Imagine being stranded on an oversized rock for three weeks. It is cold, on the cusp of winter. You are far enough from the mainland that you cannot swim for it, but close enough that you can see it.
You huddle together with your shipmates for warmth. And in a desperate moment of hunger and despair, you cannibalize one of your deceased mates.
That is the fate of the crew of the Nottingham Galley, which shipwrecked on Boon Island off the coast of Maine in December 1710. Miraculously, the survivors were rescued early in the new year 1711.
Although the details are sketchy because of conflicting accounts, their story is true — and told in gripping detail in a new book, “Boon Island: A True Story of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Cannibalism” by New England writers Andrew Vietze and Stephen Erickson and published by Globe Pequot Press.
Vietze is a Mainer from Appleton, and is a former managing editor for Down East magazine. Erickson lives in Portsmouth, N.H. They collaborated on this project when they learned they were both working on a book about the same subject.
The story begins when a corpse washes up on the shore of Wells on New Year’s Day 1711. Authorities knew the tell-tale signs of a shipwreck, and set off to find the dead man’s crew and remains of his boat.
Vietze, who works at Baxter State Park, recently talked about the book and his interest in the tale.
Q: You’ve been fascinated by this story for a long time. Why?
A: I guess the real fascination for me is the survival. It’s one of history’s great survival stories. I make my living as a park ranger, and I work six months at Baxter park. We rescue people who have been overnight or a couple of days exposed to the elements. These guys were out there for a better part of a month. They wrecked on Dec. 11, and we’re talking about days like today — sea spray and no clothing, fully exposed to the elements. Just nasty.
Q: How did they do it?
A: They scavenged a piece of sail cloth and were able to make a small triangular tent, and basically piled one on top of another. Their collective body heat kept them above freezing. But they were very, very uncomfortable.
Q: What were the conditions?
A: The night that they wrecked, it was a classic nor’easter. When they went ashore, they all got drenched. They were exposed to high winds, sleet and rain, and up to their waist at least getting ashore. And then days upon days of very little sunlight. It was days before they knew the extent of their island. It was days of inclement weather.
Q: Describe Boon Island. Where is it, and how did these men happen to end up there?
A: It’s six miles out, a barren rock, essentially. Almost an acre. It’s got a 14-foot rise at high tide in the center. But other than that, it is at the mercy of the sea and wind. It’s pretty brutal terrain. It’s six miles off York. You can see it. Now, the tallest lighthouses in New England is on it, the Boon Island Light. It went up in 1811. It’s 130-something-feet tall. This was 1710 when the Nottingham Galley hit it, and they were not the first.
Q: How did the island get its name?
A: That’s a big question. Some people say it was because, legend has it, so many ships wrecked there that fishermen left casks of food that would be considered a boon to whoever found them. Another person suggested it was based on the word “bone,” just spelled incorrectly.
Q: The book reads like a script for a movie. Any plans for something along those lines?
A: I tend to see things like that. I am a huge movie buff, so I think cinematically. That’s a hope. We’ll see. There has been some discussion.
Q: How did you come to collaborate with Stephen Erickson?
A: I had a contract to write this book. I was doing my research and came across a manuscript in New England Quarterly that suggested I had competition. It was a feature-length article, maybe 20 or 25 pages. I saw the name Stephen Erickson. In 300 years, no one had written a history of the event, and now we had two people who wanted to write about it. I thought it was pretty good, his piece. He found some things that I didn’t have. I didn’t think the world needed two histories of Boon Island. We found each other, and decided it would make more sense to collaborate. He has been researching it for three or four years. It is one of his life missions.
Q: How did you research this story? What were your methods?
A: There are two manuscripts that exist. The captain wrote a memoir and published it. It was quite a hit. Because of the cannibalism incident, there were quite a few people interested in it. And then the crew wrote their own. They said, “No, no, no, you are a scoundrel. This is a pack of lies.” Both documents still exist. So you have these two histories that were in conflict. That is very rich. Stephen and I found the crew’s story more compelling. There has been some historical research, and we did our own research, looking at shipping between the colonies and what the colonies were like back then.
There is a gentleman vs. the commoner element to this story. When you dig in and look at a lot of the history around this event, it’s really very interesting. It’s fascinating in that the crew actually list their sources in their account. They talk about, “We met this boat, we met that boat. We met this captain.” They listed all the members of the crew, which gives their account some credibility. The captain failed to do any of that in his account.
Q: You are a ranger at Baxter State Park. Tell me about that.
A: I work as a seasonal ranger at Baxter. I am a ranger at Daicey Pond. I do everything from register campers and provide basic info for campers. We protect the people from the park and the park from the people. In the day-to-day sense, I do maintenance at the campground. I help with rescues and rule enforcement and all kinds of different stuff.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or: