The War of Jenkin's Ear (1739-1748) has long slipped beyond the horizon of popular imagination and into the study carrels of aspiring historians, but at the time it was a flex for the Spanish and British empires as they expanded influence and filled coffers. In his enthralling, seamlessly crafted "The Wager," David Grann re-creates an all-but-forgotten episode from that conflict: the calamitous voyage and shipwreck of HMS Wager off the coast of Chile, and the survivors' fraught treks home. This is the stuff that sea shanties and sailor yarns are made of.

As the two countries mustered arms, the Crown dispatched Commodore George Anson and a small armada on a side mission: to vanquish a Spanish galleon laden with treasure. A lesser vessel, the Wager was captained by the egomaniacal David Cheap, Anson's protégé, determined to prove his mettle. Among the hundreds of men onboard were John Bulkeley, a robust, charismatic gunner; and teenaged John Byron, an aristocratic midshipman and grandfather of the future poet. (Grann draws heavily from their journals.)

Social hierarchies didn't stop at water's edge, but rather applied to the "wooden world" as the ships tacked across the Atlantic.

Anson's armada floundered while rounding Cape Horn, battered by punishing gales and towering waves. Scurvy and other plagues whittled their ranks. The Wager fell behind, buffeted by an onslaught of poor weather until it sank near a desolate Patagonian island.

Grann evokes the moment in a flurry of kinetic clauses: "The bowsprit cleaved, windows burst, treenails popped, planks shattered, cabins collapsed, decks caved in. Water flooded the lower portions of the ship, snaking from chamber to chamber, filling nooks and crannies."

The crew scrambled to shore. For months they scavenged for food, grappled with madness and theft, quarreled incessantly, buried their dead. The taboo of cannibalism crept closer. Anger mounted, as did whispers of the word "mutiny." Cheap and Bulkeley sparred as Lt. Bligh and Fletcher Christian would 50 years later.

After a sudden murder, Bulkeley and most of the men departed on a longboat, headed back to the Straits of Magellan and then on to Brazil, abandoning Cheap, Byron and a few loyalists. Grann's admiration for the gunner's bravery and smarts shines throughout "The Wager," as he observes of Bulkeley's logbook: "The account was something striking in English letters ... packed with more narrative and personal detail than a traditional logbook, and the story was told in a bracing new voice — that of a hard-nosed seaman. In contrast to the often flowery and convoluted prose of the time, it was written in a crisp style that reflected Bulkeley's personality, and was, in many ways, distinctly modern."

After horrific setbacks and losses, the castaways reached Brazil, where they recuperated, eventually journeying back to England.

Cheap and Byron took a more circuitous route to London, joining Bulkeley and others in a court martial, a clash of tales ginned up by a tabloid press, the hangman's noose a distinct possibility. The outcome was shocking. It's a testament to Grann's formidable skills that the denouement contains the book's weightiest revelations about the motivations of empires, the needless sacrifice of men's lives, and the atrocities of colonialism and racism.

He delicately teases out class censures, gentlemen arrayed against commoners conscripted ("pressed") into service, "another ignoble chapter in the long, grim history of nations sending their troops off on ill-conceived, poorly funded, bungled military adventures."

"The Wager," then, is an accomplishment as vividly realized and ingeniously constructed as Grann's previous work, on par with Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" and Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm." Welcome a classic.

Hamilton Cain reviews for the Star Tribune, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post and Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

By: David Grann.

Publisher: Doubleday, 352 pages, $30.