Saturday, March 6, 2010

St Joseph's Storm came early this year

What are these oranges doing on a beach? I took this photograph tonight in the middle of a gale that had reached force 9 in mid-Strait and which brought with it heavy rain. The oranges are most probably from the rich alluvial plain of the Guadiaro River where citrus orchards are plentiful. The heavy rains have flooded the river plains and many oranges have been washed downstream. The estuary of the Guadiaro is some 16.5 kilometres from Eastern Beach in Gibraltar where the oranges were dropped off by heavy seas from the east!

Strong gales with heavy seas are a feature of March in the Strait of Gibraltar (see my post of 25th February - St. Joseph's Storm) and has been amply captured in paintings, like in this 18th Century print (courtesy Gibraltar Museum). In that post I referred to one of the worst tragedies, the loss of over 500 lives when the SS Utopia sank on the 17th March, 1891.

This sketch by Mrs Georgina Sheriff (courtesy Gibraltar Museum) captures the horror of the moment. It is explained in detail by the Gibraltar Directory:

17th March, 1891
A most appalling disaster occurred early this evening during a strong South-Westerly gale; the Anchor Line steamship Utopia, from Naples to New York with 879 Italian emigrants on board, collided with H.M.S. Anson, anchored in the bay. At about 7 o’clock in the evening the steamer was seen to vacillate for a few moments abreast of the Anson. The strong wind and tide swept her down across the battleship’s bows, and the ram ripped her side open for a considerable distance before she swung clear. She then drifted down with the tide, and finally sank about 60 yards clear of H.M.S. Rodney. Boats were sent away from all the men-of-war with great promptitude, and the search lights were turned on to the wreck in order to assist the operations as much as possible. The shrieks and cries were heart-rendering and the awful sight of nearly 900 panic stricken people struggling for their lives was one which can never be forgotten by those who had the misfortune to witness it. The sea was so heavy that the boats could not approach the ship and all they could do was to lie to leeward of her and pick up the people as they were swept off the decks into the water. The ship settled down about five minutes after the collision, and a small number of people found refuge in the main rigging, from which they were eventually rescued, but the majority of those in the after part were swept away. As her bows began to sink, those that were left rushed forward, and, as many as could, struggled and fought their way to the fore-rigging. In about twenty minutes the forecastle disappeared and with it crowds of unfortunate beings. The sea and rain was so blinding that it was most difficult to see anything from the boats. It was a work of considerable danger to get off the people in the rigging on account of the heavy sea but by dint of perseverance and pluck it was eventually accomplished. The work was not finished until nearly 11 o’clock, and the last people taken off were so exhausted that it was a long time before they could be got onto the boats.

That was on a date close to today but the wind was from the south-west. Today's gale was from the south-east. Here are some photographs to illustrate its power:

The gulls weren't the only ones to get wet. Between heavy rain and some rather high waves hitting on the cliff where I was taking the photographs, I ended up pretty drenched! Towards the end the waves were getting perilously high so I decided to beat retreat! The winds brought a line of Cory's Shearwaters inshore though not close enough for photographs. Maybe 5000 birds entered the Mediterranean, returning to their breeding colonies.


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