Friday, October 21, 2011

The Scilly Naval Disaster

It is the fall of 1707.  Several European nations were halfway through the 13-year long War of the Spanish Succession.  In a power trip not unlike some present day NCAA schools, France and Spain were considering uniting into one super-conference to get the upper hand in Europe.  They figured if they hooked up they would have a better chance to take out their arch-rival Great Britain in the Fiesta Bowl of world domination.  Not wanting to be outcoached, Britain cock-blocked France and Spain by phoning up the Dutch, Portugal, and others, and started up the Euro Trash Conference. 

British forces were in the Mediterranean, attempting to smack down the French at their port city of Toulon.  A fleet of ships was sent by Britain to Toulon to help reinforce the troops.  They decided to put their own Urban Meyer in charge, sending Sir Cloudsley Shovell, the Commander in Chief of the British Fleets along to call the plays.  They did engage in some fighting, but ultimately the French threw a red flag and challenged a call.  It was reversed by the replay booth, so the Brits decided to just run out the clock and go in for halftime.  Ordered back to England, Sir Cloudsley and a fleet of 21 ships sailed past Gibralter, out of the Mediterranean, and headed home.

Sir Cloudsley Shovell

Sir Cloudsley was on the ship HMS Association.  At 165 feet in length, it boasted 90 cannon and carried 800 men.  They led the way out into the Atlantic Ocean and north towards England.  The convoy was battered continuously by bad storms and strong gales.  Eventually Sir Cloudsley peered out into the storm, switched on his right turn blinkers, and hung a Ralph into what he thought was the safety of the English Channel.  His men, thinking they were finally about to win the BCS, dumped Gatorade on Sir Cloudsley and did some embarrasing touchdown dances on the fo'c'sle.  There was one thing though- there was still time on the clock.

There was one little problem about sailing the Seven Seas in 1707.  You and your shipmates often didn't know exactly where you were.  The reason for this is that there had yet to be developed a perfect system of determining longitude.  Longitude is simply a way of noting how far east or west you are.  If you are out of sight of land on a ship you have no reference points to tell where you are exactly.  There are no clues to tell you precisely where you are on a map.  The way to solve that problem is that if you know the exact time of day locally, you can compare it to the exact time of day that it is in a known reference point, say London, and you can then calculate how far east or west of London you are.  You can then pinpoint your location on a map.  But if you are hundreds of miles from land, who are you going to ask what time it happens to be there? 

Sir Cloudsley and his 21 ships thought they were safely in the English Channel and almost home.  Sadly, due to the storms and other problems inherent with navigation at the time, they had miscalculated. They were actually still some distance west of the southwest tip of England.  It sucks to be them, because exactly 304 years ago today, on what truly was "a dark and stormy night," they sailed  unknowingly right toward the Scilly Isles.

They thought they were in the English Channel, but were actually at the Scilly Isles (in blue)

The Scilly Isles lie about 30 miles off the very tip of England.  There are 145 granite rock islands, of which 5 are inhabited.  Many of these islands are little more than house-sized rocks sticking out of the ocean.  Not big enough to live on, but plenty big to trash a ship slamming into one in the middle of the night during a storm.  And that is exactly what happened. 

The Scilly Isles

 Four of the ships hit rocks and sank, including the Association.  Estimates varied, but it is accepted that between 1,400 and 2,000 men lost their lives that night.  Sir Cloudsley's body washed ashore on one of the inhabited islands the next day, seven miles from where his ship went down.

Engraving of the disaster

Needless to say, this was big news back in London. The British government was getting pretty sick and tired of this bogus longitude problem and all the 15 yard roughing the passer penalties it was creating.  In 1714 they created the Board of Longitude.  The Board got together and wrote up one of those snappy mission statements saying something like "Working toward a market-driven, customer-oriented, fiscally responsible ability to calcuate longitude like a boss"  They established the Longitude Prize, a carrot to entice scientists off their asses, out of the pubs, and get to figuring out a way to calculate longitude consistantly and accurately.  The Board made it rain with some eye popping cash prizes- 10,000 pounds if you could calculate longitude within 60 nautical miles, 15,000 for within 40 nm, and 20,000 if you could dial it in to within 30 nm.  In 1714 dollars that's some serious wild weekend in Vegas spending money.  They also offered smaller prizes for people who made genuine contributions to solving the bigger problem.

It was known that the best way to calculate your longitude was like this:  If, before you leave on  your ship voyage, you have a clock that is perfectly set to a known standard time, and you take it with you, you can always look at it and know what your reference point time is.  Then, when the sun is directly overhead, you can use noon as your local time, and utilizing the reference clock you can calculate your longitude pretty accurately.  So the problem was not to be solved by coming up with a new way to calculate longitude- it required inventing a better clock. 

In the 1700s, clocks were totally mechanical devises. They were made up of springs and gears, with no batteries or quartz movements or anything like that.  The metals used weren't as rigid and reliable as they are now.  Even in the best of times your clock at home, assuming you were rich enough to own one, had to be reset often.  For a ship at sea, with the pitching and rolling and varying temperatures and humidity, clocks were notoriously bad at keeping accurate time.  It didn't do any good to set your clock before your voyage, it would be soon be inaccurate.  In order to calculate your distance within 60 nm you needed to have a clock that stayed very accurate for weeks or months at sea.  It took a master clock maker, John Harrison, to finally solve the problem. 

John Harrison

Mr. Harrison built his first grandfather-type clock when he was 20.  Over the years he came up with many intriguing improvements to clock design.  Starting in 1730, he began working on designing a clock to compete for the Longitude Prize.  Over the next 42 years he worked his way through the design and construction of five of what became known as maritime chronometers.  King George III personally tested the 5th chronometer from May to July of 1772 and determined the clock to be accurate to within 1/3 of one second per day.  These chronometers were incredibly expensive.  At first they were approximately 30 percent of the cost of a new ship!

Harrison's 5th and final chronometer 

The bad thing is that the Board of Longitude must've been a bit grumpy or something, because they kind of seriously dissed John Harrison.  They often kept his chronometers for years as they supposedly tested them, and rather than call a press conference and award him the big prize money they tended to cough and act like they had something in their eye, and then they would say they had to go take a phone call, but they'd be in touch.  Eventually even King George got a bit irritated by the Board.  They did eventually give Mr. Harrison some money, but they never actually awarded any of the grand prizes to him or anybody else.  The Board of Longitude must've had a good lobbyist, because it lasted for over 100 years until it was finally abolished by Parliament in 1828. 

The locations of all four shipwrecks of the Scilly Naval Disaster have long since been determined, and are popular dive locations.  Not much is left of the ships except the dozens of cannon and some huge ship anchors.  And the War of Spanish Succession?  Everyone eventually grew tired of it and took their ball and went home.  France and Spain threw in the towel on their conference realignment and all the soldiers scattered to trade their uniforms for tats.

1 comment:

  1. You are not allowed to wear a clock on a chain around your neck ala Flavor Flav- just to be able to calculate longitude. And also to be able to ask "what's the time?" because then I'd have to reply "it's time to get ill"~leh