Shipwrecks, Seals, Brotherhood and Betrayal: Eric Jay Dolin’s New Book Has It All

by Emma Blankenship
Author Eric Jay Dolin holding his book “A Tale of Life and Death” following his book talk at Eldredge Public Library.  EMMA BLANKENSHIP PHOTO Author Eric Jay Dolin holding his book “A Tale of Life and Death” following his book talk at Eldredge Public Library. EMMA BLANKENSHIP PHOTO

CHATHAM – As the summer season kicks into full swing, attention turns to the ocean, blue, refreshing, enriching and beautiful. However, this magnificent force of nature has another side that doesn’t include beach balls and inner tubes. Massive ship-swallowing swells, sharp rocks hidden in the froth, and dangerous wildlife are among the treacherous obstacles that await seafarers, and which have caused the misfortune of many.

Author Eric Jay Dolin shares the tumultuous tale of three ships connected by the strings of fate, jostled by the untamable ocean, in his 16th book, “Left for Dead: Shipwreck, Treachery, and Survival at the End of the World,” which he discussed at Eldredge Public Library last Friday.

Dolin, a Marblehead resident, recounts the true story of an American sealing expedition, a British Brig, and a British warship, all converging in the Falkland Islands, an encounter which left five men stranded on a barren island for over a year. Set in the midst of the War of 1812, “Left for Dead” sheds light on a little-known yet infinitely fascinating tale of survival.

In an excerpt from his book, Dolin shared that this story is “A tale of intriguing complexity, with surprising twists and turns throughout — involving greed, lying, bullying, a hostile takeover, stellar leadership, ingenuity, severe privation, endurance, banishment, the great value of a dog.” There’s more, including a wrought legal battle and a thrilling voyage in a 17-foot boat.

Despite being a rich and engaging narrative, the tale of tragedy, ingenuity and survival was largely lost to time as even the castaways themselves faded into obscurity before death. It was this lack of popularity that attracted Dolin, who shares how, after finishing his last book, he was searching for a new research topic when he stumbled upon an annotated collection of shipwrecks between the years of 1580 and 1860.

As he was flipping through this collection of wrecks, Dolin found himself saying, “I know that one, I know that one,” recognizing the tales told in books that have inspired him throughout the years, until he fell upon the tale of Captain Charles Bernard. While there was a reasonably substantial amount of information available about the wreck, including a personal written account by one of the survivors, nobody had written about this unique story, until now.

“How many books do we have about Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, the Civil War?” mused Dolin. “We tend to, as people, readers, and writers, to go to the well again… People like to write about famous people or famous events, and I realize this isn’t a famous event and none of these people did anything particularly famous.”

This decision to portray a lesser-known story was a conscious choice on Dolin’s part, who decided that with “Left for Dead” he was not going to take “‘The Great Man’ route,” as he calls it, but rather present a new piece of history.

Offering a riveting glimpse into a little-known tale, Dolan incorporates components of history, legal studies, and naturalism to emphasize the brawn of these men and highlight the strength of the human spirit. For those who feel a tale of strife and anguish following a shipwreck may be too much for them to bear, Dolin can offer you some assurance with one minor spoiler: the dog survives!