The Lore of Storms
On land, a great tropical storm may be terrifying; at sea, it is another experience entirely. For while the landsman may take refuge and wait for the tumult to pass, the seafarer must deal. The seafarer must negotiate.
On December 27th, 1897 the aging steamer Albany, northbound on her regular coastal run, sighted the North West Cape. For smaller vessels the high promontory was the turning point for the eastward run to Onslow. The pearling boats and little coasters would cross Exmouth Gulf and then weave among fringing islands to reach the mouth of the Ashburton River. But Albany was the mainstay of Nor’-West trade; her master was under instructions to follow a wider, safer track. After continuing north to round the Muiron Islands, sightings of the outermost islands would be taken from the prescribed comfort of deep water. Only after Anchor Island had been made out would the cautious run to the anchorage begin.
On most trips the turn to the east brought a sudden and remarkable softening of travelling conditions. Passengers conditioned to the long swells of the southern Indian Ocean would emerge from cabin or saloon to feel the warmth of the air and to gaze upon a calm sea alive with sea snakes and turtles. But this trip was different: Albany turned to meet a hard south-easterly wind and a short, sharp sea. Captain Odman stood on his track but watched his barometer carefully. He knew that a hurricane from the north was a distinct possibility. At Anchor Island the wind rose alarmingly; he turned the ship around and steamed out to sea. Although the storm now lay in his path, the decision was not a difficult one. Onslow offered no safe harbour; it was an open roadstead. If a hurricane were to be faced, it would not be faced here among reefs and islands. Albany would roll with the punches of the open sea.
And roll she did. For twelve hours, heavy punches came in flurries. Machinery was damaged and the superstructure was strained as the ship was swept from end to end by seas which, Odman later declared, “rose mountains high.” Not all of Albany’s cargo was stowed below; p138chained to her deck were eight iron tanks weighing 800 pounds apiece. All were torn free and washed overboard. Water percolated everywhere: down the companionway, across the floor of the saloon and into the cabins. To passengers in fear of their lives, the ship at times seemed to be more submerged than afloat. But suddenly, when the assault seemed unsurvivable, the wind fell away to nothing.
At the centre of a whirlwind, the first impression taken is of uncanny stillness. Not of silence, but of stillness. The wind may be altogether absent or come from any quarter in flukes and swirls that die away as quickly as they arise. A sailor may recognise the opportunity to speak and be heard, and yet stand spellbound and say nothing. He may light a cigarette and find that the match, held aloft, continues to burn. And from the bridge, an officer may look down upon smoke hanging in the air, clinging to wet machinery, refusing to disperse.
The crew of Albany quickly learned that there was more to this strangeness than the sudden dissolution of the wind. Second engineer C. R. Hunter would recall:
We steamed through the first portion of the storm into the centre, where all was calm so far as the wind was concerned, but where the water was simply a seething, boiling cauldron.
The English sea captain and author John Macnab had described more precisely the unique agitation of the sea to be found at the centre of a circular storm:
p139The centre has a peculiar sea of its own, the water rising in great pyramidal heaps, and literally throwing itself about in all directions, making it difficult for a ship to live.
Perhaps appropriately, the most engaging of all descriptions would come not from science but from well-versed imagination. Two years after Albany’s encounter, merchant seaman Joseph Conrad began writing the novel Typhoon, in which the fictional steamer Nan-Shan meets a great storm of the South China Sea. Like the officers of Albany, Conrad’s men are delivered to a place beyond their experience.
Through a jagged aperture in the dome of clouds the light of a few stars fell upon the black sea, rising and falling confusedly. Sometimes the head of a watery cone would topple on board and mingle with the rolling flurry of foam on the swamped deck; and the Nan-Shan wallowed heavily at the bottom of a circular cistern of clouds. This ring of dense vapours, gyrating madly round the calm of the centre, encompassed the ship like a motionless and unbroken wall of an aspect inconceivably sinister. Within, the sea, as if agitated by an internal commotion, leaped in peaked mounds that jostled each other, slapping heavily against her sides; and a low moaning sound, the infinite plaint of the storm’s fury, came from beyond the limits of the menacing calm.
Typhoon was fiction, but a hundred years of fact and folklore were honoured by its transparent prose.
Conrad touched lightly upon what The Times had described as “that singular phenomenon, termed by Spanish sailors El ojo, or the storm’s eye, when in the midst of a black and lurid mass of clouds there appears a luminous circle in the zenith.” From within the eye the seafarer may look upward as if from the bottom of a well, to a narrow circle of starry sky. For those made captive to the eye in daylight, the experience is different but no less remarkable. In place of a saucer of stars, a patch of blue sky may be seen. For the master and crew of the Marmion, sailing from Liverpool to New York in 1849, the spectacle was bright indeed. In the ship’s log, the captain wrote:
At noon it was quite moderate, and a beautiful clear, blue sky, and the sun shining beautifully, but this is in the treacherous centre. From meridian to about 0-40 it remained quite moderate and clear. At 0-40 there rose up a thick impervious cloud or haze, and it became quite dark, comparatively speaking, though there was no black cloud; and in a very few minutes we were involved in a terrific storm.
There was a simple reason why from the deck of Marmion the great escarpment of cloud did not appear dark and threatening in the usual p140way. The ship had sailed into the eye of the storm as the sun passed over. Both ship and cloud were bathed in sunlight, and the cloud was seen as if from above.
For the men of Albany there was an unexpected addition to the strangeness of their circumstances. When the wind dissipated, hundreds of birds appeared as if from nowhere. Spiralling downward, they landed and sat motionless on the wet deck. Many were unfamiliar, even to crewmen who had travelled this coast for years. A few of the hapless creatures were picked up. With eyes open they lay soft and warm in the sailors’ hands, exhausted beyond resistance—not beyond fear, but beyond any display of it.
Within the eye, fascination is tempered by inescapable fact: the second half of the storm has still to be endured. With the return of the wind comes a great assault upon composure; it is rarely well recorded. Some describe the sound emanating from the approaching eye-wall as a low groan that rises in pitch only to be overtaken by something akin to a shock wave. And behind that invisible curtain, a great shearing of waters demands frantic effort to turn the ship to face an altered sea. So it was for Albany: the wind caught the ship on her port side and, as her head was swung, a torrent of seawater over the bow swept the birds into a compact ridge below the starboard gunwale.
There is hardly a tale of storm at sea that does not draw out the metaphor of nature’s fury; indeed, the lore of storms is built upon the attribution of rage and enmity. But as the fictional Nan-Shan steamed into great elemental strife, her creator was alert to a different danger. Rather than exploit a myth, Conrad chose to explore it.
It was something formidable and swift, like the sudden smashing of a vial of wrath. It seemed to explode all round the ship with an overpowering concussion and a rush of great waters, as if an immense dam had been blown up to windward. In an instant the men lost touch of each other. This is the disintegrating power of a great wind: it isolates one from one’s kind. An earthquake, a landslip, an avalanche, overtake a man incidentally, as it were—without passion. A furious gale attacks him like a personal enemy, tries to grasp his limbs, fastens upon his mind, seeks to rout his very spirit out of him.
By gift of circumstance, the men of Albany would also glimpse the greater truth. As another great wave raked the deck, the officers watched as the birds now lifeless were disentangled and discarded to the sea. Here, in a few moments, the metaphor of wrath was stripped bare. The men were held, briefly transfixed, by a simple illustration—a reminder if not a revelation—that nature is not vengeful. Nature is utterly indifferent. They had little time to think on this because their ship was once again in great danger. Fight now they must, and with new, cold clarity: this storm p141would run its course without reference, without regard, and with neither malice nor mercy.
Seamen’s lore warns that the second half of a circular storm is often worse than the first. So it was for Albany, and especially for the men below decks: the engineers and firemen.
In fair weather, conditions in a ship’s engine room are not too bad. Cool air is drawn in through the ventilators, forcing hot, stale air out through an iron grating called the fiddley. In a storm, however, it is imperative to keep a full head of steam; the comfort of those below will be sacrificed to keep the engine room dry. With the fiddley covered by tarpaulin, the air quickly becomes stale and the temperature may rise to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
On the latest steamers the fiddley was large, rectangular and raised above the level of the deck; it could be battened down quickly when the need arose. Not so, old Albany; she was of unusual design. For twenty years she had served as the combined sail-and-steam vessel Claud Hamilton before her acquisition in a takeover by the Adelaide Steamship Company. Her new owners cut her in half, added 31 feet amidships, straightened her cutwater bow, removed one mast altogether and shortened the other two. She would serve out her remaining years as a dedicated steamer, and one that was almost impossible to keep dry.
In the gloom and oppressive heat of the stokehold, unique camaraderie may grow among men who never have cause to question the value of their work. For these blind guardians of the heartbeat, the rolling rhythm of the ship’s engine is a thing of beauty and a source of pride. Their reward—and their gift to all on board—is that precise mechanical reassurance which may be seen or heard or felt.
There is among sailors a fear of dying below deck, akin perhaps to the landsman’s fear of being buried alive. Whether on land or sea, the best known antidote for fear is distraction. In a great storm at sea, the engine room has its appeal, for nowhere else is distraction so complete. Its sensations may not be pleasant, but while the crankshaft turns, all senses are engaged. Dappled twilight, oppressive heat, the smell and taste of coal dust, the clang of the firebox door and the hiss of steam combine to pervade and preoccupy. But if the fire is ever extinguished, all warmth and consolation are lost; the engine room becomes a hideous place: cold and cavernous, with a pitch and roll governed only by an unseen sea.
Engineer Hunter described the second half of Albany’s ordeal:
The Albany was an open “fiddley” ship, with only an iron grating around her funnel base, instead of being closed in. When we got our second dose we shipped huge seas, which poured down into the engine room and flooded the place out. In less than no time there was a depth of 9ft. of sea water in the engine room, and the fires were out p142for over 24 hours. During that time we had relays at work bailing the ship out with canvas buckets, and eventually we were able to get the fires going again.
At noon on December 29th, 1897, Albany arrived at Onslow in dilapidated condition. Her officers were greatly affected by an experience they hoped and expected would never be repeated. But just three months later, the Albany again found the centre of a great storm at sea. In the first week of April 1898, the Northern Public Opinion interviewed Captain Odman to report:
At noon on Friday Bedout Island was passed about 6 miles out. The barometer then fell rapidly. The wind changed to the N.E., gradually increasing to cyclonic force. At 11 o’clock that night a fearful hurricane set in. The ship was headed N.N.W. and stood on the same course until 10 a.m. on Saturday, when she suddenly became becalmed with the barometer down to 27.80. This state of affairs continued until 11 a.m. Reverse winds were then got into and blew harder than before. The barometer started to rise, and at noon stood at 28. The violence of wind did not show signs of decreasing until 4 a.m. on Sunday, though the barometer read 29.1 at 1 a.m. After it had moderated it was discovered that the steamer had lost her rudder, but no other damage had been done. . . . The position of the ship was determined at 70 miles due north from Cossack. Her head was put southward and sails set to a fairly light sou’-wester. In the absence of the rudder the trysails and staysails were employed in steering.
For the southward run to port, men were stationed fore and aft, port and starboard to trim the improvised sails. By Sunday morning, when Jarman Island lighthouse was sighted, the new navigational regime was working very well: Albany moved a little this way and that as Odman, more field marshal than helmsman, barked instructions from the bridge. At noon in Cossack Roads the ordeal ended; the order was given for the anchor to be dropped. And as the chain slid through the hawsepipe, a vibration instantly recognised passed along the deck. The crew cheered.
Although none aboard ship knew it, Cossack had been torn apart by the greatest storm of its short history. For residents dumbstruck by destruction, Albany’s arrival was both a relief and an amusement. Her comical flapping of canvas wings lifted spirits greatly. At the end of the day, for the enlivenment of the locals, Odman told his story in a salty, matter-of-fact way, brushing off homage for his seamanship. “No,” he said, “the old ship knew her way into port too well to need any guidance.”
A year later, on March 21st, 1899, Albany was again fighting for survival in a Nor’-West willy-willy. Again she lost her rudder, but this time Odman was unable to control her. She lay broadside to the wind p143for four hours with passengers and crew working shoulder to shoulder to bail her out. Again the old ship survived, but her recent form was troubling. For the third time in less than two years she had met strife at sea and had responded by steaming into the middle of it. To some, it was incomprehensible that ships’ masters were failing to take evasive action when science had been offering guidance for fifty years. Had they no knowledge of the Law of Storms?
* * *
Although there had been explicit references to “whirl-winds” as early as 1698, the scientific explanation of these great storms can be traced to a chance meeting in 1831 between an amateur meteorologist and a professional scientist. The amateur was New York engineer William Redfield; the learned professor was Denison Olmsted. Redfield had read Olmsted’s work on hailstorms and, keen to ask a few questions, had introduced himself. Many years later, at the end of a lifelong association, Olmsted recalled that first meeting:
I was soon made sensible that the humble enquirer was himself a proficient in meteorology. In the course of the conversation he incidentally brought out his theory of the laws of our Atlantic gales, at the same time stating the facts on which his conclusions were founded. This doctrine was quite new to me, but it impressed me so favourably that I urged him to communicate it to the world through the medium of the American Journal of Science. He manifested such diffidence at appearing as an author before the scientific world, professing to be only a practical man, little versed in scientific discussions, and unaccustomed to write for the press. At length, however, he said he would commit his thoughts to paper and send them to me on condition that I would revise the manuscript and superintend the press. Accordingly, I received the first of a long series of articles on the law of storms and hastened to procure its insertion in the Journal of Science. Some few of the statements made in the earliest development of his theory he afterward found reason for modifying, but the great features of that theory appear there in bold relief.
The “great features” of Redfield’s theory were: that the storms of the tropics are great whirlwinds; that the rotation is clockwise in south latitudes, anticlockwise in north latitudes; that the axis of rotation may be vertical or inclined; that the winds spiral downward toward the centre and rise upon reaching it, and that only at sea level do the winds blow horizontal; that the barometer falls toward the centre, and falls with increasing rapidity toward the centre; that the storms advance as they revolve, following curved paths; and that “great uniformity exists in respect to the path pursued.”
p144The year 1831 is salient for another reason. On August 11th, the island of Barbados was struck by its greatest ever hurricane. The damage was daunting and the death toll horrendous; one conservative source reported that 1477 lives were lost in the space of seven hours. In the storm’s aftermath, the Scottish soldier-engineer William Reid was sent to the island to superintend the reconstruction of government buildings. During his two-and-a-half-year civil assignment Reid began a systematic study of Atlantic storms. He collected data, corresponded with William Redfield, and in 1838 published An Attempt to Develop the Law of Storms by Means of Facts. Its clumsy title notwithstanding, ‘Reid on the Law of Storms’ was keenly read, widely discussed, and reprinted within a year. Importantly, Reid had formulated simple rules that mariners could apply to avoid being drawn into the vortex of a storm at sea.
The first weapon of a tropical storm is deception, for with the wind and waves comes an assault upon common sense. With a gale in one’s face it is difficult to accept that the greatest threat must lie in another direction entirely. The objective of Reid’s first rule was to establish the direction to the storm’s centre. In simple non-nautical terms, the rule states:
In the southern hemisphere, tropical storms revolve clockwise. If the seaman turns to face the wind, the eye of the revolving storm will lie to his left and, moreover, slightly behind him, because the winds spiral inward as they rotate.
Having established a direction to the centre of the storm, the next objective was to understand its progress over the sea. The mariner was instructed to note any shift in the direction of the wind before applying the second rule:
If, as a storm approaches, the shift in the direction of the wind is clockwise, the storm should pass to the right. Conversely, if the shift in the wind is anticlockwise, the storm should pass to the left.
The value and appeal of this second rule was its surprising simplicity. Somehow it distilled the essence of the ‘un-obvious’. A few minutes with pencil and paper was usually sufficient to convince a bright young officer that the rule was universal: it would hold true in either hemisphere, regardless of the direction of a storm’s rotation.
From knowledge came strategy. Reid explained that once the location and progress of a storm were established, positive action could be taken to avoid or escape what was called “the dangerous quadrant,” which in southern latitudes is that area to the front and left of the advancing whirlwind. To be caught here is doubly dangerous: not only are winds strongest where the storm’s rotation and its advance are aligned, but the direction of the wind in this quadrant is directly into the storm’s path.
p145A revised, expanded edition of ‘Reid on the Law of Storms’ appeared in 1850 under a title even more cumbersome than the first: The Progress of the Development of the Law of Storms, and of the Variable Winds, with the Practical Application of the Subject to Navigation. Reid’s first edition had been theoretical but his second was greatly strengthened by the testimonies of ships’ masters who in the intervening years had tested his contentions and found them sound. One early advocate was Captain Hall of the Black Nymph; in September 1842, he had found it necessary to test Reid’s principles.
Black Nymph was three or four days’ sail from Macau. The weather was fine and clear and the crew, who had been smartening things up in preparation for their arrival in port, were greatly surprised to receive orders to prepare for a storm. Hall had been watching the barometer and had noted its fall.
Toward evening I observed a bank in the S.E. Night closed in and water continuing smooth, but the sky looked wildish, the scud coming from N.E., the wind about North. I was much interested in watching for the commencement of the gale which I now felt sure was coming, considering that Colonel Reid’s theory being correct, it would point out my position with respect to its centre.
When the wind came, Hall consulted his charts and diagrams and concluded that Black Nymph was on the southern and western verge of a typhoon. His account, first published in the Nautical Magazine in 1847, would also swell the body of evidence in Reid’s new edition.
The wind rapidly increased in violence, but I was pleased to see it veering to the N.W., as it convinced me I had put the ship on the right tack, viz the starboard, standing, of course, to S.W. For five hours it blew with great violence but the ship being well prepared rode comparatively easy. The barometer was now very low, the wind about W.N.W., the centre of the storm passing doubtless to our right.
Thinking it a pity, as the gale sensibly decreased, to be so far out of our course, I wore to N.W., and made sail, but in less than two hours heavy gusts came on and the barometer began to fall. I now thought we were approaching the storm once again, and doubtless the theory is not mere speculation. I wore again to the S.E., and to show more clearly how great a difference a very short distance nearer to or farther from these storms makes, the weather rapidly improved.
When we arrived at Hongkong two or three days afterwards, we found they had had a gale, and its centre lay between the ship and Hongkong, through which centre I might have had the pleasure of passing if, regardless of the indications of the barometer, and the results of the scientific comparison of the data of other storms, I had been eager merely to keep on the tack nearest my course.
p146The revised edition was much heralded and warmly reviewed. In London, The Times devoted several columns to Reid’s theory and case studies and then, as if apologising for not extending its salute, declared:
We have already, we trust, made it evident how far the domination of science may be extended over these hitherto intractable operations of nature.
From Britain, Europe and America, a flood of new publications came. Works by Dove, Birt, Meldrum and Ley were all reprinted. There were practical offerings too: Henry Piddington’s The Sailor’s Horn-Book for the Law of Storms was sold with transparent storm cards which, when laid upon a chart and aligned with the prevailing wind, could be used to locate the centre of a storm. By the 1880s, science had become syllabus. At Board of Trade examinations, all candidates for first officer or master were now required to demonstrate an understanding of the Law of Storms. It is hardly surprising that the best known of all books on the subject was also the slimmest. John Macnab’s Catechism of the Law of Storms was little more than a bundle of sample questions and answers that helped a generation of ships’ officers to meet the Board’s requirements.
Conrad’s Typhoon was fiction, but fiction well founded upon the facts of life at sea. At the time of its publication, most young officers were well versed in the Law of Storms, but many older masters remained sceptical of both the science and the policy of avoidance. It is hardly surprising that Captain MacWhirr, master of the Nan-Shan, was cast as one such.
“A gale is a gale, Mr. Jukes,” resumed the Captain, “and a full-powered steam-ship has got to face it. There’s just so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it with none of what old Captain Wilson of the Melita calls ‘storm strategy.’ The other day ashore I heard him hold forth about it to a lot of shipmasters who came in and sat at a table next to mine. It seemed to me the greatest nonsense. He was telling them how he outmanoeuvred, I think he said, a terrific gale, so that it never came nearer than fifty miles to him. A neat piece of head-work he called it. How he knew there was a terrific gale fifty miles off beats me altogether. It was like listening to a crazy man. I would have thought Captain Wilson was old enough to know better.”
Like Conrad’s MacWhirr, Olaf Odman was an old-school master forced by experience to accept the need for change. His career would continue, but Albany’s hat-trick of near disasters had sealed the old ship’s fate. At Fremantle on a Saturday afternoon in March 1900, invited guests gathered in the saloon of “the magnificent new Bullarra” to toast Queen, colony, company and progress, and to pay tribute to a vessel that had grown old with the colony and in her service. For Nor’-Westers, Albany was p147an institution; many of her passengers had known no other steamship. On the threshold of a new century, her retirement was also tinged with sadness for the many who thrived upon thrilling tales of survival at sea. In the new world, would science disarm nature? Would all avenues to adventure and heroism be closed?
The eye of a hurricane may be a strange, mystical place but for those who emerge to speak of it there is no desire to return. For while the outsider may taste its fascination, the insider knows also a visceral fear: a tight, encircling constriction in which wonderment struggles for breath. The men of S.S. Albany counted their 1897 experience among the worst of their lives, but readers of fact or fiction will see things differently. They will carry a quiet conviction that the survivors of great storms at sea are a privileged few, chosen to be tested and chosen to bear witness. Conrad knew this. In the first chapter of Typhoon he sketched the character of a man soon to be so tested.
Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror. There are on sea and land such men thus fortunate—or thus disdained by destiny or by the sea.