March/April 2014 Issue 216: Coal fire aboard British Isles


The winter of 1905 was a particularly harsh one for square-rigged ships sailing west from Europe ‘round Cape Horn. Claude Woollard, master mariner, writes in his book The Last of the Cape Horners, that “out of one hundred and thirty vessels which sailed from European ports to round Cape Horn, only fifty-two appeared to have reached their destination without mishap. Four were wrecked, twenty-two put into harbor to make good their damage, and forty-nine had not arrived, or were not accounted for, by the end of July 1905.”

These numbers translate to only a 40 percent chance of success, a dismal record for the ships and for the men who sailed aboard them.

During that terrible winter, British Isles, a full-rigged ship built in 1884 in Glasgow, Scotland, with an LOA of 308 feet, left Cardiff, Wales, carrying a cargo of coal. British Isles, bound for a Chilean port, was approaching the Cape. Unfortunately, if coal is stowed incorrectly or gets wet, fire can break out from spontaneous combustion.

On this passage Capt. Barker discovered from regular temperature readings that the hold was heating up. Before departing, Barker had been informed by the ship’s owners to “keep the seas,” he wasn’t to stop at any harbors. Barker, heeding those orders, decided to solve the coal fire problem while at sea. On July 24 all hands were called on deck as smoke rose from the main hatch.

The captain had two choices: close off the ventilation in the hope of smothering the fire or open the hatches and get to the hot spot deep inside the hold.

The risk in opening up the hatch was that it would provide fresh air to the fire and make it worse. Nonetheless, Barker chose to actively fight the fire. He ordered eight crewmen into the hold with shovels. Another six ran a bucket hoist to deposit the coal onto the deck. The men in the hold were not only hot, they were breathing noxious coal fumes.

So from daybreak to late at night, eight men shoveled coal, trying to locate the fire. Barker had no desire to waste any of the coal, so he prohibited any from being thrown overboard. Lucky for the skipper and the crew the wind held steady from the northwest so that the sails required little trimming. The temperature in the hold climbed from 170° to 200° F. Recalled one, “the heat scorched the soles of our feet, as we frantically hopped from one foot to the other to obtain a moment’s relief and kept hopping for hours on end…”

On the fourth day, the fire was finally located and the burning coal was tossed overboard. The remaining coal then needed to be re-stowed.

Let’s join British Isles in the South Atlantic approaching Cape Horn on July 24 at a DR of 53° 15’ S by 63° 20’ W. The skipper takes a sight of Venus at twilight (time of the sight is same as the time of Civil Twilight). Height of eye is 30 feet, no sextant error. He’s hoping to get a Venus LOP. The Hs is 15° 40.6’. We will use the 2013 Nautical Almanac.

A. What is the time of Civil Twilight at the DR?
B. What is the Ho?
C. What is the Intercept?
D. What is the EP?

A. Civil Twilight is at 21:16:20 GMT
B. Ho is 15° 33.1’
C. Intercept is 6.1 nm toward
D. EP is 52° 57’ S by 63° 44’ W

By Ocean Navigator