Friday, 9 May 2014

Anecdote Saturday - HMS Captain

The HMS Captain was an iron frigate launched 27 March 1870. Built by Laird Brothers, Birkenhead, she comprised 6 960 long tons, 320 ft in length with a draught of 24 ft 10 in. She was a combination sail and steam vessel with twin 4 cylinder horizontal steam engines fed by 8 boilers. Her sail plan - ship rig: 37 990 sq ft of sail. This combination gave the Captain 15.25 knots. She was crewed by 500 seamen and officers.


4 x 12-inch 25 ton muzzle loading rifles (2 x 2)
2 x 7-inch 6.5 ton muzzle loading rifles (2 x 1)


Belt:      4–8 in (100–200 mm)
Turrets: 9–10 in (230–250 mm)

The Captain, a masted turret ship, was built against the advice of the Controller's Department, Royal Navy. Turrets were a new patent (Captain Cowper Phipps Coles) stemming from the Crimean War. Sea trials favoured the new development in the context of coastal defence. However, for ocean going defence, the combination of rigging, masts and turrets proved too complicated if a clear arc of fire was to be provided by the turrets.

1865, a committee was convened by the Navy to establish the viability of a twin turret fully rigged ocean-going warship. The Admiralty initially accepted the findings and ordered the construction of the HMS Monarch. However, due to concerns about the design, the Admiralty cancelled the project resulting in Coles launching a campaign against members of the committee and Admiralty. His contract as a consultant to the Admiralty was terminated 1866.

But Coles did not give up there and lobbied the press and Parliament which forced the Admiralty to concede and allow Coles to build his own twin turret design. Privately contracted out to Laird and Brothers, Merseyside, construction of the Captain commenced May 1866. The iron warship was designed with hurricane decks suspended above the turrets, to avoid damaging rigging when firing and tripod masts were used to minimise rigging. The design required a freeboard of only 8 ft. which could cause flooding of the gun deck.

Once again the Admiralty raised concerns, including the warship was too heavy and the centre of gravity was too high (low metacentric height). This was further exacerbated by the large surface area of canvas sail above the Captain. But construction continued, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir John Pakington wrote to Coles 23 July, 1866, stating very clearly that any responsibility for failure would fall at the feet of Coles and the builders.

Poor supervision during construction resulted in a vessel 735 long tons heavier than intended, a freeboard reduced from an already low 8 ft to 6 ft 6 in. due to the weight.  The centre of gravity rose by 10 in. creating a singularly unstable vessel. The sea trials in which the Captain performed relatively well mitigated concerns and the Captain was commissioned 30 April, 1870, under Captain Hugh Talbot Burgoyne, VC.

6 September, 1870, the Captain joined the fleet off Cape Finisterre, Galicia, Spain. An increasing wind and sea caused concern as waves crashed over the weather deck. The weather deteriorated into the night, forcing the reduction in number of sails and the Captain was pushed sideways as gale force conditions increased. Just after midnight the Captain heeled over 18 degrees, lurched twice to starboard and rolled over before any further adjustments to sails could be made. 500 souls, including Coles, perished. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Hugh Childers, and Under-Secretary of State for War, Thomas Baring, both lost their sons. A mere 18 survived the disaster.

The subsequent Inquiry (included such notables as Lord Kelvin, and William Macquorn Rankine) arrived at the conclusion:

'The Captain was insufficiently stable'.

The righting moment was calculated to be just 410 foot-tons when the Captain heeled over to 14 degrees. An inclining test had been performed on the Captain, but she had set sail on her final, fatal voyage before the results of the trial were published.

"the Captain was built in deference to public opinion expressed in Parliament and through other channels, and in opposition to views and opinions of the Controller and his Department"

The Waratah had a freeboard of 8 ft 1 in. when fully loaded, marginally better than the Captain's 6 ft 6 in. This would have facilitated flooding of the main deck during heavy seas and raises the question of the fore hatch stoving in under severe conditions. The Waratah however was stable, with an acceptable metacentric height and righting moment.

HMS Captain

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

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