On February 22nd, 1855, Captain Joseph H. Tucker of Essex suffered a terrible loss at sea. At the helm of the William Layton, a packet ship on its way from New York to Antwerp, the Captain encountered a ferocious storm. The sky turned dark as violent winds whipped the sails, and the ship “fell over upon her beam ends.” The crew struggled to right it, but a tremendous wave crashed over the deck. Cargo rushed out of the ruined hull, and four of the twenty-two persons on board were instantly lost to the raging waters. Here, in Tucker’s own words, is what happened next:
For our better security, we each of us lashed ourselves to the wreck, with whatever of the rigging or ship’s ropes we could get hold of. In this condition, tied to the wreck and constantly drenched and almost smothered with breaching seas, we remained six long days and nights, each minute of which was almost an eternity of agony.
The shipwrecked crew marked the days.
We waited, but waited in vain, for a lull in the sea or tempest. The first day we were weak with hunger. The second day, the gnawings of hunger made all other sufferings insignificant in comparison. The third day, our thirst and hunger together held us in tortures but little short of the pains of hell itself. Having no water, we each took a piece of cold lead into our mouths and chewing this kept our mouths moist.
A ship came into view.
On the third day of our suffering a vessel hove in sight and we were all elated with the prospects of relief. . . . [S]peaking to the captain I asked him to send me a boat. The reply was, he could do nothing for us; and leaving us to our fate, we were compelled to see this vessel sail away from us. The fourth day and night passed, and no assistance came.
It was their last hope.
The fifth day came, with it succor—on this day we were hailed by the barque Sylph, Capt. Hellox from Guadalupe, bound to St. Peters, Newfoundland. During the night of the fifth day of our sufferings, the Sylph drifted away from us. I cannot describe our feelings when the next morning dawned, and again showed us nothing within our vision but the tempestuous ocean. Capt. Hellox, however, upon ascertaining that he had lost us, crowded on all the sail his barque could carry and found us after a few hours search. [At] 10 o’clock on the morning of the 28th we were taken from our lashing and taken aboard the Sylph.
Sources: Virginia Chronicle, Daily Express 04/19/1855; North Wales Chronicle (UK) 05/05/1855