The awful wind was the greatest hardship. The water was fairly warm, but that wind blew the heart out of all of us. — HMS Valerian survivor, 6 November 1926
It is getting late in the season and some without a physical longevity or an historical background seemed to scoff at the idea of a hurricane in October, as we reached the letter R in the alphabetical catalogue of tropical storms in this year of Our Lord 2012. Four hundred and three years have passed since a whopper of a wind deposited the Sea Venture on our reefs and its complement on our eastern shores, there to reside, lost to the world, for ten months, until with forbearance they were delivered to their original destination at Jamestown, Virginia, in May, 1610 on the Bermuda-built boats, Patience and Deliverance. Yet now, on 16 October, along came Hurricane Rafael, a name usually associated, at least phonetically, with the great art of the High Renaissance of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and a namesake of the storm, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, the last, according to one source, meeting his Maker after a night of very stormy sex.
Such scandals of hurricane proportions aside, October is still firmly within the season for goodly blasts in the North Atlantic and Caribbean regions and we were lucky that Rafael decided to give Bermuda a miss, painting us only with a smattering of tank rain and breezes no more potent than a January gale.
October, 1926 was a different occasion, as a hurricane of devastating proportions descended upon an island informed by the Weather Bureau at Washington, but wherein, as Terry Tucker noted: For once, the usual roaring of the South Shore breakers failed as a storm omen; therefore the local weather-prophets pooh-poohed the idea that the storm would touch us in its course. As they now speak: Big mistake, or even epic fail. But then, as now, there is not that much one can do in the face of such a heavy weather artist, except hunker down and hope for the best.
Hurricane 10 of 1926, as it has been named, took birth, not in the favourite gestation area off West Africa, but in the Caribbean Sea to the south of the island of Cuba and some 300 miles northwest of Panama. Within four days, it had whipped itself into a fury of hurricane proportions and on 19 October, it headed north to strike Havana with winds of up to 150 mph, or 240 kilometres per hour, causing widespread catastrophic damage. Number 10 then passed to the east of Florida and set sail, with all canvas aloft, for the remote Bermudas, hell-bent on further inflictions on the human species and its material possessions.
The storm struck Bermuda on Friday, October 22, with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (190 kph) and apparently damaged some forty per cent of its buildings. As Joan Gillian, herself a young girl at the Dockyard on the day, has written: The centre passed over Bermuda just after noon. It was most eerie and the water in the Camber was flat calm. Then the winds came in from the opposite direction and the anemometer registered 138 mph before it broke.
The hurricane had an onset of torrential rain and winds from the southeast, but most of the damage occurred after the eye had passed over Bermuda and the winds came from the northwest. The islands first and only Opera House, on Victoria Street, opposite what is now Peoples Pharmacy, was wrecked: music and song of a high order has yet to find a new home on this sometimes culturally barren rock. Elsewhere, whole plantations of bananas were destroyed, fields of lily bulbs submerged beneath the tremendous downpour, and the famous, ancient cedar at Old Devonshire Church used as a belfry fell down.
At sea, HMS Valerian was returning to her Bermuda base, after delivering hurricane relief supplies to the Bahamas, bashed by two earlier storms. A last message at 0830 hrs on October 22 signalled that she was hove-to within sight of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, but with increasing winds and seas, was unable to make harbour. It seems that the ship foundered in the worst of the winds, after the eye had passed Bermuda, and capsized at 1300 hours. Four officers and 84 men were lost. The survivors, two officers and 19 men, clung to a single life raft overnight and were rescued by HMS Capetown on the morning of October 23.
Meanwhile, not too distant from Bermuda to the southeast, the SS Eastway, a cargo vessel of the St Mary Steamship Co, was also claimed by Hurricane 10 and sank with the loss of the captain and 22 of her complement of 35 mariners.
Like Hurricane Emily (1987), which sped up overnight and reached an unaware Bermuda, Hurricane Valerian exercised a similar burst of speed to reach the island, covering a thousand miles from the Bahamas in 24 hours, moving in effect at around 40 miles per hour. Thus the island in 1926, without the communication methods of present times, was caught napping, for according to Ian Stranack in his book on the Royal Navy at Bermuda, no hurricane had hit Bermuda in October for over 100 years, a dangerous precedent on which to rely!
Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is executive director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-5480.
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