Sea Stories

The Loss Of The Ramillies In The Atlantic Ocean

Admiral (afterwards Lord) Graves having requested leave to return to England in 1782, was appointed by Lord Rodney to command the convoy sent home with the numerous fleet of merchantmen from the West Indies in the month of July.--He accordingly hoisted his flag

on board the Ramillies of 74 guns, and sailed on the 25th from Blue Fields, having under his orders the Canada and Centaur of 74 guns each, the Pallas frigate of 36 guns, and the following French ships, taken by Lord Rodney and Sir Samuel Hood, out of the armament commanded by the Count de Grasse, viz. the Ville de Paris, of 110 guns; the Glorieux and Hector, of 74 guns each; the Ardent, Caton and Jason, of 6 guns each. Those which were originally British ships had been in so many actions, and so long absent from England, as to have become extremely out of condition, while that of the prizes was still more deplorable, and the following authentic account of the various disasters which attended this distressed convoy will be found equally melancholy and interesting. Soon after the fleet had sailed, the officers of the Ardent united in signing such a representation of her miserable plight as induced Admiral Graves to order her back to Port Royal, and the Jason, by not putting to sea with the convoy, from want of water, never joined him at all. The rest proceeded, and after those vessels that were bound for New York had separated, the whole convoy was reduced to ninety-two or three sail. On the 8th of September the Caton springing a leak, made such alarming complaints, that the Admiral directed her and the Pallas, also become leaky, to bear away immediately, and keep company together, making for Halifax, which then bore North-North-West and was but eighty-seven leagues distant. The afternoon of the 16th of September shewing indications of a gale and foul weather from the south-east quarter, every preparation was made on board the flag-ship for such an event, not only on account of her own safety, but also as an example to the rest of the fleet. The Admiral collected the ships about six o'clock, and brought to under his main-sail on the larboard tack, having all his other sails furled, and his top-gallant yards and masts lowered down. The wind soon increasing, blew strong from the E. S. E. with a very heavy sea, and about three o'clock in the morning of the 17th flew suddenly round to the contrary point, blowing most tremendously, and accompanied with rain, thunder and lightning; the Ramillies was taken by the lee, her main-sail thrown back, her main-mast went by the board, and mizen-mast half way up; the fore-top mast fell over the starboard bow, the fore-yard broke in the slings, the tiller snapped in two, and the rudder was nearly torn off. Thus was this capital ship, from being in perfect order, reduced, within a few minutes to a mere wreck, by the fury of the blast and the violence of the sea, which acted in opposition to each other. The ship was pooped, the cabin, where the Admiral lay was flooded, his cot-bed jerked down by the violence of the shock and the ship's instantaneous revulsion, so that he was obliged to pull on his boots half leg deep in water, without any stockings, to huddle on his wet clothes, and repair upon deck. On his first coming thither, he ordered two of the lieutenants to examine into the state of the affairs below, and to keep a sufficient number of people at the pumps, while he himself and the captain kept the deck, to encourage the men to clear away the wreck, which, by its constant swinging backwards and forwards by every wave against the body of the ship, had beaten off much of the copper from the starboard side, and exposed the seams so much to the sea that the decayed oakum washed out, and the whole frame became at once exceedingly porous and leaky. At dawn of day they perceived a large ship lying under their lee, lying upon her side, water-logged, her hands attempting to wear her by first cutting away the mizen-mast, and then her main-mast; hoisting her ensign, with the union downwards in order to draw the attention of the fleet; but to no purpose, for no succour could be given, and she very soon went down head fore-most, the fly of her ensign being the last thing visible. This was the Dutton, formerly an East Indiaman, and then a store-ship, commanded by a lieutenant of the navy, who in his agitation, leaped from her deck into the sea; but, as might be expected, was very soon overwhelmed by its billows. Twelve or thirteen of the crew contrived, however, to slide off one of the boats, and running with the wind, first endeavored to reach a large ship before them, which, not being able to fetch, and afraid of filling if they attempted to haul up for the purpose, they made up for another ship more to the leeward, who fortunately descrying them, threw a number of ropes, by the help of which these desperate fellows scrambled up her sides, and fortunately saved their lives. Out of ninety-four or five sail, seen the day before, scarcely twenty could now be counted; of the ships of war, there were discerned the Canada, half hull down upon the lee-quarter, having her main-top-mast and mizen-mast gone, the main-top damaged, the main-yard aloft, and the main-sail furled; the Centaur was far to windward, without masts, bowsprit or rudder; and the Glorieux without fore-mast, bowsprit or main-top-mast. Of these the two latter perished with all their crews, excepting the captain of the Centaur, and a few of his people, who contrived to slip off her stern into one of the boats unnoticed, and thus escaped the fate of the rest of the crew. The Ville de Paris appeared to have received no injury, and was commanded by a most experienced seaman, who had made twenty-four voyages to and from the West Indies, and had, therefore, been pitched upon to lead the ship through the Gulf; nevertheless, she was afterwards buried in the ocean with all on board her, consisting of above eight hundred people. Of the convoy, besides the Dutton, before mentioned, and the British Queen, seven others were discovered without mast or bowsprit; eighteen lost masts and several others had foundered. In the course of this day the Canada crossed upon and passed the Ramillies; some of the trade attempted to follow the Canada, but she ran at such a rate that they soon found it to be in vain, and then returned towards the flag-ship; the Ramillies had at this time six feet water in her hold, and the pumps would not free her, the water having worked out the oakum, and her beams amid-ship being almost drawn from their clamps. The admiral, therefore, gave orders for all the buckets to be manned, and every officer to help towards freeing the ship; the mizen-top-sail was set upon the fore-mast, the main-top-gallant-sail on the stump of the mizen-mast, and the tiller shipped. In this condition, by bearing away, she scudded on at so good a rate that she held pace with some of the merchantmen. The day having been spent in bailing and pumping, without materially gaining on the water, the captain in the name of the officers, represented to the admiral the necessity of parting with the guns for the relief of the ship, but he objected, that there would then be left no protection for the convoy.--At length, however, after great difficulty, he consented to their disposing of the fore-castle and aftermost quarter-deck guns, together with some of the shot, and other articles of very great weight. The ensuing night was employed in bailing and endeavoring to make the pumps useful, for the ballast by getting into the well, had choked and rendered them useless, and the chains had broken every time they were repaired. The water had risen to seven feet in the hold. The wind from the westward drove a vast sea before it, and the ship being old, strained most violently. On the morning of the 18th nothing could be seen of the Canada, she having pushed on at her greatest speed for England. The frame of the Ramillies having opened during the night, the admiral was prevailed upon, by the renewed and pressing remonstrances of the officers, although with great reluctance, to let six of the forwardmost and four of the aftermost guns of the main-deck to be thrown overboard, together with the remainder of those on the quarter-deck; and the ship still continuing to open very much, he ordered tarred canvas and hides to be nailed fore and aft from under the sills of the ports on the main-deck under the fifth plank above, or within the water-ways, and the crew, without orders did the same on the lower deck. Her increasing complaints requiring still more to be done, the admiral directed all the guns on the upper deck, the shot, both on that and the lower deck, and various heavy stores to be thrown overboard; a leakage in the light room of the grand magazine having almost filled the ship forward, and there being eight feet water in the magazine, every gentleman was compelled to take his turn at the whips, or in handing the buckets. The ship was besides frapped from the fore-mast to the main-mast. Notwithstanding their utmost efforts the water still gained on them the succeeding night, the wind blowing very hard, with extremely heavy squalls, a part of the orlop deck fell into the hold; the ship herself seemed to work excessively, and to settle forward. On the morning of the 19th, under these very alarming circumstances, the admiral commanded both the bower anchors to be cut away, all the junk to be flung overboard, one sheet and one bower cable to be reduced to junk and served the same way, together with every remaining ponderous store that could be got at, and all the powder in the grand magazine (it being damaged;) the cutter and pinnace to be broken up and tossed overboard, the skids having already worked off the side; every soul on board was now employed in bailing. One of the pumps was got up, but to no purpose, for the shot-lockers being broken down, some of the shot, as well as the ballast, had fallen into the well; and as the weather moderated a little, every thing was made ready to heave the lower deck guns into the sea, the admiral being anxious to leave nothing undone for the relief of the ship. When evening approached, there being twenty merchant ships in sight, the officers united in beseeching him to go into one of them, but this he positively refused to do, deeming it, as he declared, unpardonable in a commander in chief to desert his garrison in distress; that his living a few years longer was of very little consequence, but that, by leaving his ship at such a time, he should discourage and slacken the exertions of the people, by setting a very bad example. The wind lulling somewhat during the night, all hands bailed the water, which, at this time, was six feet fore and aft. On the morning of the 20th the admiral ordered the spare and stream anchors to be cut away, and within the course of the day all the lower deck guns to be thrown overboard.--When evening came, the spirits of the people in general, and even of the most courageous, began to fail, and they openly expressed the utmost despair, together with the most earnest desire of quitting the ship, lest they should founder in her.--The admiral hereupon advanced and told them, that he and their officers had an equal regard for their own lives, and that the officers had no intention of deserting either them or the ship, that, for his part, he was determined to try one night more in her, he, therefore, hoped and intreated they would do so too, for there was still room to imagine, that one fair day, with a moderate sea, might enable them, by united exertions to clear and secure the well against the encroaching ballast which washed into it; that if this could be done, they might be able to restore the chains to the pumps, and use them; and that then hands enough might be spared to raise jury-masts, with which they might carry the ship to Ireland; that her appearance alone, while she could swim, would be sufficient to protect the remaining part of her convoy; above all, that as every thing that could be thought of had now been done for her relief, it would be but reasonable to wait the effect. He concluded with assuring them, that he would make the signal directly for the trade to lie by them during the night, which he doubted not they would comply with. This temperate speech had the desired effect; the firmness and confidence with which he spoke, and their reliance on his seamanship and judgment, as well as his constant presence and attention to every accident, had a wonderful effect upon them; they became pacified, and returned to their duty and their labors. Since the first disaster, the admiral had, in fact, scarcely ever quitted the deck; this they had all observed, together with his diligence in personally inspecting every circumstance of distress. Knowing his skill and experience they placed great confidence in them; and he instantly made, according to his promise, a signal for all the merchantmen. At this period, it must be confessed, there was great reason for alarm, and but little for hope; for all the anchors and guns, excepting one, together with every other matter of weight, had been thrown overboard, and yet the ship did not seem at all relieved. The strength of the people was, likewise, so nearly exhausted, having had no sleep since the first fatal stroke, that one half of the crew were ordered to bail and the other to repose; so that, although the wind was much abated, the water still gained upon them, in spite of all their efforts, and the ship rolled and worked most prodigiously in a most unquiet sea. At three in the morning of the 21st, being the fourth night, the well being quite broken in, the casks, ballast and remaining shot, rushed together and destroyed the cylinders of the pumps; the frame and carcase of the ship began to give way in every part, and the whole crew exclaimed that it was impossible to keep her any longer above water. In this extremity the admiral resolved within himself not to lose a moment in removing the people whenever day-light should arrive, but told the captain not to communicate any more of his design than that he intended to remove the sick and lame at day-break; and for this purpose he should call on board all the boats of the merchantmen. He, nevertheless, gave private orders to the captain, while this was doing, to have all the bread brought upon the quarter-deck, with a quantity of beef, pork and flour, to settle the best distribution of the people according to the number of the trade ships that should obey their signal, and to allow an officer to each division of them; to have the remaining boats launched, and as soon as the sick were disposed of, to begin to remove the whole of the crew, with the utmost despatch, but without risking too many in a boat. Accordingly at dawn, the signal was made for the boats of the merchantmen, but nobody suspected what was to follow, until the bread was entirely removed and the sick gone.--About six o'clock, the rest of the crew were permitted to go off, and between nine and ten, there being nothing further to direct and regulate, the admiral himself, after shaking hands with every officer, and leaving his barge for their better accommodation and transport, quitted forever the Ramillies, which had then nine feet water in her hold. He went into a small leaky boat, loaded with bread, out of which both him and the surgeon who accompanied him were obliged to bail the water all the way. He was in his boots, with his surtout over his uniform, and his countenance as calm and as composed as ever. He had, at going off, desired a cloak, a cask of flour and a cask of water, but could get only the flour, and he left behind all his stock, wines, furniture, books and charts, which had cost him upwards of one thousand pounds, being unwilling to employ even a single servant in saving or packing up what belonged to himself alone, in a time of such general calamity, as to appear better in that respect than any of the crew. The admiral rowed for the Belle, Captain Forster, being the first of the trade that had borne up to the Ramillies the preceding night in her imminent distress, and by his anxious humanity set such an example to his brother traders as had a powerful influence upon them--an influence which was generally followed by sixteen others. By three o'clock most of the crew were taken out, at which time the Ramillies had thirteen feet water in her hold, and was evidently foundering in every part, at half past four the captain, and first and third lieutenants, left her, with every soul excepting the fourth lieutenant, who staid behind only to execute the admiral's orders for setting fire to her wreck when finally deserted. The carcase burned rapidly, and the flames quickly reaching the powder, which was filled in the after magazine, and had been lodged very high, in thirty-five minutes the decks and upper works blew up with a horrid explosion and cloud of smoke, while the lower part of the hull was precipitated to the bottom of the ocean. At this time the admiral, in the Belle, stood for the wreck to see his last orders executed, as well as to succour any boats that might be too full of men, the swell of the sea being prodigious, although the weather had been moderate ever since noon of the foregoing day. There were, however, at intervals, some squalls, with threats of the weather soon becoming violent. It was not long before they were realized, for within two hours after the last of the crew were put on board their respective ships, the wind rose to a great height, and so continued, with intermission, for six or seven successive days, so that no boat could, during that time, have lived in the water. On such a small interval depended the salvation of more than six hundred lives! Indeed, during the four days immediately preceding this catastrophe, it blew such a strong gale, and such a heavy sea followed the Ramillies, that it was always necessary to keep her with the wind upon her quarter, with seldom more than the sprit-sail hoisted upon her fore-mast, and at times with no sail at all, in which state she would run at the rate of six miles an hour. Whenever the main-top-gallant-sail was set on the stump of the mizen-mast she commonly griped too much, so as to render the steerage very difficult, and yet this had been carried, whenever it could be, in order to keep pace with the merchantmen, the slowest of which went nearly as fast under their bare poles. Even in running thus the Ramillies rolled prodigiously, and as she grew lighter every day her motion became the more uneasy, so that the men could scarcely stand to their work, or keep their legs without something to lay hold by. There was no such thing as real repose for them when sitting or lying down upon deck, nor steadiness enough to eat or drink with any security; no meat could be dressed, nor did any man or officer go into bed. Until the afternoon of the 20th there was no venturing to bring her to, even for a boat to come on board; but, notwithstanding this desperate condition, when some were hourly dropping through fatigue and want of sleep, and the decks were covered with water, the whole of the crew behaved with the utmost obedience, attention and sobriety, and remitted no possible exertion for the preservation of the ship. Upon their separation taking place, the officers, who were distributed with portions of the crew among the Jamaica-men, had orders respectively to deliver them to the first man of war or tender they should meet with, and to acquaint the Secretary of the Admiralty, by the earliest opportunity, of their proceedings. A pendant was hoisted on board the Belle, by way of distinction, that she might, if possible, lead the rest. Some of the trade kept with her, and others made the best of their way, apprehensive lest they should soon fall short of provisions, as they had so many more to feed. The Silver Eel transport, which had sailed from Bluefields with the invalids of Sir George Rodney's fleet, and was under the command of a lieutenant of the navy, had been ordered to keep near the Ramillies. That ship was accordingly at hand on the 21st of September, the day of her destruction, and in consequence of several deaths on the passage had room enough for the reception of all who were now ailing or maimed, and was therefore charged with them, being properly fitted for their accommodation. The Silver Eel parted from the admiral in latitude 42 48 N. and longitude 45 19 W. after seeing the Ramillies demolished, and being ordered to make for the first port, ran into Falmouth the 6th of October, on the afternoon of which day, one of the trade ships, with a midshipman and sixteen of the crew of the Ramillies, reached Plymouth Sound. Another of the same convoy, having on board another part of the crew, with the captain and first lieutenant, anchored in the same place before day-light the next morning. The Canada, however, having exerted her utmost speed, had, prior to all these, on the 4th of the same month got to Portsmouth, where she spread the news of the dispersion of this miserable fleet, which being conveyed to France, her privateers immediately put to sea in hopes of making prizes of them. Some of the Jamaica-men, with part of the crew of the Ramillies, fell into their hands; two of the West Indiamen were captured in sight of the Belle, but she herself with the admiral and thirty-three of his crew, arrived safe, though singly, on the 10th of October in Cork harbor, where was the Myrmidon frigate. The admiral immediately hoisted his flag on board the latter, and sailing with the first fair wind, arrived, on the 17th, in Plymouth Sound, apparently in good health, but with a settled oppression upon his breast, from having been so long and so dreadfully exposed upon the deck of the Ramillies in the horrid night when she was first overtaken by the storm; nor could he remove that complaint for upwards of six months. He brought away with him nothing but a few of his private papers, the rest of his effects having shared the same fate as his ship. It was calculated that by the destruction of the fleet, upwards of twenty one thousand five hundred persons perished. The loss of property has been estimated by the British Government to be upwards of L20,000,000. The gale, which continued for six days, was the most tremendous one on record.

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