protection should they venture onto any of the neighbouring islands.   Lastly, the carpenter had been allowed to take his toolbox, and the ship’s clerk had collected some of Bligh’s papers and belongings including a nautical almanac.    With the launch so heavily weighed down it was in danger of being swamped.  

Portrait of William Bligh By Alexander Huey – National Library of Australia, Public

As the Bounty sailed away, Bligh and the others found themselves adrift in the South Pacific Ocean far from any European settlements.   With no viable alternatives available to them, Bligh convinced his men that they should make for the Dutch settlement of Kupang on Timor Island some 3,500nm (7,000 kms) away.   But before they could get started they needed to add to theirs stores for the long voyage ahead.

At first glance the provisions might seem bountiful, but shared among so many people, they would last little more than a week without strict rationing.  

Bligh made for the nearest land, Tofua Island about 50 kms away to stock up on fresh produce. Initially, the Islanders seemed friendly and happy to trade. But after a couple of days the mood inexplicably changed, and they suddenly found themselves fleeing for their lives under a hail of hurled rocks.   One man was felled on the beach but the rest managed to get the launch away.

They continued to be pelted with rocks thrown from a pursuing canoe until they finally outdistanced their attackers.   Bligh noted in his journal that they had nearly all received injuries from the barrage of stones.   But they had escaped though at the cost of one life.

A page from William Bligh’s logbook. Courtesy State Library of NSW.

Bligh then set a course west through the South Pacific Islands towards New Holland (Australia), deciding not to risk stopping anywhere else along the way.      The carpenter’s chest was emptied of tools to make room for the sea biscuits to keep them out of the water sloshing around in their boat.   Spare clothes, ropes and anything else not essential were tossed overboard to lighten the load and make more room for the tiny boat’s occupants.        Those not seated on the thwarts found room where they could in between.   Conditions were so cramped no one had room to stretch their legs. 

Bligh organised the men into two watches as they sailed WNW towards the Fijian Islands and beyond. Beginning on 4 May they were battered by a powerful storm with gale-force winds and high seas.   Water poured into the boat and the men were kept busy continuously bailing.     That first storm raged until the following evening before the weather eased off for a short while.

Over the next several days and weeks they passed through the Fijian Islands and then the islands of Vanuatu as they steadily made their way west.   The nights were brutally cold but there was little let-up in the weather, and they remained soaked to their skins for days on end.  The only reprieve from their misery came in the form of a small daily ration of rum. 

Even though Bligh had no chart, he was able to compare his observations, when he could make them, with known landmarks recorded in his almanac.   Though they passed close by many islands there was no appetite to go ashore for food despite their growing hunger. Their recent experience on Tofua was still fresh in their minds.  

They began bearing more westerly as they crossed the Coral Sea and weathered more powerful squalls.   Mountainous seas and torrential rain again kept them bailing as hard as they could to remain afloat. 

Then, on 24 May they were bathed in full sunshine for the first time in nearly two weeks.   Over the following few days they caught several seabirds, which they shared and eagerly ate raw.   The birds also offered hope, for they heralded their approach to land.   

Route sailed by the Bounty’s launch. Courtesy Google Maps.

On 28 May they reached the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, clearly delineated by a line of breaking surf.   Bligh pointed the bow towards a gap in the reef and everyone hung on as they raced through the narrow passage. Once through they found themselves in calm water in the vicinity of Cape Melville.   They then bore north remaining close to the inside of the reef in hopes that they might catch some fish to supplement their diet.

A couple of days later they stepped ashore on what Bligh would name Restitution Island.   After being confined to the boat for so long, they were all barely able to walk.   Nonetheless, a fire was started using Bligh’s magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays and a stew of sea biscuit and salted pork was augmented by berries, oysters and other shellfish foraged from their surrounds.  

After several days recuperating, they reboarded the boat and island-hopped north until they reached Torres Strait.   They then bore west again across open seas until Bligh estimated they were off the southern coast of Timor Island.    On 14 June 1789, they sailed into Kupang Harbour 47 days after the Bounty mutineers cast them adrift.   Bligh noted they were, “nothing but skin and bones; our limbs were full of sores; [and] we were clothed in rags.”   But they had survived a voyage few would have thought possible.

The Dutch authorities tended to the survivors and arranged passage back to England, however, five would never see home, dying in their weakened state probably after contracting malaria.  

Bligh arrived back in the United Kingdom in March 1790 and faced a court martial at which he was exonerated for the loss of his ship. The incident had no lasting impact on his career and he would rise through the navy to the rank of Vice Admiral. He also served a tumultuous two years as the Governor of New South Wales until he was deposed by officers of the NSW Corps.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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