Posted by: Rob Viens | January 13, 2013

Rogue Waves, English Cathedrals and Gun-Making Artists

Between the 11th and 13th, the Beagle was still being thrashed about at sea. It seemed as though the storm would never end.  On the 11th, the crew spotted a point of land named (by Captain Cook) York Minster:

“A very strong breeze, with heavy squalls; by carrying a press of sail, we fetched within a mile of Christmas Sound. — This rough precipitous coast is known by a mountain which from its castellated form was called by Capt. Cook York Minster. We saw it only to be disappointed, a violent squall forced us to shorten sail & stand out to sea. — To give an idea of the fury of the unbroken ocean, clouds of spray were carried over a precipice which must have been 200 feet high.” (Jan 11)

Seriously – a 200 wave gets one line – this must have been quite a storm!

York Minster Bearing S 66° E by Robert Taylor Pritchett from an 1890 edition of Voyage of the Beagle

Robert Taylor Pritchett painting – York Minster

This location further suggests the Beagle was being shuttled around the southern seas – York Minster and Christmas Sound are located over 100 miles northwest of Cape Horn (remember the Beagle was about 100 miles south of the cape a few days ago). Not sure if this is real or if the ship was just lost.

By the way, the cliff of rock called York Minster is named after York Minster Cathedral located in (surprise) York, England. Presumably, this was due to its impressive facade and tall “spires”.

York Minster Cathedral (from Wikipedia Commons):

York Minster Cathedral

On the 12th the storm continued:

“A gale with much rain, at night it freshened into a regular storm. — The Captain was afraid it would have carried away the close reefed main topsail. — We then continued with merely the trysails & storm stay sail.” (Jan 12)

And on the 13th, things got really rough and the crew was forced to cut loose one of the whaleboats (see Whalers on the Beagle). The following description of the turmoil, is yet again another example of FitzRoy’s excellent seamanship:

“The gale does not abate: if the Beagle was not an excellent sea-boat & our tackle in good condition, we should be in distress. A less gale has dismasted & foundered many a good ship. The worst part of the business is our not exactly knowing our position: it has an awkward sound to hear the officers repeatedly telling the look out man to look well to leeward. — Our horizon was limited to a small compass by the spray carried by the wind:—the sea looked ominous, there was so much foam that it resembled a dreary plain covered by patches of drifted snow. — Whilst we were heavily labouring, it was curious to see how the Albatross with its widely expanded wings, glided right up the wind. —

Noon. At noon the storm was at its height; & we began to suffer; a great sea struck us & came on board; the after tackle of the quarter boat gave way & an axe being obtained they were instantly obliged to cut away one of the beautiful whale-boats. —the same sea filled our decks so deep, that if another had followed it is not difficult to guess the result. — It is not easy to imagine what a state of confusion the decks were in from the great body of water. — At last the ports were knocked open & she again rose buoyant to the sea. — In the evening it moderated & we made out Cape Spencer (near Wigwam Cove), & running in, anchored behind false Cape Horn. — As it was dark there was difficulty in finding a place; but as the men & officers from constant wet are much tired, the anchor was “let go” in the unusual depth of 47 fathoms. — The luxury of quiet water after being involved in such a warring of the elements is indeed great. — It could have been no ordinary one since Capt. FitzRoy considers it the worst gale he was ever in. —It is a disheartening reflection; that it is now 24 days since doubling Cape Horn, since which there has been constant bad weather, & we are now not much above 20 miles from it.” (Jan 13)

FitzRoy also noted that one chronometer was lost – I suspect broken in the storm – and that some of Darwin’s collections were damaged. He also refers to the fact that the waves ” hove us almost on our beam ends”, i.e., the ship was practically vertical!

Bad Weather, Magellan Straits by Robert Taylor Pritchett – showing the Beagle from an 1890 edition of Voyage of the Beagle

Robert Taylor Pritchett painting – Bad Weather

The images illustrating today’s entry are all from Robert Taylor Pritchett.  Pritchett was born in London in 1828 – during the time the Beagle was on its first voyage to South America. Pritchett actually started out in the family business – gun making – and even developed a hollow bullet for the company’s rifles (which became known as the “Pritchett Bullet”).  In the 1850’s the company’s main buyer – the East India Company – closed shop and Pritchett turned to the life of an artist.  His art career was relatively successfully, and he was able to travel the world in search of landscapes to paint. (If you remember, this was the main career of the Beagle‘s resident artist – Augustus Earle (see The Art of Beagle- Augustus Earle).)  Pritchett even came to the attention of Queen Victoria who commissioned several works for her Golden and Diamond Jubilees.  In 1890, his illustrations graced an edition of the Voyage of the Beagle, and he even suggested to his publisher that he put together a fully illustrated version of the book. Alas, the project never happened.  He died in 1907.

Robert Taylor Pritchett from the Elmbridge Museum site (also the source of much of his biography)

Robert Taylor Pritchett

Would the storm ever end?  Stay tuned… (RJV)


  1. I feel seasick just reading this.

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