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Week 06 - a 'perfect Hurricane'

[ 27th of March 1836 to 2nd of April 1836 ]
[ View related 'school content': Week 06 : Weathering the Storm ]

On 26 March the John Pirie seemed to be making progress, as it finally cleared the English Channel and struck out for the Atlantic Ocean. But just west of the Bay of Biscay the weather worsened dramatically into what one of our informants described as a ‘perfect Hurricane’.  All but overwhelmed by ‘a most tremendious Sea’, the little ship was literally submerged on more than one occasion. Even the captain gave it up for lost. We include here two descriptions of the same event, the first written by our anonymous diarist, the second in the words of Captain George Martin, from a letter sent one week later to George Fife Angas. They provide graphic descriptions of the horror of the experience.

An oil painting by Washington Allston of ships in a storm at sea, 1804.Storm Rising at Sea, 1804. Oil painting, Washington Allston

The Lady Mary Pelham was also caught in the storm. It left Liverpool on 30 March, but returned to port on 1 April after it was almost overwhelmed by the heavy seas.


Ship progress week 6.

Journals from passengers at sea:

Sunday 27 March 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

The Gale has contd since Thursday, from the Westward,
and without the least intermission, or abatement, but
at 3, P,M, of this Day, it veer’d to S,W, and increased
to a perfect Hurricane, raising the Sea, to the greatest
possible pitch of Madness, and violent uproar, so that
fearing every thing would be washed off the Deck’s, we
bore away, right before the Wind, at 4, P,M, hoping by
this means, to save them, from destruction, but the Weather
has contd (to the end of this Day) so truly awful, as
to baffle all description, indeed the Elements, seem to be
engaged, in the most dreadful Warfare, with each other,
and violence is the order of the Day, in which the Rain
likewise takes a good share, for it is pouring down
in Torrents  _____  At 10, P,M, the Wind backed
round to N,W, and I think (if possible) it blows
more terrifickly than ever  _________

[ Read the full journal extract ]

Monday 28 March 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

At 2, A,M, a most tremendious Sea, overlap’d the Vessel,
and giving her such a violent Shock, as caused both the
Capt and every Soul on board, to suppose She must foun-
-der, being for a time completely buried under Water,
however, after a few Moments, of the most horrible suspense,
the little Vessel again arose out of the angry Deep, when
both Pumps were essential equipment because all ships took in water. They were worked by hand, either by the crew or by steerage passengers who were expected to assist Pump’s  were set to work, and which to our unutterable
satisfaction, very soon sucked her dry, but the loss
sustained by that dreadful Sea, is truly lamentable  ____
The two Sheep-pen’s, were swept away from their fast-
-enings, and One of them dashed to pieces, when all the
poor Sheep which it contain’d, were washed overboard, the
other Pen is also greatly injured, and thus were 12
of our Sheep either kill’d or drown’d, likewise, 3 Pig’s
23 Fowls, 2 Turkey’s, and 2 Rabbits, shared the same
hard fate, besides 5 Sacks of Fodder, and all the Turnips
also, 1 Barrel of Beef, 1 Tierce of Pork, the Log-reel,
and several other Articles, were all swept off the Decks,
along with the Sides of a ship raised above deck level to protect objects and crew Bulwark  &c, after which Capt Martin,
order’d all the Hay to be thrown overboard, deeming such
a course expedient for the safety of the Vessel, as the
Sea was now making a regular passage over her, every
Minute, and filling the Cabin with Water, through the
Panes of A framework placed over a deck opening and fitted with glazed windows to admit light Skylight , which it had broken, although they
were defended all round, by strong Canvas, not even leaving
a place uncover’d by which to see the Compass, nor daring
to steer in any other direction, than right before the Wind,
At 4, A,M, the On a schooner like the John Pirie, the foreyard is the lowest yard attached to the foremast to spread the square sails Foreyard  gave way, breaking into two
pieces by the Slings, and the close reef’d Fore-top-sail,
split into Ribbon’s, which was the only Canvass, we
had set, at the time, our A small boat carried across the stern of a ship and suspended from davits stern Boat  also got stove,
Thus did this most desperate of all Gale’s, continue
to blow, without the least sign of abateing untill Noon,
when it became rather less violent, and at 4, P,M, we ventured
to To ‘heave to’ is to reduce a ship’s sails and adjust them so they counteract each other and stop the ship making progress. It is a safety measure used to deal with strong winds heave-too , although the Sea was most terribly high,
and the A squall is a sudden, sharp increase in wind speed Squalls  still uncommonly heavy, causing the
Vessel to labour exceedingly, and ship a great deal of Water,
but we had either to do this, or run down upon a A lee shore is dangerous. It is a coast onto which the wind blows from the sea, presenting the danger that a ship will be blown onto shore lee Shore
in the Bay of Biscay

[ Read the full journal extract ]

Tuesday 29 March 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

We contd To ‘heave to’ is to reduce a ship’s sails and adjust them so they counteract each other and stop the ship making progress. It is a safety measure used to deal with strong winds hove too the whole Day, with the
Wind still blowing very strong indeed from N,W, and the
Sea running most tremendiously high & cross  _____
The People have all been busily employed, in clearing
away and securing every thing, that remain’d upon Deck,
repairing various parts of the Rigging, and fishing
the On a schooner like the John Pirie, the foreyard is the lowest yard attached to the foremast to spread the square sails Fore-yard

[ Read the full journal extract ]

Wednesday 30 March 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

At 4, A,M, the Wind coming round from S,W, we bore
away for Falmouth, which was then, about 300 Miles dis-
-tant, as the Wind still kept blowing most awfully, and the
Sea equally as cross as ever, causing the Vessel to roll about,
and labour very much indeed  _______  During the Forenoon
our white Sow brought forth 10 young Ones, all of which
were dead, and the size of half grown Rats  ________

[ Read the full journal extract ]

Thursday 31 March 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

Our Vessel contd, to tumble about exceedingly heavy the whole
of last Night, and shipping a great deal of Water, while
the Wind still kept blowing very strong, until 3 A,M, when
it began to moderate, and at 8 A,M, has gradually lessend,
to a clever Breeze, and we had once more the pleasure of
seeing all the Seafarers reduce sails in strong winds so that ships can move more safely and comfortably. Sails are made with rows of small ropes attached to them and these are tied around spars to reduce the amount of sail exposed to the wind. The amount of sail taken in by securing one set of ropes is called a reef. reef’s  shaken out, and our Vessel again under
whole Sails, after having experienced one of the most severe
Gales of Wind, ever witnessed, indeed I am astonished, how
this little Vessel, has weather’d such a violent and terrifick
Storm, in the awful rough Sea’s of the Western Ocean,  ___
The only live Stock which have survived its fury, are
5 young Sheep, (which we purchased at Falmouth)
2 Sow’s, 3 Rabbits, and 1 Turkey, besides several of
the Crew being almost fatigued to Death, our Cook has not
been able to come upon Deck, since Tuesday last, but
two of the Passengers, named Tindal, and Powell,
volunteer’d to do his duty, these men, with one Stephen Sessions
have always been very willing, to render their assistance
when ever they could be useful  _____________

[ Read the full journal extract ]

Wednesday 6 April 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

Another account of the same storm was written by the captain of the John Pirie, George Martin:

Letter Martin to Angas 6 April 1836

Dartmouth, April 6th 1836

To /

G.F. Angas Esqr


I have the pleasure to acknowledge receipt
of your letter, last evening, dated the 4th, when I wrote you on
last saturday, it was late, & having but just come to an Anchor,
being at the time much fatigued, not having been in a bed for
nearly ten days, you will pardon my not writing you at the time
all particulars, which by your leave I will now endeavour to do –
After having sailed from Falmouth, soon after passing the
Lizard the wind began to increase to a gale & variable from NWt
to SWt , taken every advantage of the wind changing to Tack,
in order to get to the westward, & had succeeded by the 26th of
March to get as far as 100–00′ West & 460–00′ North, the wind
still increasing, and nothing gale after gale, ancsiously looking
out for a change, each quartering of the moon, but to no effect;
On sunday 27th the wind at SWt, at 3 P.M the A squall is a sudden, sharp increase in wind speed squalls
came on very fast & heavy, no appearance of a favourable
change, Bore up much against my will, in company with
several other Vessels, stowed all the fore & aft sails close reeft
the Fore Topsail, & endeavoured to set it, but by this time the
wind had increased to such a pitch, that with the assistance
of all the passengers I could not get the sheets more than half
home, nor could I take it in again, was glad it was so far set,
in order to keep the Vessel before the sea; the wind still
gradually increasing, with heavy squalls & very high sea; at
Midnight, thought it impossible that it the wind could continue
long with such violence, but of which I was mistaken, for the wind
& squalls became most terific, the sea rising to a dreadfull hight
& running very cross, from the wind veering from SWt to North; but
was obliged to keep her Dead before it, fearfull of To ‘heave to’ is to reduce a ship’s sails and adjust them so they counteract each other and stop the ship making progress. It is a safety measure used to deal with strong winds heaving her too  –
and as much as three or four men could do to steer her, to keep her
from broaching too, at 2 A.M (Monday Morning) a tremendous
sea broke on board of us, which complitely overwhelmd her in one
solid body of water, I then for some time gave up all hopes of ever
seeing her rise again, she being to all appearance at the time going
Down, in consequence of the great weight of water on her decks, the
Sailing ships carried various smaller boats for different purposes. A longboat was an open row boat accommodating eight to ten oarsmen that was capable of moving through high waves long boat  also being full of water, but having all hands on deck we
with bars & handspikes broke the Sides of a ship raised above deck level to protect objects and crew Bulwark  upon, by which means
the water got of the decks, & she rose her head again, set both Pumps
[to?], which to my great joy soon suck’t, the wind blowing now a most
dreadfull Hurrican, & the sea past all possible description, and in fact
past all belife, about 3 A.M. the fore yard came down in two pieces,
the Fore Topsail split in ribbands, the sea making a complete breach
over us fore & aft, & a most horrible sight, the Vessel appearing a
a complite wreck, not one on board ever expting to see daylight,
all the hatchways I had battend down, so no water could get below, by
this time, but the [seas?] had broken the sheep pens & washed the most of sheep
overboard – it had also broken the skylight & nearly fulld the cabin with
water, which damaged ever thing in my cabin, particularly my sextant,
quadrant, charts, cloths &c which with my stock of the desk, I should
not be able to replace for Thirty Pounds –, I had by this time thrown overboard
all the hay & every thing loose we could put our hands upon, in order
to lighten the weight of our Decks, I had one man washed overboard, but
fortunately succeeded in getting him in again, we were all now To lash fast is to secure objects or seafarers to the deck of the ship with ropes so that they would not be swept overboard during a storm lashd
, two men to the Pumps were essential equipment because all ships took in water. They were worked by hand, either by the crew or by steerage passengers who were expected to assist Pumps , four men to the Helm & nothing but a
sight of Horror before us, passed a great quantety of wreck of
difrent description; at about noon the wind moderating a little and
the squalls less frequent; at 4 P.M. the wind Moderating fast & the
sea falling a little, though still very high & cross, hove her too under a
close reeft Main, cleared the decks as much as we could, but the crew
nearly wore out with fatigue, & two layd up intierly, I had now made
my mind up to run for the first port I could get to in France, so soon
as I could get the Fore yard fisht, saw several Vessels that had bore up
with us more or lessdistresed, & I am fearfull for some that I saw
on the comensment of the gale, they appearing to labour heavy when
I was making fine weather of it, & I must confes that the John Pirie
is without any exception the finest sea boat I ever was at sea in, or
els she would not now be in exsistance, on Wednesday got the Foreyard
fisht & across, bent a New Fore Topsail, the wind came from the
Southward, made all sail I could for England, on Thursday got good sights
for the Chronomiter, (which is a most excellent one) also a good
Meridian altitude is a method of astronomical navigation used to calculate ones latitude on earth, in this case the latitude of a ship at sea. Using a nautical almanac to determine an estimated time of the meridian altitude of a planet or star, a ship’s captain would then use a sextant to track the object’s altitude for a few minutes before and during its pass through the meridian (in the case of the sun this was usually at noon). Meridianal Altitude , shaped my course for the Lizard point, past
Ushant about 2 Oclock P.M –, light winds during the night, but in
the morning freshning again to a gale, & getting very thick, could not
see two miles ahead, run within a few miles of the Lizard, but could not
see it, hove too about 2 P.M & on the flood tide, about 6 P.M the wind
shifted round in a heavy squall to NNWt & cleared up when I found
myself not more than five miles off Falmouth Harbour, but blowing
so hard could not carry sail to get in, bore up for Plymouth, at daylight
was close in to Plymouth but again blown out, it blowing at the
time tremendously from the North, I then run close round the
Start point where I got a To navigate difficult stretches of water, ships took pilots on board. Pilots were coastal navigators with knowledge of their local waters and they captained the ship through the channel or harbour Pilot , and came safe to an Anchor at Dartmouth,
having the Carpenter & two men layd up, the Ships’ mates were either first, second or third officers who came directly under the command of the Captain. Mates were responsible for supervising watches, crew, navigation and safety equipment, and sometimes even served as the ship’s doctor Mate  scearsly able to moove
myself not much better, & had I remaind two days longer at sea, I should
not had a man to stand the deck, I have not had two fine day all the month
of March,

Waiting you orders allow me most respectfully
to subscribe my self

Yours & the Company’s

Most Obt humbl servt

George Martin

[ Read the full journal extract ]

As the John Pirie limps back to England to make repairs the traumatised passengers begin to reconsider. For some, the terror of the storm may prove too much. Read on next week to find out more.

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3 Responses to “Week 06 – a ‘perfect Hurricane’”

  1. Errol Polden April 4, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    Thanks Kristy, I hit the correct button and found the details – quite amazing – and I now have a “barque” to follow.
    All the best,

  2. Kristy March 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    Hi Errol,
    I am glad you are enjoying the journey! If you follow the below link you will find information on the Cygnet. Alternatively click on ‘ships’ at the top of the page and you will find that the Cygnet is third on the list.
    Regards, Kristy – History SA

  3. Errol Polden March 30, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    If you should ever receive this it will be a miracle – my computer skills are so bad. The journey so far has been amazing. I think of my ancestors who arrived on the barque “Eliza” in May 1840 with 5 children. You have described many of the boats in the fleet, but I have not seen details of the “Cygnet”, nor have I been able to find these elsewhere. Could you please provide these details? Your enterprise and ability in presenting this journey are truly amazing and very much appreciated, and I thank you sincerely. Errol.

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