Thursday, February 6, 2014

Captain George Caithness and the Undersea Volcanic Eruption

Brig in a Storm

Great Balls of Fire

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Thursday 17 November 1845, under the heading ‘Marine Phenomena’, ‘a circumstance of singular interest … similar to what has been experienced by other mariners in various parts of the world.’

Captain Caithness, of the brig Victoria, reports that on the 18th instant (June) at nine o’clock p.m., a heavy squall took both top-gallant and royal masts over the side; at the same time no appearance of a squall. 
At eleven o’clock called all hands to reef the topsail; then blowing hard at S.S.E. to S.E.  All hands proceeded aloft to reef the main-topsail: in a moment it fell calm, and all hands complained of being so hot, and so much sulphur and dust, they could hardly remain up aloft, and it was worse on deck, the ship at the same time labouring. 
Half a mile from the ship saw three balls of fire come out of the sea; this lasted about ten minutes. Another heavy squall from S.S.E., and then the ship soon ran into the cool atmosphere. The position of the ship, as well as he could judge from observations taken at noon was – latitude 30 deg., 40 min., 56 sec., longitude 13 deg., 44 min., 36 sec., by two chronometers.*
Despite the lack of a forename in the news report this was certainly Captain George Caithness (1818-1895). That he was master of the Victoria at the relevant date is confirmed in his Master’s Claim for Certificate of Service. This document, dated September 1850 and listing the vessels in which George served, provides vital details of his career. 

To be continued

* Interpreting the coordinates in the newspaper article as 30° 41’ north and 13° 45’ west as the only logical location, puts the observation about 200 km north east of the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco. Google maps show undersea mountains and the Canaries still have a few active volcanos.

Tom Sheldon
Peter Hay

No comments: