Friday, April 15, 2016

A Fearful Tornado: weathering an 1814 tornado in a Man-of-War

In Ohio, spring is tornado season. Actually, with the warmer winter weather this year we've already been visited by tornados in this state. In 1814, the British blockading and raiding along the shoreline of the Chesapeake were struck by several. Although Royal Navy officers were used to all kinds of heavy weather, they were apparently not prepared for these powerful storms. The memoirs of Vice Admiral William Stanhope Lovell, who in 1814 was captain of the frigate HMS Brune, record lots of close shaves with bad weather, but none so powerful as a tornado that passed his ship that summer.

Towards the middle of July and the month of August some parts of this coast are subject to tornadoes. We had one of them on the 25th of July, which obliged us, although lying at anchor in a river, to let go a second. The previous day and that morning had been extremely close and sultry. The storm came on from the north-west, with the greatest violence, accompanied by a few claps of thunder and vivid flashes of lightning: such was its force that, although in smooth water, the ship heeled so much over that the main-deck guns nearly touched the water; and a fine schooner of seventy tons burthen, tender to the Severn, with a long 18-pounder on board, at anchor near us, without topmasts, her sails furled and gaffs on deck, was turned bottom upwards in a moment, and one poor fellow drowned. 
Its fury was spent in about ten minutes, but during its continuance we saw immense trees torn up by the roots, barns blown down like card houses of children, and where the strength of the current of wind passed scarcely anything could withstand its violence. Trees and other things continued to be swept by us for sometime, and when the tornado was over we observed, at a turn of the river, so much large timber, lumber, and other articles floating down the tide that my gallant senior officer, Captain Nourse...thought at first it was the American flotilla coming to attack us...
Captain Charles Napier of HMS Euryalus did not believe Captain Lovell until he too was hit by a tornado during the attack on Washington, D.C.:

Charley would not believe that the force of wind could upset a schooner of seventy tons, lying at anchor with all her sails furled... however... he had an opportunity of judging for himself when (part of the tornado passing across the bows of his frigate) he saw in a moment both his bowsprit and fore-topmast broken in two, like twigs.
 --from William Stanhope Lovell, Personal Narrative of Events From 1799 to 1815. (2nd Ed.) London: William Allen and Co., 1879. Pp. 153-155.