We wrote earlier on the loss of HMS Association and several of her consorts at Scilly. A loss directly attributable to the inability of ships to accurately calculate longitude. Even though James Harrison’s marine chronometer had been accepted since 1773, it was not generally available within the British navy.
As a result these unfortunate instances continued to happen.
On March 26, 1804 HMS Apollo (36) and HMS Carysfort (28) sailed from Cork, Ireland, escorting a convoy of 69 merchantmen bound for the West Indies.
The typical route for such a journey was to run parallel to the coast of Spain and Portugal until the correct latitude was gained then turn west.
Around 8 pm on April 1 a strong gale rose and Apollo and her companions proceeded to reduce sail. She had lost her stay sails and main topsail to the storm, she furled all remaining sail except for a severely reefed foresail to enable her to steer.
Much to the amazement of everyone, the ship struck ground at around 3:30 on the morning of April 2. They initially thought they had hit an uncharted shoal but daylight showed them to be fast aground, along with 40 or so of the merchantmen to be aground some 400 yards off Cape Mondego (pictured above).
The surf was running very high, and Apollo’s boats had either been destroyed by the impact of the ship running aground or were lost in trying to get them into the water. Most of the crew were naked having been asleep when the accident occurred and then rousted out of their hammocks to man the pumps and undertake other activities to try to save the ship. They began to suffer severely from the effects of the wind and waves.
A quick headcount revealed Apollo had lost 20 men between the time the ship went aground and first light. The remaining 220 clustered on the forecastle and bowsprit.
During the course of Monday small numbers of men attempted to make their way ashore either by swimming or by riding wreckage. About 30 made it, perhaps another 20 didn’t.
Despite being within sight of shore, the situation on Apollo was desperate by Monday evening. They had no food and no water. Some of the men died from exposure.
On Tuesday morning, the 30 Apollos who were ashore, assisted by about 100 sailors from the grounded merchantmen, began to organize a rescue attempt using local boats and assisted by Portuguese peasants. The weather didn’t cooperate. The surf remained so high that boats couldn’t be launched from shore and the direction of the wind changed blowing some men who were trying to raft ashore out to sea. Among them was Apollo’s commander Captain John William Taylor Dixon.
On Wednesday, the weather moderated and about 15 men made it ashore. At 4 pm boats were successfully launched from shore and by nightfall Apollo was abandoned.
Apollo had been navigating by dead reckoning and had believe her location to be about 100 miles west of Cape Mondego. The subsequent court martial acquitted the Captain and his officers and sailing master of blame and laid it on the newly installed iron water tank causing compass deviations which caused the dead reckoning to be in error. How they arrived at the conclusion that the tank’s magnetic field caused an error to the east is not recorded and, indeed, probably not much more than rank speculation.
In all, some 60 Apollos and about 100 merchant seamen perished in this disaster.