Saturday, December 31, 2005


Shipwreck survivors' tale tops list of best outdoors books


The Mercury News
By Lew Freedman
December 28, 2005

CHICAGO - Those who lived defied the most extreme odds. Those who survived had a story to tell that almost no one believed.

The American sailing ship Commerce shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815, but the crew did not drown. Instead the men were captured and enslaved, suffered from dehydration and starvation and had their clothing reduced to tatters. It was a tribute to resourcefulness that they did not all disappear into the shifting sands of what we now call the Sahara Desert.

Their remarkable survival story is told in great detail and with considerable drama in the book "Skeletons on the Zahara," by Dean King and is the best outdoors or adventure book I read in 2005.

Under the command of Capt. John Riley, 37, of Middletown, Conn., whose leadership extended from ship to shore and whose creativity greatly enhanced the chances of the 14 men returning home, the crew of the 220-ton, 86-foot-long Commerce endured much.

The boat wrecked by cliffs near the Western Sahara in the then-empire of Morocco.

"What they looked out on, in 1815," King wrote, "had never been scientifically explored and was almost too mind-boggling to imagine. They faced the edge of the world's largest desert."

That was the beginning. At the end of a voyage that started in May and the rigors of captivity that concluded in November, Riley's weight had dropped from 240 pounds to 90. The privations that link the two numbers are part of a gripping narrative King has penned.


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