Historical Tragedies At Sea

By Tom Neale, 8/6/2013


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News stories of poor judgment and carelessness in the operation of boats seem to grow worse by the year. But this isn't a recent phenomenon. Here are 2 stories about colossal mistakes at sea, and in the second, even depravity.

Camperdown and Victoria, artist redition
Camperdown and Victoria, artist redition.

In 1893 England did indeed rule the waves. Her naval might and accomplishments were legendary. So why did a very successful and respected admiral try to show off and convince spectators on a foreign shore of his supremacy? He hardly needed to, but he did ... or at least, tried.

Eleven huge battleships steamed in formation in the Mediterranean off Tripoli. The fleet's commander, Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon KCB enjoyed fame, admiration and immense prestige. He was known for, among other accomplishments, executing well planned and precise ship movements, helpful in battle as well as public relations. As people lined the shore in awe of the huge fleet, he planned a grand show of naval skill to suitably impress them. He ordered that the fleet steam in two lines, approximately 1200 yards apart, reverse course by turning toward each other and then change course again to make for their intended anchorage. He gave specific orders as to distance apart, time and degrees of the turns. He was reminded by an officer that the turning circle of the battleships was at least 600 yards, while that of his flagship, HMS "Victoria," was greater, at around 800 yards. Do the math. He was ordering a collision. At one point he is reported to have said he'd widen the gap between the lines, but that change wasn't signaled and he was informed that his original plan was signaled.

Of course, the "Victoria" led the first division. The second division was lead by the HMS "Camperdown," the massive flagship of a Rear Admiral. To put it simply, these were all "BIG SHIPS." This single fleet was perhaps capable of defeating any other entire navy in the world. The captains obeyed the order, although apparently all were wondering just how this was going to work. One supposes they assumed that the Vice Admiral knew what he was doing, despite the certainty of the math.

The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault
The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault.

As the inevitable began to appear even more obvious, orders were shouted to stop the calamity. These included course changes, backing down and more. But these were two huge ships of unbelievable momentum, hell bent on going where they had been directed. That's what they were built to do.

As all watched, The "Camperdown" crashed into the starboard side of the "Victoria," aft the bow just forward of the turret for the huge 111 ton guns. It didn't help that the "Camperdown's" design included a ram at her bow. The impact pushed the "Victoria" around 70 feet to port. For a few brief moments all may have seemed surrealistically stable as the "Camperdown" sat there, impaled in the "Victoria." But then the "Camperdown" reversed and wrenched herself free from the gaping hole in the fleet's flagship. The "Victoria," modern for her times, had watertight bulkheads, but these didn't stop the flooding waters. It didn't help that the Vice Admiral, perhaps thinking he could beach the ship, had the engines continue in forward, driving the bow down and forcing more water into the breach. She rolled suddenly to starboard and plunged down, her screws still turning. The water was around 80 fathoms deep there. Men jumped, many didn't make it. Some were mangled by the screws as they frantically jumped over the stern. In 2004 two divers reported that she was still intact, with her bow and about a quarter of her length planted in the mud, essentially vertical. Vice Admiral Tryon went down with the ship.

This was a story of folly where a seaman who had earned a lifetime of respect and of knowing what he was doing, made an incredible mistake. Next is a story of someone who went to sea who didn't know what he was doing and didn't care about those to whom he did it.

Raft of Meduse by Alexandre Correard
Raft of Méduse by Alexandre Corréard.

The Vicomte Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys was French Royalty. He held a naval title as a result of that, and it was hardly earned. Napoleon was no longer in place and the aristocracy was again floundering along in charge of France. de Chaumareys was placed in command of the "Meduse," a huge frigate bound for Senegal, transporting around 240 civilian and military personnel. The crew numbered over 169. She also carried much of the wealth of some of the passengers. At the offset of the voyage de Chaumareys admitted that he had little experience, and soon he was deferring, in matters of running the ship, to one of the passengers who apparently had less. There were experienced officers aboard, but their advice was ignored. Perhaps they didn't have sufficient aristocracy in their backgrounds? Early in the voyage de Chaumareys abandoned much of the rest of the fleet that he was to lead. His ship sailed faster. They had to make passage down the African coast, which meant rounding Cap Bojador and heading generally southwesterly for long enough time to avoid the Arguin Bank with its dangerous shoals extending far out from the dessert. Cap Blanc was a landmark used by seaman seeking to avoid the shoals. Rather than listen to his experienced officers, de Chaumareys chose his own course, heading more southeasterly. The ship ran aground far out in the ocean. At first she held but as seas worked on her she began to break up. They built a huge raft from ship's timbers and launched the ship's six sailing launches, one 27 feet long. The "plan" was for most of the people to get onto the raft. The sailing vessels would transport Senegal's new governor and, as it turned out, de Chaumareys and other higher placed officials. These launches would tow the raft ashore.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips About Our Concepts of the Sea

1. Even though we use the feminine when we refer to her, the sea is not a person.

2. The sea is not forgiving.

3. The sea is not subject to our laws and rules and conventions.

4. The sea doesn't care about our notions of romanticism.

5. The sea makes life worthwhile and beautiful for some of us. But it has also killed thousands of us at a time.

6. We have no business going on the water unless we realize these things, and we go with great humility and we are prepared.

Click Here for More Tips

This raft was so heavily loaded when its passengers boarded that it sank in the water until the people, with standing room only, had to stand in water up to their knees. And then the ropes to the raft "parted" (were they cut or simply untied?) and the people in the launches sailed away, abandoning these souls to days of torture in the sun, dehydration, starvation, horrible deaths and even the resulting desperation of cannibalism. The raft was later found, but most had died. Some of the boats made it ashore, but "ashore" was the Sahara Dessert. Some made it to civilization, some didn't.

We've all heard of other stories of tragedy at sea; we'll never forget the Titanic and her captain who steamed at high speed through an ice field during poor visibility. There are also the pleasure boaters in much smaller craft smashing at speed into buoys, tugs, barges and more, often killing their passengers. I suppose any fool who can grab a log can go to sea. That doesn't mean they belong there.

The first two stories were reported in the book, upon which I relied, "Come Hell and High Water" by Jean Hood published in US by Burford Books Inc., and printed in Great Britain by MPG Books Ltd.



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