- Wilson, Graham, Warrant Officer Class Two, Australian Intelligence Corps
- History - general, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Great Hurricane
Arriving at Apia, Calliope joined the other ships crowding Apia harbour. The Americans were represented by the cruiser Trenton, the corvette Vandalia and the sloop Nipsic, while the German ships present were the corvette Olga and the gunboats Adler and Eber. Besides the seven warships crammed into the harbour, there were eight merchant vessels of various sizes also at anchor.
Even in the best of conditions Apia harbour was (is) not a sailor’s dream. At the time of the hurricane, its passage and anchorage were narrow and it was ringed by shelves and jutting teeth of coral. Captain Kane of Calliope estimated that the anchorage was sufficient for four ships. Yet on 15 March 1889, there were seven warships and eight merchant ships crammed into an anchorage which had been described as `a known death trap in a heavy northern blow’.
There had already been some heavy weather before the 15th and, as earlier stated, the German gunboat Eber had damaged her propeller when she grounded after dragging her anchor several days previously. The propeller had not yet been repaired at the time of the hurricane and this was in the end to sign Eber’s death warrant.
Throughout the day on 15 March, the weather had been worsening. At about 1400 the barometer plunged to 29.11″ and the wind picked up. The local European residents were fairly complacent, advising the ships’ captains that the hurricane season was over and that the storm would soon blow itself out. For reasons of national prestige and local dominance none of the ships’ captains was prepared to leave the harbour. Captain Kane, however, was too experienced a seaman not to take precautions and he ordered Calliope’s lower yards and topmasts struck and directed Staff Engineer Bourke to get up steam. His intention was to steam at anchor and ride out the storm in the harbour. This, however, was not to be.
Throughout the afternoon and into the night the wind continued to freshen from the north-east and by midnight was blowing a gale. The Vaisigano River which empties into Apia harbour quickly changed from a harmless trickle into a roaring torrent and swept into the harbour scouring all of the sand and mud out of the basin. With nothing for the kedge anchors to grab onto, they dragged helplessly across the harbour floor and the ships in the harbour careered wildly about the anchorage, crashing into each other.
At about 0800 on 16 March, the first ship, Eber, went down. Her damaged propeller rendered her attempts to steam into the wind ineffective and when her anchor cables finally gave way she was picked up by the towering seas and slammed stem first into a reef after which she went down stern first, taking with her her captain, Kapitan-Leutnant Wallis, and 72 of her crew. Prior to this, the American sloop Nipsic had lost her funnel in a collision with the German corvette Olga. Despite desperate efforts to maintain steam using barrels of pork as fuel, without a funnel this was impossible and Nipsic was eventually driven onto the beach. To the shame of the US Navy, most of the crew of the Nipsic, rather than attempting to go to the assistance of their fellow seamen, wandered off to various grog shops and taverns along the water front and proceeded to get drunk.
The other German gunboat Adler had also collided with Olga and had lost her bowsprit and now found her stern dangerously close to the reef. The American cruiser Trenton, which apparently suffered severe design faults and had been in danger of foundering all night, despite the efforts of 200 of her crew manning the pumps, had now lost her rudder and was blocking Adler’s way to the open sea. Unwilling to suffer the fate of the Eber, Kapitan-Leutnant Fritze ordered his moorings slipped and allowed his ship to broach to and be driven up onto the reef The concussion of slamming into the reef broke the gunboat’s back but she settled securely on the reef and in the end only 20 of her crew were lost.
At 0845 Calliope collided with the American corvette Vandalia, carrying away the American’s quarter gallery. A moment after she narrowly avoided being rammed by Olga. Captain Kane realised that he could not allow his ship to ride to the length of her cables due to the closeness of the reefs astern, while to run ahead would mean running down Vandalia and to remain where he was would risk another, possibly fatal, collision with Olga. It was, Captain Kane noted later with amazing understatement, `the most ticklish position I was ever in’.