The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871 
The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871 

Royal NavyLossesLoss of MegaeraBlackwoods (2/5)


It was on the 28th of May, early in the morning, that the Megaera steamed out of Simon's Bay, bound for Sydney. She had 333 souls on board, the number being thus made up - viz., 42 officers, 44 marines, 180 ship's company, and 67 boys. The day was Sunday, dear to sailors as of good omen for the coming voyage. Alas for the omen! we must say, now that we know what a dark fate was behind us. But the "Sunday sail," the fair weather, the lovely scenery, had their full effect on our spirits on that morning. And, cheered by the hope of a prosperous voyage, we could note with delight the buildings and features of the land from which we were parting. Behind us, old Simon's town at the foot of the mountain was still half hidden in the mist. Soon, emerging from the smaller indent, and entering False Bay, we passed the lighthouse, perched with so much travail on the Roman Rock, and the unshapely insular mass called Noah's Ark, all on the right. Away to the left, still shrouded in fog, as if an early appearance were a thing unknown to it, lay the happy town of Kalk Bay, the resort of the newly married. Anon, glowing in many colours, the Table Mountain, with the lower hill, and the rich valley of Constantia, opened to our view, across the broad Flats yellow with long extended sands. Then we passed the Hottentot Hollands, whose tops reflected the rays of the early sun, and whose sides were beautiful with light and shadow, and with colour; and after that we had soon done with waters of the coast. The sea-birds above, flying and screaming round us, the long sweep of the waves below, the salt breeze, the well-seen arch of the horizon, all testified to the same fact - we were in the great ocean.

One is fain to dwell on the last happy days that the ship ever saw; fate had not many in store for her. That Sunday was a pleasant day, and so were the Monday and the Tuesday which followed. By day we had only agreeable occupation as the vessel dashed merrily along, and by night we could gaze on the southern heavens, bright with unnumbered stars, and into whose depths the eye pierces so as to raise a feeling of great awe. The moon shone on us too; but her beauty we were acquainted with of old; it was the southern constellations, the glorious signs never seen from Old England, and pre-eminent among them the resplendent Cross, which gained all our attention - the young hands lost in admiration of the sight, the old ones pointing out the stars.

The scene changed on Wednesday the 31st. There was an end of easy luxurious steaming, no more exhilarating days, no more spangled nights; but tarpaulins and waterproofs on all sides - slippery decks, dripping ropes. The damp made its way everywhere - boots, towels, linen, our very beds, damp, and the salt in the cellars half water. It was difficult to find a dry berth; and if one were found, it was difficult to occupy it, for the ship tumbled along in a most disturbing manner: so our hitherto cheerful party was suddenly depressed. We were encountering heavy squalls, with much rain.

We had parted with our bright clear sky; but that, after all, is but an ordinary inconvenience to the men, who are said to be "born for all weathers." Damp foggy days, such as we now experienced, kept us all much on the alert, which, under such gloomy circumstances, was an advantage. But there was as yet nothing to cause the least alarm, for we were safe out in the open sea, far away from rocks and shoals. As for wind or wave, what cares a sailor for either as long as he has faith in his ship and in himself! No, there was no alarm all through this mist and wet, which lasted to the 5th of June; neither was there alarm on that day when masses of clouds, piled one on another up the sky, gave reason to expect a furious gale. All hands were turned up to shorten sail. Every sailor, as he looked at the sky after she was made all snug, predicted the foulest weather. But everybody was wrong, for by noon the clouds had dispersed, leaving only a strong breeze, which, by the 6th, blew from the N.W. - a fair wind, if a stiff one, and sent us along our course ten knots an hour.

The pleasure of a thorough sailor comes in many forms. A few days since, soft breezes and sunny skies made us happy. Now it was a delight of another kind to find her bounding through the water, dashing over the billows like a fiery horse, while great ocean-birds, albatross, molly-wakes (large brownish birds very like albatross), Cape pigeons, and graceful sea-swallows, careered about her masts and ropes, along her wake, and across her course, swooping and screaming as she struck the foam from her fore-foot. Then, too, there was the cheering thought that these rolls and plunges were taking us rapidly towards our destination. And now the absorbing question was, When will she reach Sydney? Some said the 8th July, some a little before, some a little after; and bets were made and much sage speculation indulged in. Thus do short-sighted mortals rack their brains to determine the exact order of events which are never to happen at all.

There was, however, a fair prospect of a quick voyage; for, if the breeze which set in on the 5th did but hold, it would soon waft us - blow and toss us would be a truer expression - into the region of steady westerly winds, which would in all probability follow us to Sydney. It did hold for 48 hours, and we did encounter the westerly breeze exactly as we had hoped for it, on Wednesday, the 7th of June. That day we made 195 miles; the next, 214 miles. Was not this enough to make us presume that that day month would find us in the haven where we would be?

It is not to be supposed, though, that we were enjoying a satisfaction which any, save sailors, could appreciate. The sea was running mountains high. The ship rolled like a drunken man; she shipped a few tuns of water every now and then, completely deluging any unfortunate wights whose duty or fancy took them in the way of the inundation. No; it could be pleasant to those only who were inured to the sea; and perhaps not to them, unless it were accompanied by the knowledge that their voyage was in course of rapid accomplishment. But we were speeding along; so there was no bar to our contentment, and we turned in on the night of the 8th June, hopeful and merry.

On the morning of the 9th she still sped swiftly before the wind, but the jokes, the merriment, the betting, had ceased, and anxious faces clustered round the tables of the different messes at breakfast. An old foreboding, which weighed on us at the commencement of our voyage, but which the fair wind and the riotous pace of the ship had dispelled, came back now with a real form, and dashed our short-lived joy. Had not we, had not all who loved or cared for us, been appalled at the reports of the Megaera's condition? had we not dreamed of and imagined disaster, until many days of immunity brought back light hearts and smiling faces? Here, then, this morning, was the justification of our dread. We were face to face with imminent danger, if not with death; and the meeting was so sudden and so stern as to discompose the boldest and most reckless among us. A leak was reported to have been sprung in the night, - not some moderate influx which might be discharged as fast as it could invade us, and the cause of which might soon be remedied by the skilled hands among our crew, but a terrible inroad of the sea by some channel as yet unknown, which was raising the level of the water in the ship's hold at the rate of an inch every hour! Now the simplest mind will understand that we must keep under this ruinous stream, or the rest of our lives would be reckoned by hours and minutes. It was not without reason, then, that there were grave faces about the breakfast-table on the 9th of June.

In the morning watch it was discovered that there were 17 inches of water in the engine-room; and as the ship was very broad at bottom, this depth indicated an immense quantity. The ship's pumps were manned at once, and the bilge pumps set in motion, and by these means the water was at first kept under and reduced to 13 inches. The crew having thus temporarily gained the mastery over the hostile element, our next endeavour was to detect the leak. But this was no easy matter, as the water which we had shipped covered the ship's framework to some height. Moreover, inside the iron plating her bottom was lined with brickwork and cement. The engineers, however, set themselves to search for the spot where she had given way, and in doing so had to grope about, almost, and sometimes entirely, under the offensive bilge-water as it was swayed from side to side by the rolling of the ship. But as, until the leak should be discovered, nothing could be done to amend our case, except by incessant pumping (which was vigorously sustained), the period of the engineers' anxious and miserable search was opportunity for reflection. And reflection was the most distressing occupation in which one could be engaged - worse a thousand times than the severest manual exertion - worse than crawling like reptiles about the dark sloppy abysses near the vessel's keel. For what a state of things was presented to the mind that had time to think! Here we were in lat. 39° 40' S. and long. 44° 22' E. on the Indian Ocean, more than a thousand miles from any land. The Cape of Good Hope, it was idle to think of returning to, as the strong westerly gale would have opposed us all the way. Sydney was more than a month's voyage from us. There were some tiny islands in mid-ocean, which might be reached in a week or so, if we could keep afloat so long and keep our engines effective. But how many chances were there against our doing that! A leak in an iron ship, unless it arises from some well-ascertained accident, suggests dangers far beyond its own solitary threatening, bad though that may be. It suggests the probability that the whole of the plates may be so attenuated as to yield at any moment to the pressure of the waves, or a blow from a heavy sea. To deal with the one active danger, therefore, is no more than crushing one head of the hydra, Ninety-nine more are ready to assail you. The danger is not distinct and local, but all that encloses you is insecure and treacherous. Only a rotten film between you and eternity!

In this fearful state of things it is hoped that all looked to God for help. But the Captain and every one concerned in the charge of the ship, and of the lives and property which she carried, looked anxiously to the means which, were yet at their disposal for averting, under Providence, the impending doom. First, we had the advantage of discipline, which though wellnigh obsolete in Britain, yet lingers here and there about the army and navy. Yes, we had discipline on board, and were sure, therefore, that the muscles, thews, and sinews, as well as the brains of an active and intelligent crew, would in concert labour to their utmost for the common good. We had no dread of selfish wrangling, of deadly panic, or of divided action. The Captain, whatever he may have felt, showed no sign of doubt or hesitation in this grave conjuncture, but turned a bold front to the danger; and he was ably seconded by all in authority under him. Thus a moral force, as well as the habit of obedience, was felt throughout. This was our great reliance, without which anything else which might tell in our favour would be of no avail. Then there was the possibility that, before the water should rise too high inside, we might discover and stop or mitigate the present leak, and that we might gain a harbour before she should give way in another place. Thirdly, we had, as yet, a fair wind, and our engines were in full vigour: we might possibly, therefore, by unremitting labour at the pumps and buckets, keep down the water long enough for sails and steam to take us to port. These were all the means which we could control; and there was besides the chance that Heaven might send some large ship into our company. But when the dread account came to be totalled up, the chances looked so much against us that, however boldly we might be able to meet our end, the end was to be prepared for as the most probable of contingencies. Men decided bravely, they gave orders bravely, and bravely men wrought; but inwardly what thoughts must have arisen of home, and dear kindred and friends, and of that other world that might be so near! Resolution and constancy there were without, but within was the darkness of the shadow of death. How could it be otherwise when we recognised our desolate condition and the treacherous hull that carried us, and saw and heard all round rushing, surging, roaring like fiends, or wild beasts eager for their prey, "the yesty waves" that

"Confound and swallow navigation up"?
[Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I]

From the 9th to the 13th of June we sailed along still in a state of apprehension and uncertainty. We had not found the leak, but still sought for it; and we devoted all our strength to the discharge of the water. After a while the leak gained on us, and then more pumps were manned, and a party was ordered to bale out by hand with iron buckets, which were hoisted up, sixty in an hour, to the sound of the fiddle and fife. But, spite of these efforts, the water rose higher and higher. We could hear it splashing from side to side as the ship rolled. It sounded like a continual threatening, and made our hearts sicken.

On Saturday the 10th there was a violent gale, with a heavy sea running, the ship going sometimes twelve knots. On Sunday the weather was not much better: but we had divine service under the topgallant forecastle. The litany and the hymn for sea were, however, all that we could get through, the motion was so distracting. And the next day, Monday the 12th, this motion not only hindered the operations of our hands, but it did worse: it prevented the pumps from working well, with what consequence I need not say. On this day, too, the rain came down in quantities, and we were visited by sea-birds, which flew about all day. On the 13th we redoubled our efforts to get a part of the hold dry, and put on a hundred men to bale from daylight. We resorted, too, to a new device - that is, we plugged up some of the communications by which the water spread itself from one to another compartment in the depths of the vessel. We thus cut off the stoke-hole from the next forward compartment, and the engine-room from its neighbour, and by this means considerably narrowed the space over which our search had to extend; for there was soon strong reason to believe that the rupture must be somewhere within a certain twelve-feet length measured along the bottom. One of the engineers wrought all day in the water seeking it. He crawled about under the engines and boilers. When the side of the ship on which he happened to be was the lower one, the water was quite over his head, and, after keeping below it as long as nature could endure, he would come up to breathe like a great sea-fish.

At one o'clock on the morning of the 14th, after five days of dire suspense and of severe exertion - during which, however, we had been running rapidly on our course - we ascertained the situation of the leak. It was in a hidden recess under the coal-bunker, where it could be seen only by prostrating one's self in the foul bilge-water, putting the head through a small hole and then peering up into a narrow space, about 2 feet high, between two frames. Thus placed, the observer could see it clearly enough about 7 feet from him, and the water welling up through it. It was something to have ascertained thus much; but there was no dealing with the evil, or even approaching it, except by cutting a hole large enough to admit the hands through an iron frame. To do this exercised our patience for twenty-four hours more, at the end of which time we could put our hands upon the orifice. When we first saw the place from a distance, the jet of water looked so steady and round that we flattered ourselves with the fancy that a rivet had dropped out - which might to replaced. But, alas! it was no lost rivet. It was a hole of something about this shape and size, fairly worn through one of the iron plates; and the whole plate had been worn so thin, that throughout its surface it yielded and bent under the pressure of the hand like a sheet of tin. Thus our fears were realised as to other and greater dangers threatening than, the immediate danger with which we were grappling.

The hole

The first order given consequent upon the detection of the leak, was to thrum a sail, and to stuff with yarn a mattress about 12 feet square and something under a foot thick, the intention being, of course, to gird these on under the ship's bottom, and so to stanch the jet that was invading us. The thick mattress was intended to fill the hollow that would be caused between the sail and the ship's side by the projection of the keel. The mattress was not, however, applied, for before it was ready another expedient was thought preferable.

That device, therefore, stood over for the present; and it was next thought that a plate of iron covered with gutta-percha might be screwed to the inner surface of the damaged plate, so as to strengthen it and plug the leak, through which we could now see the water issuing as if from a fountain, the aperture being about 2 inches by 1½ inches. But the objection to this attachment of another plate was, that the ship?s plate had not strength enough to hold its intended support. It was like that old garment spoken of in Scripture, by putting into which a piece of new cloth the rent was made worse. There was no hold for screw or rivet; and there was great danger that in attempting to make a connection we might make fresh leaks in the frail covering, or, what would have been fatal, force out the plate altogether. To obviate this risk it was determined to fit the supporting plate with a long rod or clamp to be screwed into a sounder part of the iron work, so that the new plate might press gently and evenly against the old rotten one, without perforating or disturbing the latter. Now it should have been mentioned that the rotten plate was about 6 feet by 4 feet in surface, just holding together, and just holding to the ship, so that the fitting of the plug-plate was an operation of most dangerous character; and yet, like many another operation, it had to be performed as the only alternative against imminent destruction. This thought was of course present to the minds of all. Some of us - half perhaps - might have made another effort for life in the boats, but the other half would assuredly have found that day a watery grave if the plate should give. And yet there was no confusion, not even a departure from ordinary routine further than the necessity of our work demanded. It has been shown that we assembled for divine service on Sunday: it may be added that the duties and meals were regularly taken. It was soon evident that the plate with the gutta-percha had effected no real improvement; the water no longer came in in a straight jet, but it oozed through all round the plug. Discouraging news this. But our resources were not utterly exhausted, for we had a diver's dress on board, and it was determined to send a man down, when there should be opportunity, with an outside plate fitted with a spindle, which, being passed by him through the hole which caused the leak, could be screwed tight with a nut to another plate applied inside. It was owing to a circumstance quite out of ordinary course that we had this diver's apparatus on board. Those to whom diving is a mystery may like to know that the dress, which is made to cover the diver's whole person and to leave a space within for air, is quite wind and water tight, so that when the man is down he can breathe with tolerable freedom though under water, being supplied with air through a tube from above. If any should desire to see what he looks like, here is his picture.


On the 15th of June we shaped our course for the island of St Paul's, which we had not intended to sight, as the directions do not recommend a near approach during the winter months. We were but 292 miles distant from it. Thus we had got 1312 miles nearer to the island since the leak appeared. In the course of that day we made 206 miles before a strong wind. More might have been done if we could have used our sails; but sailing caused her to overrun her screw, so that we should have lost the help of the bilge-pumps, which are worked by the engine, if we had not used steam, - and that we could not have afforded (if the sails do all the work there is no resistance for the screw, and therefore danger of breaking the shaft; so in these circumstances either sail must be shortened or the engines stopped). Besides taking from her speed, this steaming slower than the wind exposed us to the risk of being pooped. But we had only a choice of evils, of which delay was less than letting the pumps be idle. Now that we were within 100 miles of land, hope began to revive in our hearts. For a week we had been expecting every day to sink; and if we should yet escape, it would be by the narrowest chance. Every one was now working his utmost to keep her afloat, officers, boys, and men all taking their spells at the pumps, which clanged on incessantly. The leak was increasing.

On the night of the 16th, supposing ourselves to be about 30 miles from land, we lay-to in a furious gale; but, wonderful to tell, we found when we had put her head to the wind that the leak stopped. Something that had been thrown overboard was supposed to have been sucked into the hole, and thus to have effected a relief which all our skill failed to accomplish. The water came in again when we bore up, but it was something to get a few hours' respite.

Morning broke on the 17th so hazy that we could hardly see a mile. We supposed the island to be 30 or 40 miles off, as has been said. All at once the fog lifted up, giving us a long view astern. Imagine our feelings when we made out the land about 9 miles off! God be praised for His mercy! Another push, and we are saved! Four boilers at full speed soon sent us out of the mountainous billows on which we had been tossed, into comparatively smooth water. A little while, and we were at anchor in 14 fathoms. Thus ended our danger of foundering in the Indian Ocean. But we had other perils to encounter; and but that we were mercifully dealt with by Providence, and well cared for by our captain and officers, we could not have been alive now to tell our story.

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