Severe storms in spring 1836

While storms are common in the Channel, both the John Pirie and the Duke of York had the misfortune to be caught by a prolonged period of intense storm activity. Captain Morgan of the Duke of York noted they had six weeks of ‘contrary weather’ after leaving London on 26 February, with the ship still in English waters well into the second week of April. The ships were at the mercy of a relentless westerly stream punctuated with travelling  fronts, associated gale to storm force winds, driving rain, hail and snow. Entries from the diaries of Captain Morgan and the diarist on the John Pirie, as well as a letter from the Captain of that ship, confirm the widespread extent of the stormy conditions. On 1March when the ships were at opposite ends of the Channel, both diaries record strong southwest to westerly winds and heavy seas. The Captain of the  Duke of York, moved by the plight of his passengers, chose to shelter on the lee side of the Isle of Wight, where the ship would remain for 18 days due to the ferocity of the westerly winds. The John Pirie laboured on, setting its course for the Isles of Scilly. However, by night time the following day a strengthening southwesterly ahead of an approaching front drove the ship back to Falmouth, Cornwall. Raging winds and inclement weather would keep it in port, like the Duke of York, until 19 March.

On 19 March the John Pirie set out again on its southwest route. In the open sea, away from the coastline it should better handle the rough weather that was yet to come. While the Duke of York also departed port that day, in the face of strengthening headwinds, heavy seas and driving rain, it once again took shelter on 24 March, this time in Torbay, Devon. Another 18 days passed before it again set sail.

In open waters the John Pirie was to bear the full brunt of a most severe weather event.  In his diary on Monday 21 March the diarist notes ‘a strong rolling Sea’ coming from the northwest, while a steady wind blew from the southwest. The rolling swell is an indicator of a deep polar low and stormy weather to the northwest.  If the writer had had access to a weather glass (barometer) he would have seen the  pressure falling. Over the next few days the ship weathered several violent fronts causing the wind to veer from southwest to northwest accompanied by squalls, heavy seas and ‘pelting showers of Hail, and Rain’. The captain took advantage of the winds, and by 26 March estimated his position nearly 500 miles southwest of Falmouth.

The gales and foul weather continued for more than a week, with the most violent conditions yet to come. At 3.00pm on Sunday 27 March the John Pirie diarist described the wind turning southwest and strengthening to the ‘perfect Hurricane’ with  the seas raised to the ‘greatest possible pitch of Madness’. On the Beaufort wind scale, developed in 1804, ‘hurricane strength’ is the highest category with winds in excess of 63 knots and wave heights greater than 16 metres. From the two accounts, it appears the John Pirie endured near hurricane strength southwest to northwest winds, with occasional hurricane strength squalls for almost 24 hours. During this time mountainous waves broke over the ship again and again, at one stage completely overwhelming it – the only course of action was to break the bulwark to allow the water to escape before its weight sank the vessel. Under such extreme conditions, the Captain could do nothing but steer before the wind – eastward – a path which would take them into the Bay of Biscay. It was not until 4.00 pm the next day, when the wind had abated a little but still with heavy seas, that they could ‘heave to’ and labour westward into the wind, away from the danger of being close to shore. On Wednesday, with the winds turning southwesterly (but still possibly galeforce and with high seas and heavy swell), they set sail for the English coast, finally finding safe anchorage at Dartmouth, Saturday 2 April, greatly shaken but thankful to be alive.

The Duke of York, sheltering at Torbay during this period, did not go unscathed. The great storm of the 27 to 28 March broke its sea anchor cable and windlass, while other sheltering ships lost  masts, and one vessel was dashed against the shore.

Written by Beth Walton, Australian Meteorological Association

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