HMS Captain: Victorian Catastrophe
The story of HMS Captain is one of the most shocking in naval history. Laid down in 1867 and, unusually, partly funded by the public, she was one of the most innovative warships ever constructed.
She had a very low freeboard and two enormous rotating armoured gun turrets situated very close to the waterline in between the upper and lower decks. Turret ships were not a new invention but, hitherto, had only been used for coastal work: they were essentially floating iron rafts with an enormous rotating gun. With HMS Captain, for the first time we see that principle applied to a fully-rigged ocean going ship equipped with steam a engine and made of iron.
The designer, Captain Cowper Phipps Coles wanted a high-tech man-of-war which could go anywhere and sink anything. As with all turret ships, she was designed with a low freeboard but ended up with a lower freeboard than originally planned, and the vessel’s high centre of gravity made her dangerously unstable.
On the night of 6 September 1870, Captain was part of a combined fleet of the Channel and Mediterranean Squadrons of the Royal Navy, on manoeuvres in a diplomatic show of force, when a fierce gale knocked her down before the crew could cut loose her sails. Nearly the entire crew of some 500 officers and men went down with the ship, including her celebrated designer. Only eighteen men survived.
More English sailors were lost aboard HMS Captain than at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) or at sea during the entire Crimean War (1853-55).
The loss of the Captain was a national catastrophe, touching Queen Victoria personally, and memorialised at St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.
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From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today we are exploring one of the most shocking stories for a variety of reasons in naval history. It is the story of HMS Captain, one of the most innovative warships ever constructed. She was laid down in 1867, partly funded by the public, she had a very low freeboard and two enormous rotating armoured gun turrets situated very close to the water line in between the upper and lower decks. Now it’s quite difficult to describe so do make sure you go onto our firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on social media, Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok and you’ll find some images there. The key thing to note is that although turret ships were not a new invention, they had only hitherto been used for coastal work. They were essentially floating iron rafts with an enormous rotating gun. But here on HMS Captain for the first time you have that principle applied to a fully rigged ocean going ship, made of iron complete with steam engine. The designer, Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, wanted a high tech man of war, which could go anywhere, including across the Atlantic, and sink anything. Now she was designed with a low freeboard but ended up with a lower freeboard than originally planned, and the vessels high centre of gravity made her dangerously unstable. On the night of the sixth of September 1870, HMS Captain was part of a combined fleet of the Channel and Mediterranean squadrons of the Royal Navy on manoeuvres in a diplomatic show of force, when a fierce gale of hurricane strength knocked her down before the crew could cut loose her sails. Nearly the entire crew of some 500 officers and men went down with the ship, including her celebrated designer Captain Cowper Phipps Coles; only 18 men survived. More English sailors were lost aboard HMS Captain than at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, or at sea during the entire Crimean War. The loss of the Captain was a national catastrophe touching Queen Victoria personally and memorialised at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The University of Wolverhampton have launched a project to find the wreck of HMS Captain and what a discovery that would be. To find out more I spoke with naval historian and all round enthusiasts of all things relating to HMS Captain, Howard Fuller, a nd here he is.
Howard, thank you very much indeed for joining me this morning.
Well, thanks for inviting me Sam, a pleasure to be here.
Well, let’s take a look at the history of this extraordinary vessel. What was the state of the Royal Navy in the 1860s? What were their priorities? What were they thinking about?
The 1860s, as my monograph explored, is a very turbulent time. As it turns out, it’s a bit of a contradiction, because on the one hand, as a lot of historians have pointed out, this is a sort of Age of Equipoise. For the Victorians it’s an era of profound peace, progress, prosperity, Britain has come out of the Crimean War in victory. There are no major wars going on with any other great powers, peace is on the horizon, it’s the way people like it. And yet at the same time, in the early 1860s in particular, there is increasingly a sense of turmoil going on, around Britain, on the continent in Europe, in Russia, but particularly say in the United States; the American civil war breaks out in April 1861. And even of course at home there were, I won’t call it Chartist movements, but there was a sort of resurgence of the idea of reform. And this culminated of course, in the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867 after a series of public protests, call them riots, what have you, but it’s one of these wonderful sort of dichotomies that there was peace and satisfaction and law and order and all the rest of it, and yet there was also a lot of disquietude bubbling through. So in terms of the the Royal Navy in many respects in the mid 19th century, it never looked more powerful. It never looked like it was enjoying a clear playing field against would be adversaries or serious rivals in many respects, and yet on the other hand, as my own research has rather stumbled across, this is what the research was telling me. I was quite shocked in many respects over the years, I keep coming back to this, this can’t be real, this can’t actually be happening. This can’t be what the documents are actually saying, what the newspapers are saying, or what people are saying, and in personal letter collections, or what they’re even saying in official reports, like Admiralty reports. But it is what they were saying, that they felt they were losing control, that they were constantly under threat, that things might seem safe, but they weren’t safe at all, that they were on the brink of some kind of disaster, anything could go wrong; at any instant, they can find themselves suddenly involved in a crisis or even a war. And that war may go badly even for the Navy, it may go badly for a particular ship. So
Was that fear caused by changing technology do you think?
Very much by technology, very much by socio political or geopolitical environment going on around, it’s a whole swirl of factors that come together, and it is important to take these factors in mind, because the history of HMS Captain of course has been largely dominated by the original verdict of the Court Martial after the sinking of the Captain, which was that the mid Victorian public were to blame for even having the Captain built in the first place over the wishes over the Admiralty; specifically the Controller’s department is responsible for building and maintaining ships and the Controller didn’t want HMS Captain. They didn’t want Coles interfering with ship design, Ironclad ship design, building policies, and yet they felt pressured by the senior politician within the Navy, the first Lord of the Admiralty, they felt pressured by the rest of the Cabinet, various Cabinets as they came and went, both liberal and conservative. They felt pressured by spokes people in Parliament, they felt pressured by leading organs of the press, particularly the Times, but also they felt pressured by other people within the Navy. So veteran Admirals, Captain, people, all were weighing in on what kinds of ships should be built, and the kind of threats the Navy was facing or might be facing. And the fact that the public was blamed for building the ship is really, really extraordinary. A lot of people today perhaps will look at that and sort of shrug and go, wow, civilians can be real idiots, what were they thinking, that they had any conception of what was required to build a modern warship? How, you know, the effrontery of it all, and of course, they got people killed. They got a lot of people killed, 500 people went down, it was a disaster for the Navy, it never should have happened. People shouldn’tmeddle in things that they don’t understand. But that’s not good enough, Sam, you have to say, well, maybe you can just condemn the entire mid Victorian people as ridiculous and pushing where they shouldn’t have pushed, they shouldn’t have opened Pandora’s box, they shouldn’t have committed this sin or what have you, whatever. But why did they do that? Surely that was sensational and exceptional for them as well, that they felt like they had to do this kind of thing, that they had to ram a shipbuilding policy down the throats of the Admiralty, one of the most conservative time honoured institutions in at least Victorian society at that point, what was going on?
I think it’s perhaps to do with the British feeling like they deserved a say in the Navy, in the fate of their country, and they felt empowered to do so as well. Before we go any further I think a key part of this is actually also to do with the extraordinary nature of the design because it wasn’t just new, it was kind of crazy new, it was totally out there. Could you just describe HMS Captain for us?
Well, Sam, I think we have to be careful on the idea of crazy designs, because this period, of course, was full of crazy designs coming from all over directions. It is very much a sort of Jurassic Park frenzy of different evolutionary strands, all springing out in different directions for different reasons, crashing into one another, evolving rapidly, some designs turning out to be hopelessly terrible, obsolete, all the rest of it. Technology had never been more important in ship design. They had never been wilder and more distinctive, but there are varying degrees of craziness aren’t there? So I mean, the classic point of comparison you could say with HMS Captain wouldn’t be something like the USS Monitor on the one hand,of which the Captain was obviously trying to employ design characteristics, low freeboard, turret this kind of thing, but also even HMS Warrior on the other end of that spectrum, you know, sort of huge top hamper, full spread of sail, emphasis upon speed, this sort of thing, trying to combine those types of things. The real point of comparison for the Captain was HMS Monarch. It was the public that had also pressured the Admiralty to build a fully rigged sail-and- turret warship, and the first one was not the Captain, it was the Monarch, and yet the Monarch survived, the Monarch did quite well. The Monarch was sent over to the United States and back again. The Monarch had a high freeboard, so what we usually get to when we talk about why the Captain turned out the way she did was because the design concept is not necessarily at fault, it’s also the execution of it. The fact is that Coles was already saying that the high freeboard was something that can be tweaked, and the more we tweak it, the more savings and weight that can be applied then towards guns and armour, and guns and armour are increasingly becoming the obsession of the mid Victorians, that it’s a numbers game, it’s all about the numbers, and whoever has the thickest armour, or the biggest guns that can penetrate the thickest armour is going to win an engagement. And whoever wins that engagement is going to have gobs of prestige or gobs of prestige taken away from them. So the Captain’s pushing that limit by reducing the freeboard of the Monarch. And then as we know the design is altered, the construction is not supervised particularly well, everyone is experimenting as they go, no one knows what’s going to happen. And then the freeboard turns out lower still, and then as we know it turns out to be dangerously unstable.
But why was the construction not supervised properly?
Well, that’s a whole other can of worms. I mean, I won’t quite call it a scandal, but yes it was a scandal and one of the first people to bring up the idea that the Captain’s fate might have been different had it been more properly supervised, and who should have been responsible for that supervision, was the First Lord of the Admiralty, Hugh Childers, who wrote a very controversial public minute, and he publicised the minute even before he ran it past his own Controller. Basically he was suggesting that the Controller and the Constructors department, Sir Edward Reed, the Chief Naval Constructor, should have been a lot more hands on with the construction of the Captain. And therefore, because of the way they wash their hands of the building of that ship, this helped lead to the ship’s fate. But it’s not quite so simple as simply pointing the finger at Robinson or Reed or perhaps even Coles for that matter, because we also know that there were a lot of twists of fate, turns of events, that happened in the months leading up to the Captain’s final cruise in early September 1870, including the idea of having the ship tested for stability. So the first people who said we should test the ship because it’s experimental and we don’t really know, we’ve never built anything quite like this ourselves, was Laird’s, and they had asked for the test to be conducted. But in a strange twist of fate a series of events occurred, echoing perhaps very much the story of the tragedy of the Titanic, you know that if only they had done this, if only he had not gone for a cup of tea when he went on watch, if only he did not set the speed at this, if only they had welded the hull in a certain way, all these things seemed to happen, and it did play out in that way strangely enough with the Captain. The results of the tests, the inclination ,the results on stability, were brand new, they’d never been quite been done like that before. If only they’d been communicated just a few days before, if only they’d not been held up, if one guy had not been sick or something, or he’d just said, yes, I’d better not send that report and I’ll wait, you know, this kind of thing.
Let me just stop you there. So the results of the test were not known when the ship went to sea.
Yes, and had the results been telegraphed to someone in Spain perhap and communicated to Vice Admiral Milne in charge of these combined squadrons doing these manoeuvres off the coast of Spain, who knows, they might have acted a lot more cautiously I suppose some historians will say well look, even if they had been warned officially from people doing tests in Portsmouth that the ship had a really low angle of stability and if you push this far more than other ships in the squadron, you’re running the risk of a disaster, there’s a possibility that the Captain of the ship, Hugh Burgoyne, and Cowper Coles would have simply dismissed him. They would have said no, tests like that coming from the Admiralty are just another example of them trying to obstruct us and the ship sails fine; it’s already been tested, who knows they might have ignored it. But then again they might not have ignored it. All it would take would be something from Milne to say no, you’re going to treat that ship absolutely differently right now, that’s an order, and that would simply be the end of it. But as one of the things I found out when I was reviewing my own research and writing that book Sam was that Robinson had already planned to basically cashier the Captain as soon as it had come back from that cruise anyway, he had no intention of allowing Coles to become the new Edward Reed, the Chief Constructor. Whatever Childers might have pushed for, someone like Spencer Robinson was quite prepared to push back. And he had every intention of basically demonstrating by facts that he was very good at marshalling one way or another that the Captain was an inferior sailing turret warship compared with something like the Monarch. But even then, as we also know, it’s been well pointed out by other historians at the same time, they also had a mastless turret ship under construction, the plans for which have even been run by Coles who said, actually, it’s really good, you know, this sort of high freeboard or breastwork Monitor, that’s OK, something closer perhaps to the turret ship ideal. It’s approaching perhaps the sort of American Monitor ideal, but it’s a little bit more seaworthy, it can carry more coal, it’s got a greater range, it’s got incredible armour configuration, great guns on it. It’s ability to be used as a cruiser is always in doubt, a lot of people disapprove of that. And of course, Coles was insisting upon the Captain design, a sail-and-turret design, precisely because he wanted to have a cruiser that the Captain in 1870 is supposed to take up where the Warrior in 1860 had started, you know, this epitome of Imperial power, a cruiser that could be safely deployed in all corners of the globe if need be, economically fast, you know, making the most of British seamenship, the art of sailing, which your own works are very well familiar with, keeping that alive and going from 1860 to 1870 beyond, the Captain the ship that can do it, maybe not necessarily the devastation. But again, Reed and Robinson had already come to the conclusion that the Captain wasn’t going anywhere, despite Coles influence with the First Sea Lord, proponents and press and all the rest of it. I tend to believe myself that the Captain was probably doomed career wise, even if it did come back from that cruise in the beginning of September 1870.
Tell us what we know about the storm in which she sank?
Well, I have gone through all the ship’s logs, I’ve gone through all kinds of other evidence trying to figure out what happened on that night. I mean, first of all, to try to determine minute by minute where the Captain might have been in relation to the other ships and where the other ships were, from the time that the sun went down to the time that the Captain foundered, based on various reports and all the rest, and one of the things that we’ve been looking at very closely is the state of the weather. And one of the things that became obvious to myself was that the weather itself is quite controversial in the Captain story, because on the one hand, people dismiss it, saying it was just a squall, it was just heavy rain. Some people say it was a gale, which could be all kinds of things. Some people will call it a storm. Some people call it even a hurricane. What we do know is that at some point, right before the Captain sank, the winds did reach hurricane strength. And I think what you’re talking about is what they call a confused sea. So it had a cross sea and all kinds of very peculiar conditions going on that night as it was. And I think that yes, the Captain was rolling over very heavily, the sea was doing that to the ship. But I think what finally did the Captain in was a combination of the sea pushing the Captain over to the brink, and a freakish wind that suddenly ripped through the fleet just after midnight, and basically damaged every every ship in the squadron that night; everyone lost spars, masts, parts of their figureheads were wrenched off. It was a freakish wind that ripped through the fleet and that’s what pushed the Captain over finally. And the fact that it still had some sails going and they couldn’t get the sails down in time, and then to be hit with that kind of wind on top of everything else, that was a pushing factor. I think it was a freak wind, I think it was something that was unbelievabe because then it doesn’t quite sit with the reports of the rest of the weather for that night. But it had reached an escalation, a freakish wind developed to hurricane pitch and then it died down again. The storm lasted for two hours afterwards anyway. But that was definitely something that was freakishly strong. And I’m not saying that that excuses the Captain’s seaworthiness, because of course, any ship that goes to sea has to contend with the idea that they could be caught in a typhoon, you know, and ships succumb to severe weather even in this day and age all the time. I think there are a lot of people surprised even during the Second World War how many ships succumbed to typhoons in spite of all the modern testing, steel lhulls and all the rest of it, disasters still happen and mankind’s worst enemy at sea is still Mother Nature,
Did the sinking produce any changes in the future policy of the Admiralty about construction and design?
Well yes obviously, the idea of independent naval pundits putting forth ideas that they felt should be seriously reviewed by the Constructors Department, that sort of practice which had been developing in the 1860s had gone hand in hand with the Development Establishment of the Institute of Naval Architects at the time, that lost all credibility. Of course there’s nothing quite so dramatic as someone like an independent advocate, even though he was a Royal Navy officer like Cowper Coles, going down with his own ship, 500 men going down as well. That pretty much ended it, but occasionally you can tell by looking through volumes like the transactions of the Institute of Naval Architects, or even Royal United Services Institute for that matter; people were still coming forward and saying, I think the Army should be building this kind of gun, or we should be developing these kinds of tactics, or I think that we should be building these types of ships. That kind of independent criticism and ideas were still going through, but in terms of their ability to convert that into political pressure that might affect the First Lord and directives to the First Sea Lord and the Controller’s department or something like that, I think that radically changed. As Stanley Sander I think was well to point out, Captain was the only privately designed battleship for the Royal Navy, and they tried it and it didn’t work spectacularly.
Why do you think they did try it? Why do you think they changed things and just decided to give this bloke a chance?
Well, that brings us back to what we were saying at the beginning in terms of why was the public backing Coles and why were people in the press, other naval professionals, there were still people even within the Board of Admiralty themselves, who felt that Coles was probably on to something and that he was in fact, right. He was being obstructed for personal reasons by Robinson and Reed, it was more about Reed’s ego or Robinson’s obstinacy in terms of being a Controller with too much power, especially when he’s made a Third Naval Lord thanks to Childers reforms. They felt that someone like Robinson was probably too powerful for his own good. So how much credibility do you give what they would say in terms of their opposition to cause his ideas? It’s more about I think the idea that people at the time were not quite so confident in the Royal Navy’s ability to project power in a sort of classic Palmerstonian way that they had grown up with in many respects in the heyday of Palmerstonian foreign policies, starting in the 1840s but culminating with things like involvement of the Crimean War. And even during the American Civil War Palmerston’s actions during the Trent affair, very much classic naval gunboat diplomacy, and it worked brilliantly. They didn’t even have to deploy the Warrior; the Americans only had to have a threat that the Warrior was coming and they would have no response. And this kind of gunboat diplomacy, of course, is a great way of solving short term problems. But you know, Abraham Lincoln learned a lesson in naval gunboat diplomacy from Lord Palmerston, but it was also the way of course that gunboat diplomacy sparks reactions from people. So once you humiliate somebody chances are they will back down but then they will immediately take steps to make sure that that never happens to them again. And the Lincoln administration during the American Civil War was no different. They laid down all kinds of specific types of warships and re- fortifying all their forts along their their seaboard and taking steps to prepare for a war against Britain that will stretch over into Canada, possibly the Caribbean. All these kinds of steps were taken. Congress spent a lot of money basically preparing for war against Britain during the American Civil War, on top of everything else, and these types of reactions, of course made their way back to Britain, they gave Palmerston pause for thought, Earl Russell as well. They had got themselves into a bit of trouble not long afterwards over Prussia and Austria, its involvement against Denmark with the Holstein crisis. Again, they wanted things to be a certain way, they made some specific threats. And when they found that the French were willing to back them up with an army or something, and that Bismarck perhaps was taking the threats and just shrugging them off, what are they going to do? You know, what are they going to do about it? And it did lead to a sort of, I think, very much a sea change of British foreign policy that was going from a sort of liberal interventionism, confident liberal interventionism, to something that was far more cautious. So that the Times, for example, was now beginning by about 1863 or 1864, to champion a British foreign policy mantra of non intervention. Not quite isolation, but it’s the beginning, you could say, of isolation by non intervention, like we shouldn’t get involved. We need to keep our mouths shut, because we’re going to get involved in one war after another, and then what are we going to do about it? It was one thing to go against Russia, when we could perhaps rely upon the French army to help us conduct operations, and our number one naval rival was now our ally. But can we rely upon France now in a crisis over Poland in 1863, or Denmark, or the Northern states during the American Civil War, all these other crises that were developing, and that I think led to a lot of uncertainty. And yes, the technology, the iron clad revolution that was going on at the time. The big problem with the iron clad revolution, Sam at this time, if you wanted to put your finger on anything, I would say it would be the turret. It’s the turret that creates all the problems because the turret seems to be a way of mounting a gun that’s far bigger and heavier and can throw a much more damaging projectile than anything that could have been mounted on the broadside at the time, I think we get about 68 pounders that seem to be about the limit. But, you know, if you’ve got a gun mounted on the centerline of the vessel, and it’s on a rotating turntable, and you could perhaps even rotate a massive gun with steam power on top, that was a game changer and the fact that it could be also heavily protected with armour plating directly and you could concentrate the armour plating far more than you could in spreading armour plating along a long broadside or something or starting all these various design compromises like boxing off the broadsides into a central battery, these types of things. The turret was still a problem, because you could invent something like Reed did which is to say a central battery ironclad like Bellepheron and say, well look, that Warrior design isn’t going to work, It’s only going to take us so far, four and a half inches armour isn’t going to cut it anymore, we run the risk of disaster if we intervene somewhere and get ourselves into a fight with someone who’s got thicker armour or heavier guns. Bellepheron is the way to go. But even then, six inches of central battery armour concentrated like that is still not going to be as strong it seems technically as a turret. Coles could say, well, that’s fine, but I’ve got an even heavier gun behind even thicker armour in the form of a turret and you can swing that gun around and it’s more manoeuvrable and your ship will be more manoeuvrable, more cost effective. And this is a real gnawing point to the rest of the Board, saying we can’t just jam a turret onto a ship like that, and then still call it a cruiser. There’s loads of technical problems like where are you going to put all the masts and sails? If you’re willing to get rid of masts and sails and have a Monitor, then you get a clear arc of fire. But your ship isn’t going to go very far. And how’s that going to serve our Navy? You know, this kind of thing? So it is a conundrum.
And it was one solution to that. Well tell us about the search for the Captain, let’s bring this up to date.
OK, well I was working on a follow up article about two summers ago now, and I thought it would be interesting to mention the wreck of the Captain. And it suddenly occurred to me that I can’t recall anybody finding the wreck of the Captain, so I started doing searches and looking through the Mariners Mirror actually, I was going through quite a bit of those and said, well, someone surely has been looking for it or found it. Nope, as it turns out, no, and there were websites out there like wrecksite.eu, which is a very fantastic database of shipwrecks. And they even had a listing for the location of the Captain shipwreck, and I thought, oh, that means it’s been discovered. And I contacted the people who ran the website, it was someone in the UK. He was Dutch, and I contacted him and he said, well, actually, no, it’s a guess and I thought, oh, all right. So I’ve made a lot of inquiries, and it turned out that no one has actually found the wreck of the Captain. So I sat there thinking, that’s a ship that really should be found, it’s HMS Captain. You know, this is the biggest in many respects, it’s the biggest ship disaster suffered by the Royal Navy throughout the entire 19th century. So the devastating body blow to the mid Victorian psyche at the time, devastating enough that it would get its own plaque treatment in St. Paul’s Cathedral and its own stained glass window in Westminster Abbey, what shipwreck does that? And yet at the same time, no one has really undertaken the pursuit. And it’s not like it’s at the bottom of the Antarctic, like Shackleton’s Endurance, it’s not like it’s in the North Atlantic two miles down with the Titanic, we know that it’s off the coast of Spain. And there’s a big debating point as to whether or not it was still even within sight of the Spanish coast when it foundered, so it couldn’t be that far out. The only question then was the state of the ocean floor. And I began exploring this, and began consulting with marine archaeologists, because I am not a marine archaeologist, I’m a naval historian at best, and this was all sort of new for me. So it was more about going out and consulting with experts and shipwreck hunters and saying, well, if we wanted to find the Captain, and this is the evidence, I mean, how would we go about doing this and what do you think? I was getting a lot of really good advice from some knowledgeable, experienced people. And one of the things that’s a problem with looking for the wreck of the Captain is that the Spanish Continental shelf goes out about 20 miles, and then it drops off a cliff, and then it drops like an extra 1000 metres. And a lot of our guesswork based on the evidence that we gathered from the search was suggesting that the Captain probably sank right on that edge. And if it sank on that edge, and it went off that cliff, then it’s a mile down and it may even be on that cliff, it may be in a crevasse. You know, it could be on very broken uneven ground, this ship could even be broken to pieces, even though it didn’t suffer any explosions or battle damage, it capsized and sank. It should be intact, it could be broken up from that kind of impact on that kind of terrain. So we were at that point getting estimates from UK based marine surveyors to at least go out there and use a sort of first pass at sonar technology, which would be multibeam echo sounders. Because a multibeam will send out a certain kind of beam, which let’s just say is a wide beam, it picks up a certain amount of detail very quickly. That’s the sort of first layer of searching that you would do. And then if you start identifying likely targets, they seem to be ships, then yes, you go back with things that are more specific, sidescan sonar, and you could do detailed search. And then when you zero in on what you think it’s actually what could be very much the ship you’re looking for, then yes, you deploy an ROV and a camera. OK, fine. So they’ve done all this legwork. For example, when they found Shackleton’s Endurance last Spring, I mean, those steps have all been undertaken. So we were getting estimates on this. And we knew that if we were going to try to find a shipwreck like the Captain, even if it was just off the coast of Spain, we would need funding, you need sponsors, you need patrons, it’s expensive business because it’s using state of the art technology. And you are basically mapping out portions of the Earth’s surface, or sub surface, if you will, the bottom of the ocean, that have never been mapped before. There are some interesting sort of factoids from sites like National Geographic that suggests that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of our own oceans. It’s true. I mean, you could send a ROV to Mars and have that thing go around as long as the battery will last, or solar panels will last. But in terms of sending a ROV on the bottom of the oceans, well, that’s a bit more difficult. And it’s only now I think that NOAA, for example, in the States has tried to systematically map the ocean floor, but my gosh, the cost and the time and everything else required, it’s only arguably within the past 20 or 30 years it seems that we even have technology to do this kind of thing realistically, using satellites as well, and all this other stuff. But so I started giving a series of talks, started raising public awareness about the Captain, because again, as we often say, the Captain is the most famous shipwreck you’ve never heard of. And there’s a whole discussion about that as well. And I was contacted by a Spanish documentary company and they said, we’ve been looking for the wreck of HMS Captain. And I said, well, actually we started looking for the wreck of the Captain as well, why don’t we combine our efforts? And their methodology was totally different from the one that we had done. We were taking a sort of conventional methodology, which is to go through archives and gather all the available historical evidence, witnesses, testimonies, whatever, and start plotting it out, you know. They had decided to just simply interview local Galician fishermen who have been literally trawling the waters, say 20 miles out from Cape Finisterre for generations, they’re literally trawling their nets on the ocean floor. And they encounter all manner of shipwrecks, because of course this area, the Costa da Morte you know, equivalent to say, off Cape Hatteras, the graveyard of the Atlantic and the United States, or off of the Scilly Isles, Cornwall, you know, it’s noted for shipwrecks, bad weather, coastline shipwrecks, and the Captain is their most famous shipwreck, actually, it’s their biggest loss of life, it’s their biggest wreck, it’s never been found. What they didn’t know was that it’s not in shallow enough water where divers could ever get to it. So unfortunately we’re not going to be able to treat the Captain in the same way that divers could say access the wreck of HMS Gloucester, or the Mary Rose for that matter. It’s just for far enough out where it’s at least 500 feet down, and unless you’re very skilled divers, and you’ve got loads of decompression time and all the rest, it’s very, very hazardous to try to dive at that depth, you’re not going to do it. Fine. So no one has found it, then again, it could be intact, you could at least hopefully prevent scavengers later on if you do find it, this kind of thing. So they have been interviewing all these fishermen and the fishermen had their own sort of private map, which they had put together. And they had started specifically labelling some of these mystery wrecks because they don’t know what the wrecks are either then after playing sonar, and one of them they simply called El Capitan, and they were convinced that was the Captain. And I had long discussions with them over a period, and they were saying things like, well, Howard they know on some of these wrecks what kind of fish that they can net on one end of the wreck as opposed to different kinds of fish that they can get on the other end of the wreck. And I said, you’re kidding me and they said no, actually, they’ve worked it out minutely. And I said, OK, let’s see the map. Well, they won’t even let us see the map. They’re very guarded about this map, because, you know, this is their territory, despite it being in international waters, or say in Spain’s EEZ zone, fine. But the fishermen, I suppose you could say by ancient right, feel that these are their waters, and the wrecks are something that they deal with on a daily basis, it’s part of their lives. So they were very cautious about throwing this away. And they did manage to allow this documentary crew access to the map. And I said, well, look, we can combine our resources with those resources. And I think it makes perfect sense that we hit their targets first. For one thing, they’re in shallow water, and they’re still on that continental shelf. So we should probably hit those first with a multibeam and see what we’re talking about here. And then if they don’t pan out, if it’s not the Captain and then we’re further out to sea, even by a a couple of nautical miles, and we’re probably off that cliff it’s going to be much harder to find. And that’s then me going to professional shipwreck hunters at that point. So we have some lined up already, but the first thing was to go out there and look there, and that’s what we did. So the University of Wolverhampton was firstly a bit astonished by the idea that we were looking for a shipwreck because we don’t typically look for shipwrecks. Most universities don’t tend to get into the shipwreck hunting business, and if they do very naturally they might be close to the sea. Wolverhampton is about as landlocked as it gets, we have some lovely canals which are usually filled with shopping trolleys, this kind of thing. But we’re strong in war studies, we’re strong in military history, we have a very vibrant naval history offering actually, and I’d just written a book about the Captain. So
REF were willing to get behind the project. We had some REF money from the the last REF from our Centre for Historical Research. So they put some money forward. And we basically co-sponsored the first expedition, which did go out on the end of August last year. And it was a quick one off expedition. We went up from Porto Novo in Spain, I flew down there. There was discussion that Sherard Coles might come as well, but we said well, wait, why don’t we do the multibeam? When we think we know absolutely this is the Captain, we’re ready to deploy an ROV, fly down and you can go and see your great grandfather’s ship, you know, but not now. I’ll go down there and see what we’ve got. And so we went down there, and we followed their map and we hit four shipwrecks in four hours. They’ve never been documented, we don’t even know what they are. But it was obvious on the scans that were coming up, it was almost a straight line, so that the mapping was direc;t they were either too small, so they were like fishing trawlers and we were saying, allright, this isn’t anywhere near the size of the Captain. And I was sitting at the stern of the vessel at that point and I was looking at the scene, going well, that’s a bust. And one of the film crew came up to me, she’s really excited, and she said, we’ve had a ship that’s over 90 metres. And I said, really? And she said yes, so we all rushed up and we huddled around the monitors and the scans were coming in. And we started circling around this, and as the scans were coming in we’re all staring at it. And the image was clearly of a vessel that had settled on its keel, so it wasn’t upside down, which is possible, it was only about 500 feet. So if the Captain had capsized, it’s possible that the weight of the engines, boilers, all the rest, might have slowly turned the ship over just in time, by the time it hit the bottom of the ocean. It’s very close, I’m still kind of dubious of this, but there was a ship that seemed to be upright. And when you looked at the image, I guess you could call it gestalt. But it was clearly what seemed to be a poop, and a forecastle with a low centre in the centre, and there was a debris field in the middle. And it was looking very much like the Captain and the thing that the multibeam can do for you, even though it’s not as precise as a sidescan sonar, it can give you measurements. So we were very keen on getting the measurements of what seemed to be the end of the stern to the tip of the forecastle, and also the beam of this wreck. And it was within about a metre of HMS Captain. So it was so bang on, so dead close, and it was also metallic. There seemed to be something floating around it. And unfortunately, the people who are doing the survey, Rovsea Marine Services and Hyomatech, these two local companies based in Galicia who professionally do this work all the time, they said that’s probably netting. So there’s a possibility there could be a net around this wreck or several nets even but at least it might be something floating over the wreck. That could be a problem later if we try to deploy an ROV. But never mind, the rest of the scan seemed to be dead on, it was a metallic ship, the general configuration seemed very close to the Captain. And then we were also saying well, what other ship could this be? The only other ship that came close was a German freighter about four or five miles away, called the Schwaneck. But that was the third ship that we hit, those dimensions seemed to match the Schwaneck almost bang on. So we didn’t think that that was it. We thought that the third wreck we hit was the Schwaneck and this wreck was something different, was also bigger than the Schwaneck, bigger enough, you know. And so we had a debate, it was very, very interesting I have to say, and I was looking at this, and I went up top and I said here’s the problem, look, you can still see the coast. We have to take into account the survivors’ accounts and all the rest of it, that they were rolling through the night before they said they could see the lighthouse, before they
could see the cliffs. And you know, my Spanish colleagues were saying, well, but you obviously didn’t see the cliffs until daylight, right? I said, yes. They said, well, how do we know that they weren’t just rolling about in circles, and waiting for daylight, and they were actually within sight of the coast until the light came up? And I said, that’s true, I don’t. So we’ve gone over the accounts again very carefully, and it’s like, yes, the boat turned around a couple of times, you know, a couple times it almost foundered, whatever, it’s possible that it’s this close to the coast. It’s literally within about three nautical miles of the search box that we’d established for ourselves anyway. So we have to check it out. And again, one thing that professional shipwreck hunters will tell you, Sam, is that dead reckonings and of course, the way that they calculated speed, you know, here’s how many knots we’re going, let’s throw that rope over and pull that rope back in one knot at a time. Yes, we’re going five knots. You know, it’s so imprecise, compared with GPS and other stuff that we’re spoiled with so quickly today, that when you’re trying to calculate how fast ships are going, what direction they were going in, how reliable even these records are in Admiralty records you know; these people were professional sailors, you know, they had nautical instruments, they were trained at them, they were old, experienced navigators, surely they couldn’t be off. Yes, they could. They could be off quite a bit, actually. They did the best that they could with what they had. But in terms of how reliable that is for us today, no, I mean, and that when they found Shackleton’s Endurance you could say it’s a case in point; even in the beginning of the 20th century the dead reckonings and the calculation of where they left the ship, when they took off on their trek was radically different from where they actually found it. And part of that, yes, was the fact that the ship drifted, the ice flows drifted, and all the rest of it, but another part of that was the fact that they can only be as precise as they could when they took the measurements that they did.
It’s very exciting, and I do wish you all the best, it’s a fascinating project. I actually had never heard of HMS Captain, so I’m delighted to now know about the Captain, and I think we should spread the word as much as possible. But Howard, thank you very much indeed for talking to me today.
My pleasure, Sam, if you get me started, I’ll go forever. The only thing I’ll add here is that we do have a public charity set up by the university to take donations to help us fund to go back and see what that mystery ship is, and it’s findthecaptain.co.uk
Great stuff. Well, thank you very much. And I’d encourage everyone to go and look at that. That’s find thecaptain.co.uk.
Thank you all so much for listening. So to find out more, please do head to findthecaptain.co.uk where you will find a public charity set up by the University of Wolverhampton to accept donations for their fantastic project. That’s it for now there’s more great stuff coming your way soon, and of course, loads of episodes to suit any maritime taste in our back catalogue from pirates to mermaids, battles, fishing, exploration, discovery, you name it. And of course, please check out our brilliant YouTube channel which has got some really magnificent videos which will change the way that you think about the maritime past. The podcast is funded by both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research. They’re both fantastic, please check them both out you can find the History and Education Centre of the Lloyd’s Register foundation at h e c.lr foundation.org.uk. And the Society for Nautical Research@snr.org.uk Thanks so much for listening guys,cheerio.
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