Storm warning

To a weather forecaster, nothing is more heart-breaking than a ship sinking in conditions that were foreseeable.

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Alexander Turnbull Library

On December 18, 2011, as the Russian drill rig Kolskaya was being towed across the Sea of Okhotsk on Russia’s east coast, it capsized and sank in 20 minutes. Fourteen crew wearing survival suits were pulled alive from the icy waters, another 53 perished.

The Kolskaya, which was wider than it was long, was being relocated to drill off the coast of Vietnam. Weather conditions at the time were described in one account as severe, but in another the winds were reported to be gusting only 30 to 40 knots, with waves of six metres—well short of severe and not unusual for the Sea of Okhotsk at that time of year. It was a report consistent with the forecast weather maps available many days earlier.

The widow of the Kolskaya’s captain was quoted in the Russian newspaper Kosomol­skaya Pravda as saying that her husband did not want to make the voyage because of the conditions likely to be encountered, and had submitted his resignation. Members of other bereaved families also said their men were reluctant to cross the Sea of Okhotsk so late in the season.

An enquiry was held and the owners of the rig said that the families of the victims will each receive at least three million rubles ($123,000) in compensation.

But while the circumstances surrounding the tragedy may be contentious, it serves to underscore the importance of forecasting in the potentially dangerous maritime environment.

It was a tragic shipwreck that spurred the former Governor of New Zealand, Admiral Robert FitzRoy, to begin issuing the first storm warnings in England in February 1861. Just over a year before, the Royal Charter sank in a sudden violent storm off the coast of Wales with the loss of 459 lives. Only four years old, the Royal Charter was an iron sailing ship equipped with steam engines for use when winds were light or from the wrong direction.

Late in October 1859, she was returning to Liverpool from Melbourne. As she sailed up the west coast of Wales, the wind was strengthening and the barometer dropping. According to some survivors, the captain was advised to put into Holyhead Harbour for shelter, but decided to continue. The wind continued to rise, eventually reaching hurricane force.

The engines were not powerful enough to drive the ship into the storm and she was forced to anchor off the north coast of the island of Anglesey. Both anchor chains parted in the early hours of 26 October. The Royal Charter initially grounded on a sandbank, but as the tide rose, the ship was driven onto rocks close to shore and broke up in three-quarters of an hour.

One of the sailors swam to shore with a line, making it possible for a handful of passengers and crew to reach safety. Others of the 39 survivors ended up in the water, but miraculously made it to shore through huge waves by clinging to floating wreckage. The remaining 459 drowned or were battered to death on the rocks. (Some were weighed down by gold coins and jewellery in their pockets as they had been prospecting on the Victorian gold fields.)

Around 200 ships were sunk by the same weather system, which became known as the Royal Charter Storm.

After studying the weather, Admiral FitzRoy became convinced that a warning could have been issued in time for ships to take shelter. He successfully argued the case at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and in a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. In June 1860, he was given official permission to start a storm-warning service. He arranged for barometers to be distributed around the British Isles. Readings were telegraphed to him every morning and warnings telegraphed back to shore stations when necessary.

A rapid fall in the barometer remains an important sign of an approaching storm, but it’s not always heeded.

The worst shipwreck in recent New Zealand history was the sinking of the inter-island ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour in 1968, with the eventual loss of 53 lives. As Wahine passed the northern end of the Kaikoura Coast in the early hours of April 10, the barometer on board registered a fall of 5.6 hPa in just over an hour. The wind had increased to a strong gale and the waves were so large, difficulty was experienced steering the vessel.

The master mariners who assisted the judge at the court of inquiry into the loss of the ship believed that these circumstances were grounds for abandoning the attempt to enter Wellington Harbour. With such a large fall in atmospheric pressure, the wind could be expected to increase further, while the waves would become larger, and extreme turbulence should have been anticipated in the shallow water in the harbour mouth.

As Wahine entered the harbour, the master Captain Gordon Robertson ordered the engines to be reduced to half speed. Although this was normal practice, as the ferry slowed, the crests of the larger waves were moving at a similar speed to the ship, so the rudder became less effective and the vessel turned partially side-on to the waves. Soon after, it rolled heavily.

In poor visibility—with the radar inef­fective because of blowing spray—the master manoeuvred Wahine by instinct for 28 minutes before the ship hit the rocks. According to the judge, the captain was endeavouring to point the vessel south in order to sail away from danger. According to the master mariners’ interpretation of the engine tapes and witnesses, both on board and on land, Wahine was pointing south by 6.20am but then attempted to turn north again to continue entering the harbour.

Once she struck Barrett Reef, Wahine lost power and her anchors were dropped. The wind increased over the next three hours, reaching a maximum velocity of around 80 knots, gusting to 100 knots, between 9am and 10am. Paradoxically, this increase of wind and waves helped to drive the ship inside the harbour, which is believed to have reduced the loss of life after Wahine finally capsized in the early afternoon.

Ignoring the barometer can be fatal.

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