A miraculous rescue

The Brig Nérina

In the autumn of 1840 two French brigs left their mark on history in very different ways. One was witness to a key historical moment, the other an unusual tale of survival against all odds. The brig was, in many ways, the characteristic vessel type of the 19th century, sturdy, strong, and adaptable, and accounts for some 7% of our shipwreck records.

The first was the naval brig L’Oreste, detached from the French Levant (Mediterranean) squadron for St. Helena, where she witnessed the translation of the mortal remains of Napoleon Bonaparte aboard La Belle Poule. L’Oreste then accompanied La Belle Poule and La Favorite out of St. Helena on 18 October 1840, and as she set her course for the Mediterranean, La Belle Poule and La Favorite continued north for Cherbourg with the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte, to be translated to Les Invalides, Paris, where they have lain ever since.

Victorian sepia photograph of ship seen from afar all alone on a calm sea, sunlight striking the sea to the right of the ship from among the clouds.,
The Brig, 1856, by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 67995

The other vessel was the commercial brig Nérina which left Dunkirk for Marseille on 30 October 1840 with a crew of 7, including the captain’s teenage nephew, and a cargo of oil and canvas. What happened next was an incredible feat of survival. The English correspondent assured his readers that it was no ‘Yankee story’ but, as a local resident, had seen the people and events described with his own eyes. (1) In a similar vein, his French counterpart stated that he had both met with the survivors and had obtained a souvenir account of the event printed under the auspices of Richard Pearce, vice-consul at Penzance, as an aide-memoire ‘lest my story be ridiculed’. (2) [The story can be followed in French here.]

The wind was set fair for her voyage with a favourable breeze, but in the English Channel a typical autumn squall set in, as the wind suddenly backed to the south-east. Thereafter the Nérina beat up Channel with extreme difficulty against contrary winds, taking 15 days to reach the Lizard. The wind increased, and the exhausted crew viewed with dismay the fierce Atlantic breakers crashing onto the shore as they passed Land’s End.

They had reached a position some 12 nautical miles south-west of the ‘Sorlingues’ [the French name for the Isles of Scilly] when a heavy sea struck their vessel, which capsized suddenly, sweeping one man off the deck, never to be seen again. ‘The vessel in a moment turned completely over, not allowing time for the water to run into her, by which means the internal air kept the water out.’ (3) This describes what we would now know today as an air pocket.

Three seamen were in the forecastle, of whom one was drowned as he lost his grip, while the other two managed to keep their heads above the rising water and wriggle through a gap, making their way towards voices in the stern cabin, where the master, his nephew, and the mate had been when the ship capsized. The mate had managed to open a hatch into a watertight space and clear away some stores, then helped the master and the boy through the gap. The other two men from the forecastle followed them, and there the five managed to survive for the ensuing three days and nights, with no sustenance or space to stand up, and the air beginning to run out in that confined space. They gained some idea of the passage of time through seeing daylight striking upon the sea being reflected up through the cabin skylight, which, of course, was now below them, and then through the hatchway.

South-west of the Isles of Scilly, they were on course to drift out into the Atlantic, where they must inevitably have perished. They were completely unaware of what happened next, and, as a French journalist wrote, perhaps it was as well that it was so, or they would have suffered even greater agonies of alternating hope and despair than they were already experiencing, although the captain tried his best to maintain their morale. In the meantime the resourceful mate was trying to carve out a hole in the hull in an effort to gain some more air, but his knife broke before he was able to break through (very fortunately, or the water would have rushed in).

Aerial view of the Isles of Scilly, standing green above a calm blue sea, against a blue sky with light white clouds.
The Isles of Scilly looking SW. 23893/12 SV9217/1 © Historic England

Two fishing vessels returning to St. Mary’s spotted crowds of birds gathering over a dark whale-like shape in the water off St. Agnes, and decided to investigate. They found it to be an upturned hull and attempted to take it in tow, but the tow rope broke, and they were forced to abandon the attempt as the weather worsened, not having the least idea that there was anyone on board the derelict.

The attempted tow had, however, taken the vessel out of the currents carrying her inexorably into the Atlantic. In the middle of the night the vessel bumped bows on to the rocks at Porthellick, St. Mary’s, was clawed back by the tide, and again flung onto the rocks, each time more violently. The five survivors were forced to crawl forward as best they could to avoid the rising water, although one man fell lost his footing and drowned. The other four continued on to the ship’s side, where they were able to peer through a hole in the side.

At daybreak a fisherman was out on the beach, and like his fellow fishermen off St. Agnes, he was attracted to the dark shape on the rocks which he could only dimly discern. He clambered down the rocks to investigate, and, spotting the hole, put his arm into it. He received what must have been the shock of his life when the captain eagerly gripped his arm, and hurriedly pulled clear, but as they cried out to him, he grasped the situation and ran back to get help.

Soon the four survivors were pulled out by willing hands and restored with a breakfast and a sound sleep. The dead man, entangled in the shrouds when he was washed out of the vessel, was interred in a simple service, attended by his compatriots: this is most likely to have taken place at St. Mary’s Old Church, Old Town, St. Mary’s, which had until 1838 been the principal parish church of the island and was closest to where the ship had fetched up (now Grade II* listed). The hull broke up almost immediately, as the tide returned, but 50 barrels of oil are recorded as having been saved. (4) The survivors were later waved off from St. Mary’s to begin their journey home via Penzance, thanks to the good offices of Pearce as vice-consul.

The various accounts contain minor discrepancies, not at all unusual for shipwreck reports, gleaned from traumatised survivors and compounded by language difficulties, but the level of detail which made it into the English press suggests that it had been possible to relay the story via an interpreter – again suggesting Richard Pearce’s possible involvement.

In over 20 years’ recording our shipwrecks and reading extraordinary stories of survival and rescue on the coast of England, this is the only air pocket survival I have encountered. A story that seemed almost incredible in the Victorian era has at least two modern parallels, the well-documented rescues of Tony Bullimore in the Southern Ocean in 1997 and Harrison Okene off Nigeria in 2013.

(1) Morning Post, 4 December 1840, No.21,806, and widely reproduced in other UK newspapers

(2) F R de la Trémonnais, “Naufrage de la Nérina“, Revue de la presse: la gazette des familles, Vol.1, 1840, pp408-16

(3) Evening Standard, 14 Decemer 1840, No.5,144, p3, and other UK newspapers

(4) Ibid.



Leave a Reply