Saturday, 17 March 2012

The ship that never should have been...

If you just did a double take at the odd design of this ship maybe you might like to ask yourself why. Yes, that is a separate deck below and those odd –looking round things are actually gun turrets. The HMS Captain was a ship designed to revolutionize battle at sea. Within months she would lay on the bottom of the ocean off Cape Finisterre. This is her story.  

Unlike the Prestige or even the Serpent, I doubt you will have ever have heard it before. Yet she took almost 500 human souls – including that of her inventor's – to a watery grave off the Costa da Morte.

The HMS Captain should never have been built; but she was, though not without controversy. In fact, she became the result of a highly public dispute between Captain Cowper Coles, her designer who invented her revolving turrets, and the director of naval construction, Edward Reed, who insisted she was unstable and potentially dangerous. Coles had discovered the possibilities of floating rafts with shielded guns on a turntable during the Crimean War, but had remained on half-pay since then, promoting his inventions to Parliament and the press. Coles was ambitious and he was determined. Despite Reed's resistance, and the fact that Coles had already built a rigged ship with similar turrets – the HMS Monarch, which was of a different size and design entirely - Coles had enough clout with the Admiralty and with the public to get the chance to build a masted turret ship to suit his own fancy. With enormous public pressure and the backing of Parliament, the project got the nod in 1867.

From the outset, the construction of the ship was problematic. Coles was ill during much of the construction and supervision was lax at best. Once completed, she was 740tons over her designed weight and so sat much lower in the water than her design allowed for. In fact, the main deck was often awash even in light seas. The Captain had a high centre of gravity due to her towering rig which was attached to the upper deck, thus justifying Reed's concern about her stability.

At first, it appeared that Coles was right in his claims that this was the ship of the future. She made a couple of successful short round trips to Vigo before joining the Channel fleet. But later, the commanding admiral who visited the ship during a voyage of the often treacherous Bay of Biscay remarked that the turret deck appeared to be perpetually awash (which if you look again at the picture is hardly surprising).

On the night of Sept. 6, 1870, while sailing off Cape Finisterre in a freshening gale, the Captain abruptly capsized and sank like a stone. She took with her 473 of her crew, including her captain, and Coles, who was on board as an observer on the voyage. Perhaps we should add, thankfully, as he did not survive to see what his stubbornness had done. There were only 18 survivors of the disaster, all of whom made it to a boat which which had pulled free of the sinking ship. They were rescued late the following day.

The Captain affair became a long-lived naval controversy, and immediate steps were taken to improve the stability of warships built for the Royal Navy. Within decades, sail became a thing of the past though not before several equally strange looking vessels were brought before the Admiralty.

If you go to St. Paul’s Cathedral you will see the Captain remembered in two side-by-side memorial plaques. The list of names seems to go on and on…

Arthur Hawkey, author of HMS Captain remarks on the book's cover:
"On 30 April, 1870, when HMS Captain was commissioned, the ensign was accidentally hoisted upside down. Never has an omen been more tragically of swiftly fulfilled.”

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!”
Next castles and castros…

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