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Storm and Tempest at Sea

All over the Seven Seas there are regions, well known to seamen, where bad weather may generally be expected, though storms are not confined to these regions. The sailor of to-day, however, is more fortunate than his predecessors, since he is generally warned of an approaching storm and is thus able to take precautions against it

WRECKED ON THE COAST OF NEW SOUTH WALES, the Pappinbarra was left at the mercy of heavy seas near Port Stephens

WRECKED ON THE COAST OF NEW SOUTH WALES, the Pappinbarra was left at the mercy of heavy seas near Port Stephens. A member of the crew was able to get ashore with a life-line, and the entire ship’s company was saved, in such circumstances as these, wireless is a valuable and speedy means of summoning assistance.

THE sailor no longer regards storms with superstitious awe as the ancients did. He knows that he is better equipped to withstand them than were his predecessors in sail.

The Meteorological Departments of the various maritime nations do work of the utmost value to the sailor. For the purpose of observation the Beaufort Scales give thirteen figures for judging the velocity of the wind and ten for the disturbance of the sea. These scales are used all the world over and is of the greatest service.

The scale ranges from the figure 0 for a calm, when the wind is one mile an hour or less, to 12, which represents a hurricane, anything above sixty-five miles an hour, in which a sailing ship could not hope to do more than run dead before the wind and sea with bare poles. The scale is shown in the table below.


Beaufort Scale Number : Limits of Velocity (in Knots) : Description

0 : 0-1 : Calm

1 : 1-3 : Light air

2 : 4-6 : Light breeze

3 : 7-10 : Gentle breeze

4 : 11-16 : Moderate breeze

5 : 17-21 : Fresh breeze

6 : 22-27 : Strong breeze

7 : 28-33 : Moderate gale

8 : 34-40 : Fresh gale

9 : 41-47 : Strong gale

10 : 48-55 : Whole gale

11 : 56-65 : Storm

12 : Over 65 : Hurricane

All wind is caused by the rush of air to fill up an area of low pressure. The barometer indicates the existence of an area of low pressure, but to forecast the worst storms something more is needed. Storm charts, therefore, are prepared on a basis of previous experience, and from these the careful captain can get at least a warning of the areas to avoid. In addition, the various meteorological bodies send out warnings based on telegraphic and wireless reports from observers over a large area. Certain ships’ officers take to this voluntary work with great enthusiasm and prove most valuable. By the collation of these reports it is possible to make the reliable prophecy which can be sent out by wireless.

All over the Seven Seas there are regions where bad weather is expected as a rule. Generally these areas are influenced more by the configuration of the land than by the sea. Most prominent capes are the breeding areas of heavy storms, each with its own characteristics. Cape Horn, for instance, is almost synonymous with bad weather and tremendous seas which, although they are big, are of considerable length. Cape Horn, therefore, is scarcely dreaded as much as the Cape of Good Hope, once called the Cape of Storms, where the Agulhas Current, running against the wind, can raise a colossal sea which is particularly dangerous because it is so steep and hollow.

On the North American coast, Cape Hatteras has the reputation of constant bad weather, worst in the hurricane season, and in Australian waters Cape Leeuwin is somewhat similar. The Gulf of Lions, in the Western Mediterranean, and the Bay of Biscay are two other areas in which the wise sailor takes care that everything is secure. On the Great Lakes of America there are often terrible storms, for fresh water rises much more rapidly than salt water in a short, steep sea, which is dangerous to ships.

Great gales in the temperate zones are apt to last longer, and affect a greater area than the violent circular storms of the tropics. Some of these gales have left their mark on history. The Great Gale of 1703 is reputed to be the worst that has ever visited the British Isles. It occurred towards the end of November 1703, and started on a Wednesday. The morning was fine, but at about four o’clock in the afternoon the wind began to rise and all night it increased in strength, a good deal of damage being done to the buildings in London. On Thursday there was a lull, but on Friday the storm got stronger and stronger until on Saturday, November 27, nearly the whole of England was shaken by the terrific hurricane. In the Pool of London, where the shipping of the port was then concentrated to a much greater extent than it is now, only four vessels out of hundreds remained afloat. All down the London River the story was the same, and when it came to reckoning up the damage the greatest impression was made by the comparative safety of the ships in the Howland Great Dock, the first of London’s wet docks and now the Greenland Dock in the Surrey Commercial system.

Among the victims was Henry Winstanley, an ingenious but eccentric mercer who was the first man to have the patriotism to erect a lighthouse on the Eddystone Rocks. That was in 1698. By a strange chance he was in the lighthouse during the Great Gale. After the storm there was not a trace of his work left, and he and all his hands were drowned.

During the second half of the nineteenth century the Atlantic was visited by a number of memorable gales. In August 1873 a great hurricane which affected the larger part of the North Atlantic damaged or wrecked over 1,000 vessels of all kinds, including a number of Grand Banks schooners. In October 1881 a single gale caused well over a hundred wrecks in British waters, and in the Atlantic gale of February 1885 seven well-found steamers went down, five of them without a trace. In 1893 a five-days’ gale in the Atlantic accounted for a number of big ships, including the brand new White Star liner Naronic. The year 1899 was particularly bad and during the tremendous westerly gale which ravaged the Atlantic from January 20 to February 13. Lloyd’s piled up the longest overdue list in its history. It included twenty sailing ships and six steamers, on which reinsurance was being paid. When the final settlement was made it was found that no fewer than thirty-one ships had been lost, although the Caledonie arrived safely in port when eighty guineas per cent was being paid for her reinsurance. Thus she made a good profit for the underwriters who had been willing to take the risk.

Cyclones, Typhoons and Tornadoes

Most dangerous, and probably among the most impressive demonstrations in Nature, are the revolving storms of the tropics, given various names according to their locality. They are generally of limited area, roughly circular, and revolve spirally with the greatest violence round an area of extremely low barometric pressure. The general name for such storms is cyclone, and they are called that in the Indian Ocean. In China, however, they are referred to as typhoons, on the West African coast and in America as tornadoes, and in the West Indies as hurricanes. They are the storms which are dreaded most by every sailor, even in well-found steamers or men-of-war. Although in the centre there .is what is known as the eye of the storm, a calm patch as far as wind is concerned, it is a place of terrific seas dashing in all directions, and even a big ship finding her way there is liable to be overwhelmed.

If a ship is caught by such a storm in narrow waters, on a lee shore or even in port, she has less chance of surviving than one caught in the open sea with plenty of room to move. Some of the greatest disasters, involving most loss of life, have been in port, and every well-run Eastern harbour has its own programme of precautions to be taken in the event of a typhoon or cyclone.

In the Indian Ocean a cyclone is a great trouble, particularly at the beginning or end of the monsoons, when it is a contest between the trade wind force and the monsoon force, before either of them obtains a complete ascendancy. February and March are the worst months, but October and November run them close. These cyclones do an immense amount of damage. The neighbourhood of Mauritius is a particularly bad area, but the Bay of Bengal is not much better.

Perhaps the best remembered was the cyclone at Calcutta in October 1864, when an immense amount of damage was done in a short time. The wind was of tremendous strength and in addition the flood tide turned the River Hooghly into a torrent. It was in one of the boom periods of the Indian trade, and the Calcutta Harbour was crowded with shipping. There were about 200 sea-going ships of various sizes, including some of the finest of the Blackwall frigates of that day, in addition to smaller vessels and all the native craft which are always found in an Eastern port. Out of all these vessels scarcely half a dozen kept their moorings or anchorage. On October 4 there was a strong north-easterly gale with heavy rain, but next morning things were much worse, and the wind steadily increased from the east. By two o’clock in the afternoon it was blowing in hurricane force, and the barometer had dropped to 28.27. An hour later it was 28.10. At half-past three the wind veered towards the south, and at four o’clock occasional lulls were noticed, while the barometer rose rapidly. At six o’clock the cyclone was all over.

AFTER THE CYCLONE OF 1864 Calcutta Harbour was a mass of wreckage

AFTER THE CYCLONE OF 1864 Calcutta Harbour was a mass of wreckage. Over 200 sea-going ships were anchored in the harbour, and scarcely half a dozen kept their moorings or anchorage. During this cyclone the sailing ship Ally capsized and 300 coolies were drowned in her holds.

The Port of Calcutta had been virtually demolished during those few hours, and at first it appeared hopeless to expect to get any salvage out of the wreck, although a number of ships was afterwards saved. The P. and O. steamers Nubia, Hindostan, Nemesis and Bengal were all driven ashore and damaged, but all were recovered. The American barque North Atlantic, a magnificent vessel which had attracted great admiration the day before the cyclone, had foundered, and across her poop the steamer Thunder was wrecked. On the western bank of the river fine ships were lying in heaps, their bottoms ripped out by being driven over the shore and their sides stove in by collision with equally unfortunate vessels. Three hundred coolies were drowned in the holds of the “country” sailing ship Ally when she capsized.

Large areas of the Pacific are also subject to terrific hurricanes. The Samoan hurricane of 1889, from which H.M.S. Calliope managed to escape, is the one which most often comes to mind. The Calliope was one of the earliest protected cruisers in the Navy and one of the last to be fully rigged. American and German interests were at loggerheads over Samoa and had each sent three men-of-war to Apia Bay. There was ample warning of a blow of unusual severity, but neither the Germans nor the Americans would move their ships into the open sea in the presence of the others, and the Calliope, which might easily have gone out without loss of prestige, was misled by the too optimistic views of a resident who should have known better.

Three Ships in Collision

So the cramped, bottle-neck harbour of Apia was crowded with seven ships of war in addition to merchantmen, and at midnight on March 15 it began to blow a full gale. When morning broke the harbour was a sad spectacle. The German Olga and Adler and the American Nipsic had all been in collision with one another and had suffered a good deal of damage. The German Eber had the misfortune to get her propeller damaged at the beginning of the trouble and, being unable to steam ahead and relieve her cables, she had dragged her anchors and been wrecked on the reef, sliding ofi it into deep water with the loss of all but four of her crew.

Near by the Calliope, Olga and Vandalia were rolling their nettings under in uncomfortable proximity and were repeatedly grinding against one another. Captain Kane, although he had only a single screw ship of poor power, determined that he would try to get out at all costs, although he fully realized the risk that he was running. With the engineers backing him magnificently, he drove her to the limit of her power, but in two hours she had made only half a mile of progress. Ahead of her was the U.S. flagship Trenton, unmanageable, with a smashed rudder, and rolling right in the middle of the fairway with only a few yards between her and the reef.

Through this narrow passage the Calliope had to go. With the mountainous seas throwing her ofi her course every moment she crept forward. The crew of the Trenton knew perfectly well that they were doomed, but, with magnificent spirit, they cheered the little Calliope fighting her way past them against such odds.

WASHED ASHORE BY THE CALCUTTA CYCLONE of 1864, the steamer Thunder was one of nearly 200 ships damaged or wrecked

WASHED ASHORE BY THE CALCUTTA CYCLONE of 1864, the steamer Thunder was but one of nearly 200 ships that were severely damaged or completely wrecked. This calamity led the Calcutta port authorities to take precautionary measures which are still in force.

Finally, after a terrific struggle, the little ship made her offing, and two days later, when the hurricane had blown itself out, she returned to Apia. The Olga and the Trenton, which had much more powerful engines than she, had met with disaster, the Olga being thrown on to the beach and the Trenton sunk. The Vandalia had also come to grief and of the whole squadron the Calliope was the only ship to survive. Some years before the war of 1914-18 she was converted into an R.N.V.R. drill ship on the River Tyne, where she may still be seen. She was renamed when a new Calliope was built, but when that vessel went to the scrappers her name was returned to the original Calliope, although to the Navy she will always be the “Hurricane Jumper”.

The China Seas are famous for their typhoons, also called white squalls. The season is virtually confined to September and October, but trouble is always expected and from time to time typhoons have done enormous damage to the shipping, naval as well as mercantile, in Hong Kong.

Tornadoes are experienced on the West African coast and in America. A tornado, a whirlwind with a straight course, is terribly destructive, although the weather is often quite calm within half a mile on either side of the vortex.

The West Indies and Gulf of Mexico are periodically devastated by hurricanes, whirlwinds moving along a curved track, and August and September are the worst months for these. When the destructive force of the hurricane is assisted by the geographical configuration of the land anything may happen, as the city of Galveston (Texas) has experienced on more than one occasion. The most memorable was on September 8, 1900, when, with little warning, a terrific hurricane carrying with it a tidal wave, burst on the town and its neighbourhood. The entire town, which was built only a few feet above normal sea-level, was wiped out with terrible loss of life. Its reconstruction, lifting it some feet higher, is one of the greatest feats of modern engineering.

In this hurricane the British steamer Taunton was driven no fewer than thirty miles inland. In another hurricane in the same area in August 1915 the British steamer Wallace finally came to rest a third of a mile from the sea, and the Ribston was not only three-quarters of a mile inland, but was also lying directly across a railway track.

Tidal waves which do damage of this sort are experienced only close to shore, but the mighty waves of mid-ocean can be dangerous enough. They are principally raised by the wind and run with it, but currents have their influence and the wind can change its direction much more quickly than can the sea. Before the sea can alter its course there is the probability of cross seas which can be extremely uncomfortable.

When the wind which has raised the sea drops, the waves take some time to follow suit, but the top-heavy heads curl over much more than when they are being driven by the wind. After a short period of this condition a heavy swell replaces the sea and finally comes calm. If the wind suddenly increases again, before the sea has had time to go down completely, it will tear off the wave-tops and carry them along in the form of white spindrift.

The length of a wave — the distance from crest to crest — and its height are difficult to measure and generally give the observer, especially the landsman, a greatly exaggerated idea. Apart from gigantic waves caused by earthquakes, most authorities limit the height of waves to 50 feet, or at the most 70 feet. It is when they meet an obstruction that their real size and power can be appreciated.

The sailor of to-day is much better fitted than his predecessors to meet the storm at sea. Surprisingly large numbers of small ships are equipped with wireless apparatus, although it is not compulsory for ships of fewer than 1,600 tons gross to be so fitted. Broadcast gale warnings and official weather reports are issued by coastal stations throughout the world, and storms are deprived of the element of surprise-one of their greatest dangers.

The American ship Bessemer City was wrecked in November 1936

BROKEN IN TWO ON THE ROCKS on the Cornwall coast, the American ship Bessemer City was wrecked in November 1936. Her crew of 33 was rescued by the St. Ives lifeboat. Built in 1920, the Bessemer City had a gross tonnage of 5,686, a length of 441 ft. 8 in., a beam of 56 feet and a depth of 30 feet. Her radio was put out of action when she struck the rocks, but a local farmer warned the lifeboat station.

You can read more on “The Drama of Life Saving”, “Heroism and Disaster at Sea” and “The Ship That Broke Her Back” on this website.