The Sinking of the Brig Tyrrel:

The following was taken from Interesting and Authentic Narratives of the Most Remarkable Shipwrecks, by R Thomas, A.M. (1837).


In addition to the many dreadful shipwrecks already narrated, the following, which is a circumstantial account given by T. Purnell, chief mate of the brig Tyrrel, and the only person among the whole crew who had the good fortune to escape, claims our particular attention.

On Saturday, June 28th, 1759, they sailed from new York to Sandy Hook, and came to an anchor, waiting for the captain’s coming down with a new boat, and some other articles. Accordingly he came on board early the succeeding morning, and the boat was cleared, hoisted in, stowed and lashed. At eight o’clock A.M. they weighed anchor, sailed out of Sandy Hook, and the same day, at noon, took their departure from the highland Neversink, and proceeded on their passage to Antigua. As soon as they made sail, the captain ordered the boat to be cast loose, in order that she might be painted with the oars, rudder, and tiller, which job he (the captain) undertook to do himself.

At four P.M. they found the vessel made a little more water than usual; but as it did not cause much additional labor at the pump, nothing was thought of it. At eight, the leak did not seem to increase. At twelve, it began to blow hard in squalls, which caused the vessel to lie down very much, whereby it was apprehended she wanted more ballast. Thereupon the captain came on deck, being the starboard watch; and close-reefed both top-sails.

At four A.M. the weather moderated—let out both reefs. At eight it became still more moderate, and they made more sail, and set the top-gallant sails; the weather was still thick and hazy. There was no further observation taken at present, except that the vessel made more water. The captain was no chiefly employed in the painting of the boat, oars, rudder and tiller.

On Monday, June 30th, at four P.M., the wind was at E.N.E, freshened very much, and blew so very hard as occasioned the brig to lie along in such a manner as caused general alarm. The captain was no earnestly entreated to put for New York, or steer for the capes of Virginia. At eight, took in the top-gallant sail, and close reefed both top-sails, still making more weather. Afterwards the weather became still more moderate and fair, and they made more sail.

July 1st, at four A.M., it began to blow in squalls very hard; took in one reef in each top-sail, and continued so until eight A.M., the weather being still thick and hazy.

The next day she made still more water, but as every watch pumped it out, this was little regarded. At four P.M. took a second reef in each top-sail, close reefed both, and down top-gallant yard; the gale still increasing.

At four A.M. the wind got round to north, and there was no likelihood of its abating. At eight, the captain, well-satisfied that she was very crank and ought to have had more ballast, agreed to make for Bacon Island road, in North Carolina; and in the very act of wearing her, a sudden gust of wind laid her down on the beam ends, and she never rose again! At this time Mr. Purnell was lying in the cabin, with his clothes on, not having pulled them off since they left. Having been rolled out of his bed, (on his chest) with great difficulty he reached the round-house door. The first salutation he met was from the step-ladder that went from the quarter-deck to the poop, which knocked him against the companion; (a lucky circumstance for those below, as, by laying the ladder against the companion, it served both him and the rest of the people who were in the steerage as a conveyance to windward;) having transported the two after guns forward to bring her more by the head, in order to make her hold a better wind; thus they got through the aftermost gun-port on the quarterdeck, and being all on her broadside, every movable rolled to leeward; and as the vessel overset, so did the boat, and turned bottom upwards. Her lashing being cast loose by order of the captain, and having no other prospect of saving their lives but by the boat, Purnell, with two others, and the cabin boy, who were excellent swimmers, plunged into the water, and with great difficulty righted her, when she was brimful and washing with the water’s edge. They then made fast the end of the main-sheet to the ring in her stern-post, and those who were in the fore-chains sent down the end of the boom-tackle, to which they made fast the boat’s painter, and by which they made fast the boat’s painter, and by which they lifted her a little out of the water, so that she swam about two or three inches free, but almost full. They put the cabin boy into her, and gave him a bucket that happened to float by, and he bailed away as quick as he could, and soon after another person got in with another bucket, and in a short time got all the water out of her. They then put two long oars that were stowed in the larboard quarter of the Tyrrel into the boat, and pulled or rowed right to windward; for, as the wreck drifted, she made a dreadful appearance in the water; and Mr. Purnell and two fo the people put off from the wreck, in search of the oars, rudder and tiller. After a long while they succeeded in picking them all up, one after another. They then returned to their wretched companions, who were all overjoyed to see them, having given them up for lost.

By this time night drew on very fast. While they were rowing in the boat, some small quantity of white biscuit (Mr. Purnell supposed about half a peck) floated in a small cask out of the round-house; but before it came to hand, it was so soaked with salt water that it was almost in fluid state; and about double the quantity of common ship-biscuit likewise floated which was in a manner soaked. This was all the provisions that they had; not a drop of fresh water could they get; neither could the carpenter get at any of the tools to scuttle her sides, for, could this have been accomplished, they might have saved plenty of provisions and water.

By this time it was almost dark. Having got one compass, it was determined to quit the wreck, and take their chances in the boat, which was nineteen feet six inches long, and six feet four inches broad. Mr. Purnell supposes it was now about nine o’clock; it was very dark. They had run three hundred and sixty miles by their dread reckoning, on a S.E. by E. course. The number in the boat was seventeen in all; the boat was very deep, and little hopes were entertained of either seeing land or surviving long. The wind got round to westward, which was the course they wanted to steer; but it began to blow and rain very hard, that they were obliged to keep the boat before the wind and sea in order to preserve her above water. Soon after they had put off form the wreck the boat shipped tow heavy seas, one after another, so that they felt obliged to keep her before the wind and sea; for had she shipped with another sea, she certainly would have swamped with them.

By sunrise the next morning July 3rd they judged that they had been running E.S.E., which was contrary to their wishes. The wind dying away, the weather became very moderate. The compass which they had saved proved of no utility one of the people having trod upon and broken it; it was accordingly thrown overboard. They now proposed to make a sail of frocks and trousers, but they had got neither needles nor sewing twine: one of the people however had a needle in his knife, and another several fishing lines in his pockets, which were unlaid by some, and others were employed in ripping the frocks and trousers. By sunset they had provided a tolerable lugsail; having split one of the boat’s thwarts (which was of yellow deal) with a very large knife which one of the crew had in his pocket, they made a yard and lashed it together by the strands of the fore-top gallant halliards that were thrown into the boat promiscuously. They also made a mast of one of the long oars and set their sails with sheets and tacks made out of the strands of the top gallant halliards. Their only guide was the North Star. They had a tolerably good breeze all night and the whole of the next day, July 4th, the weather continued very moderate, and the people were in good spirits as their dreadful situation would permit.

July 5th, the wind and weather continued much the same, and they knew by the North Star that they were standing in for land. The next day Mr. Purnell observed some of the men drinking salt water, and seemingly rather fatigued. At this time they imagined the wind had got round to the southward, and they steered, as they thought, by the North Star, to the north-west quarter; but on the 7th, the wind had got back to the northward and blew very fresh. They got their oars out the greatest part of the night; and the next day, the wind still dying away, the people labored alternately at the oars, without distinction. About noon the wind sprung up so that they lay on their oars, and, as they thought, steered about N.N.W., and continued so until about eight or nine o’clock in the morning of July 9th, when they all thought they were upon soundings, by the coldness of the water. They were in general in very good spirits. The weather continued still thick and hazy, and by the North Star they found that they had been steering about North by West.

July 10.—the people had drank so much salt water, that it came from them as clear as it was before they drank it; and Mr. Purnell perceived that the second mate had lost a considerable share of his strength and spirits; and also, at noon, that the carpenter was delirious, had malady increasing every hour; about dusk he had almost overset the boat, by attempting to throw himself overboard, and otherwise behaving quite violently. As his strength, however, failed him, he became more manageable, and they got him to lie down in the middle of the boat, among some of the people. Mr. Purnell drank once a little salt water, but could not relish it; he preferred his own urine, which he drank occasionally as he made it. Soon after sunset the second mate lost his speech. Mr. Purnell desired him to lean his head on him; he died, without a groan or struggle, on the 11th of July, being the ninth day they were in the boat. In a few minutes after, the carpenter expired, almost in similar manner. These melancholy scenes rendered the situation of the survivors more dreadful; it is impossible to describe their feelings. Despair became general; every man imagined his own dissolution was near. The all now went to prayers; some in the Welch language, some in Irish, and others in English; then, after a little deliberation, they stripped the two dead men and hove them overboard.

The weather being now very mild, and almost calm, they turned to, cleaned the boat, and resolved to make their sail larger out of the frocks and trousers of the two deceased men. Purnell got the captain to lie down with the rest of the people, the boatswain and one man excepted, who assisted him in making the sail larger, which they had completed by six or seven o’clock in the afternoon, having made a shroud out of the boat’s painter, which served as a shifting back-stay. Purnell also fixed his red flannel waistcoat at the mast head, as a signal the most likely to be seen.

Soon after this some of them observed a sloop at a great distance, coming as they thought, from the land. This roused every man’s spirits; they got out of their oars, at which they labored alternately, exerting all their remaining strength to come up with her; but night coming on, and the sloop getting a fresh breeze of wind, they lost sight of her, which occasioned a general consternation; however, the appearance of the North Star, which they kept to their starboard bow, gave them hopes that they stood in for land. This night one William Wathing died; he was sixty-four years of age, and had been to sea fifty years; quite worn out with fatigue and hunger, he earnestly prayed, to the last moment, for a drop of water to cool his tongue. Early the next morning Hugh Williams also died, and in the course of the day, another of the crew; entirely exhausted, they both expired without a groan.

Early in the morning of July 13th, it began to blow very fresh, and increased so much that they were obliged to furl their sail, and keep their boat before the wind and sea, which drove them off soundings. In the evening their gunner died. The weather now becoming moderate, and the wind in the south-west quarter, they made sail, not one of them being able to row or pull an oar at any rate; they ran all this night with a fine breeze.

The next morning, July 14th, two more of the crew died, and in the evening they also lost the same number. They found they were on soundings again, and concluded the wind had got round to the north-west quarter. They stood in for the land all this night, and early on July 15th, two others died; the decreased were thrown overboard as soon as their breath had departed. The weather was now thick and hazy, and they were still certain that they were on soundings.

The cabin boy was seldom required to do anything, and as his intellects at this time were very good, and his understanding clear, it was the opinion of Mr. Purnell that he would survive them all, but he prudently kept his thoughts to himself. The captain seemed likewise tolerably well, and to have kept up his spirits. On account of the haziness of the weather, they could not so well know how they steered in the day-time, as at night; for, whenever the North Star appeared, they endeavored to keep it on their starboard bow, by which means they were certain of making the land some time or another. In the evening two more of the crew died; also, before sunrise, one Thomas Pilpot, an old, experience seaman, and very strong; he departed rather convulsed; having latterly lost the power of articulation, his meaning could not be comprehended. He was a native of Belfast, Ireland, and had no family. The survivors found it very difficult to heave his body overboard, as he was a very corpulent man.

About six or seven the next morning, July 16th, they stood in for land, according to the best of their judgment; the weather still thick and hazy. Purnell now prevailed upon the captain and the boatswain of the boat to lie down in the fore part of the boat, to bring her more by the head, in order to make her hold a better wind. In the evening the cabin boy, who lately appeared so well, breathed his last, leaving behind the captain, the boatswain, and Mr. Purnell.

The next morning, July 17th, Purnell asked his two companions if they thought they could eat any of the boy’s flesh; and having expressed an inclination to try, and the boy being quite cold, he cut the inside of his thigh, a little above his knee, and gave a piece to the captain and boatswain, reserving a small piece for himself; but so weak were their stomachs that none of them could swallow a morsel of it; the body was therefore thrown overboard.

Early in the morning of the 18th, Mr. Purnell found both of his companions dead and cold! Thus destitute, he began to think of his own dissolution; though feeble, his understanding was still clear, and his spirits as good as his forlorn situation would possibly admit. By the color and coldness of the water, he knew he was not far from land, and still maintained hopes of making it. The weather continued very foggy. He lay to all this night, which was very dark, which the boat’s head to the northward.

In the morning of the 19th it began to rain; it cleared up in the afternoon, and the wind died away; still Purnell was convinced he was on soundings.

On the 20th, in the afternoon, he thought he saw land, and stood in for it; but night coming on, and it being now very dark, he lay to, fearing he might get on some rocks or shoals.

July 21st, the weather was very find all the mornings, but in the afternoon it became thick and hazy. Purnell’s spirits still remained good, but his strength was almost exhausted; he still drank his own water occasionally.

On the 22nd, he saw some barnacles on the boat’s rudder, very similar to the spawn of an oyster, which filled him with great hopes of being near to land. He undershipped the rudder, and scraping them off with his knife, found they were of a salt fishy substance, and eat them; he was now so weak, and the boat having a great motion, that he found it a difficult task to ship the rudder.

At sunrise, July 23rd, he became so sure that he saw land, that his spirits were considerably raised. In the middle of thet day he got up, leaned his back against the mast, and received succor from the sun, having previously contrived to steer the boat in this position. The next day he saw, at a very great distance, some kind of a sail, which he judged was coming from the land, which he soon lost sight of. In the middle of the day he got up, and received warmth from the sun as before. He stood on all night for the land.

Very early in the morning of the 25th, after drinking his morning draught, to his inexpressible joy, he saw, while the sun was rising, a sail, and when the sun was up, found she was a two-mast vessel. He was, however, considerably perplexed, not knowing what to do, as she was a great distance astern and to the leeward. In order to watch her motion better, he tacked about. Soon after this he perceived she was standing on her starboard tack, which was the same he had been standing on for many hours. He saw she approached him very fast, and he lay to, for some time, till be believed she was within two miles of the boat, but still to leeward; therefore he thought it best to steer larger, when he found she was a topsail schooner, nearing him very fast. He continued to edge down towards her, until he had brought her about two points under his lee-bow, having it in his power to spring his luff, or bear away. But this time she was within half a mile, and he saw some of the people standing forward on her deck, and waving for him to come under their lee-bow. At the distance of about two hundred yards, they hove the schooner up in the wind, and kept her so until Purnell got alongside, when they threw him a rope, still keeping the schooner in the wind. They now interrogated him very closely; but the manner of the boat and oars were painted, they imagined she belonged to a man-of-war, and that they had run away with her from some of his majesty’s ships at Halifax, consequently that they would be liable to some punishment if they took him up; they also thought, as the captain and boatswain were lying dead in the boat, they might expose themselves to some contagious disorder. Thus they kept Purnell in suspense for some time. They told him they had made the land that morning from the mast-head, and that they were running along shore for Marblehead, to which place they belonged, and were they expected to be the next morning. At last they told him he might come on board; which, as he said, he could not do without assistance; when the captain ordered two of his men to help him. They conducted him aft on the quarter-deck, where they left him resting against the companion. They were now for casting the boat adrift, when Purnell told them she was not above a month old, built at New York, and if they would hoist her in, it would pay them well for their trouble. To this they agreed, and having thrown the two corpses overboard, and taken out the clothes that were left by the deceased, they hoisted her in and made sail.

Being now on board, Purnell asked for a little water; captain Castleman (for that was his name) ordered one of his sons (having two on board) to fetch him some; when he came with the water, his father looked to see how much he was bringing him, and thinking it too much, threw a part of it away, and desired him to give the remainder, which he drank, being the first fresh water he had tasted for twenty-three days. As he leaned after this time against his companion, he became very cold, and begged to go below; the captain ordered two men to help him down to the cabin, where they left him sitting on the cabin desk, leaning upon the lockers, all hands being now engaged in hoisting in the securing the boat. This done, all hands went down to breakfast, except the man at the helm. They made some soup for Purnell, which he thought very good, but at that time could eat but very little, and in consequences of his late draughts, he had broken out in many parts of his body, so that he was in great pain wherever he stirred. They made a bed for him out of an old sail, and behaved very attentive. While they were at breakfast a squall of wind came on, which called them upon deck; during their absence, Purnell took up a stone bottle, and without smelling or tasting it, but thinking it was rum, took a hearty draught of it, and found it to be sweet oil; having placed it where he found it, he lay down.

They still ran along shore with the land in sight, and were in great hopes of getting into port that night, but the wind dying away, they did not get in till nine o’clock the next night. All this time Purnell remained like a child; some one or another was always with him, to give him whatever he wished to eat or drink.

As soon as they came to anchor, captain Castleman went on shore, and returned on board the next morning, with the owner, John Picket, Esq. Soon after, they got Purnell into a boat and carried him on shore; but he was still so very feeble, that he was obliged to be supported by two men. Mr. Pickett took a very genteel lodging for him, and hired a nurse to attend him; he was immediately put to bed, and afterwards provided with a change of clothes. In the course of the day he was visited by every doctor in the town, who all gave him hopes of recovering; but told him it would be some time; for the stronger the constitution, (said they) the longer it takes to recover its lost strength. Though treated with the utmost tenderness and humanity, it was three weeks before he was able to come down the stairs. He stayed in Marblehead two months, during which he lived very comfortably, and gradually recovered his strength. The brig’s boat and oars were sold for ninety-five dollars, which paid for all this expenses, and procured him a passage to Boston. The nails of his fingers and toes withered away to almost nothing, and did not begin to grow for many months after.



Built:  Sunk: July 3, 1759
Type of Vessel:  Owner: 
Builder:  Power:
Port of registry: Dimensions:
Previous Names:  Lost Crew: 


Here is the location of the sinking: Somewhere off Cape Hatteras


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