It has been called one of the most remarkable navigational feats in all of nautical history. Imagine yourself in an open boat with eighteen other men, thousands of miles from safety. The boat is only twenty three feet long, with a beam of six feet and nine inches and a depth of only two feet and nine inches. It rides so low in the water that your hand, resting on the gunwale, is repeatedly made wet from the small waves that lap against the side of the boat. Your only hope for survival lies with the man in command, the man to whom you have given your loyalty, William Bligh, until very recently Captain of HMS Bounty.
The mutiny on the Bounty is one of the best known, and most misrepresented, events in maritime history. Three weeks after leaving Tahiti with a shipload of breadfruit plants, Fletcher Christian, the acting first lieutenant and Bligh's personal friend, took control of the ship. After mocking and threatening Bligh, he was set adrift with eighteen men that were still loyal. Others perhaps would have joined them, but the boat couldn't hold any more. According to the book Men Against the Sea by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the men were allowed to take with them about 32 pounds of pork, 150 pounds of bread, six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, and 28 gallons of water. Although this may seem like a large quantity of provisions, it would prove to be less than adequate for the voyage ahead.
The men were set adrift about 30 nautical miles from Tofua, one of the islands that Captain Cook had called the Friendly Islands. They were to find that the name given to them by Cook was more optimistic than was justified. After one man was killed on Tofua, Bligh decided to avoid any more "friendly islands." It's ironic that part of the pacific ocean is filled with numerous lush tropical islands, yet it was safer to row past, with their ever diminishing supply of provisions. They also rowed past the islands of Fiji, which Bligh had heard were inhabited by cannibals. The closest island that Bligh knew was safe was Timor, a distance of some 3,600 miles. As impossible as it might have seemed, Bligh decided that was their destination. Rowing and sailing their little boat, they set to work, with Bligh navigating and maintaining order. According to The State Library of New South Wales, they reached Timor after six weeks at sea, with no additional loss of life.
The book Men Against the Sea chronicles the hardships that these men faced. As corroborated by Great Britain's National Maritime Museum website, Bligh allowed each man twelve ounces of water and about two ounces of bread each day, with an occasional spoonful of rum or wine. He meticulously measured these out so that all were treated equally. Even these small amounts were later cut by a third. In addition to rationing their existing food and water, they caught sea birds out of the air and ate their raw flesh to supplement their meager provisions.
After his return to England, Captain Bligh was court martialed. He however, eventually went on to have a long and relatively distinguished career in the Royal Navy. According to Plant Explorers, in 1794 he was given the Society of Arts medal for his remarkable feat of navigation.
In popular accounts about him he has often been misrepresented. However, one thing that no one can deny was his skill as a navigator. It has also been argued that the same qualities that caused the crew to resent him so much that they mutinied, such as his focus on minutia, were the very qualities needed to preserve the lives of the men that found themselves in an open boat with him for six weeks and thousands of miles. As a final note, according to the State Library of New South Wales website, as if leading his men to safety was not enough, during this voyage of survival, Captain Bligh, ever the sailor, also accurately charted numerous islands and the north west coast of Australia using a quadrant and compass.