The hapless discovery of Kanton Island

Sept/Oct 2003

very student of sailing is familiar with the remarkable open-boat voyage that Capt. William Bligh was forced to make after he and his loyal crew were forced off HMS Bounty. Navigating more than 3,000 miles, Bligh�s journey is considered one of the most incredible feats of small-boat sailing.

There is another story, though, of brave Americans who, facing hardship and necessity, rescued themselves � accomplishing a voyage of 3,800 miles. Unlike Bligh�s journey, all the men in this story survived to sail another day.

It all began in 1852, when the whaling barque Canton departed New Bedford, Mass., bound for a trip to the South Pacific in search of the increasingly hard-to-find sperm whale.

In command was 32-year-old Andrew Wing of Acushnet, Mass. Capt. Wing was a moneymaker, having made his owners more than $100,000 profit on his last whaling voyage � an exorbitant amount of money back in the days when a whole voyage could cost less than $10,000.

Wing and a crew of 33 souls sailed Canton for six months, first hunting in the South Atlantic, and then going �round Cape Horn, and into the Pacific in search of the sperm whale. By this time in whaling history, the sperm whale was elusive and over-hunted. It took longer each time a whaleboat left home for it to come back with its hold full of oil.

By March of 1853, Canton was somewhere in the mid-Pacific near the Phoenix Island chain at around 03� S by 173� W. It was a clear, starlit night when disaster struck. The charts indicated no low-lying atolls or coral heads, yet the ship struck and became pinned to a submerged reef of coral heads that surrounded a small island on the night of March 4.

Despite the heroic efforts of the ship�s crew, Canton was stuck fast and could not be refloated. The crew found themselves on a small atoll � since named Kanton � that was a mere 3.5 square miles and, most unfortunately, had no fresh water. They would repair the whaleboats and make for the nearest land.

Four whaleboats were recovered, and to make them more seaworthy, two strakes were added to the gunwales (a trick Shackleton employed on his adventure). Splitting his men into the four boats, the group departed on March 30.

Unfortunately, Wing�s sextant had been heavily damaged. With some spare parts he salvaged from the ruined sextant, he fabricated an instrument that could help him navigate � or at least accomplish a crude noon sight. He also recovered a pocket compass from his cabin, and off they went.

So began a journey that boggles the mind. For 49 days, the 33 men had half a pint of water each and half a sea biscuit, which must have been wormy and stale and not like any cookie the writer would welcome. (One-half pint of water, by the by, is equal to one cup, which is about nine and one-half swallows.) This was right after the vernal equinox, and the men and crew were about 180 miles south of the equator, and the declination of the sun was not too far north. In other words, it must have been hell. Wing told his men that if they survived, it would �be by the strength of your wills.�

Steering in a northerly direction and taking advantage of the westerlies, Wing led his men through storms, put down a mutiny, and after 45 days, they arrived at a small island in the Mariana group that had nesting birds and plenty of fresh water. Rested and stronger, they sailed down the Mariana chain to Saipan, then Tinian and finally to Guam.

Two months after landing in Guam, Wing, the first mate and two of the crew caught a ship to Hong Kong and then to Honolulu and finally arrived back home. The remaining crew left Guam on various whaling ships and went on their way.

Let us join the intrepid captain and crew in their crowded lifeboats, trying to get out of the sun�s rays, bailing the boats, lost in their thoughts. There is no record of whether the captain had an almanac with him. He must have had an idea of the declination of the sun, since he had been taking noon sights during his trip. As for the index error on his homemade sextant, well, we can only imagine, but let�s say it was 30� off the arc. The captain probably didn�t stand when he took his noon sights, so his height of eye was roughly three feet. The good captain didn�t have a timepiece, and he just waited for a noon sight in the old-fashioned way of shooting the sun until it stopped rising, and that was his meridian passage.

A. What was the time of meridian passage on April 10, at 175� 35� W (using a 2003 Nautical Almanac)?

At noon, using his jury-rigged sextant, Wing got an upper limb shot of the sun. His Hs was 81� 42.7�.

B: What is the Hc?

C: What was the declination of the sun at the time of sight?

D: What is the latitude of the sun from the position that Wing took?  

Solution: Click here for this Nav Problem’s solution

By Ocean Navigator