Doubtless many of my readers have heard of the dreadful encounters of vessels with waterspouts, when the ship escaped destruction by firing a cannon-ball into the waterspout, thus causing it to break apart.
Now these things are by no means such terrible objects as many believe. No doubt the vessels of the present day are larger and stronger than formerly, and perhaps waterspouts have become smaller. Be as it may, the people who go down to the sea in ships need give themselves no uneasiness about them, for really they amount to little.
The Slavonia, of the Hamburg line left Brunshausen, on the Elbe, on February 26 last, under the command of Capt. H. Schmidt. She had only two passengers. The weather was squally and the air full of mist when she reached the outer Banks, 900 miles from New York, shortly after sunrise on Sunday, March 16. The big vessel was heading west by north, when, at 7 o'clock, Second Mate Erichsen, who was on the bridge, saw emerge through the mist on the starboard side of the ship, at the distance of about a thousand feet, a towering column which united sea and sky. The column was in front of the ship to starboard, and was moving in a southeasterly direction, apparently at the rate of eight knots an hour.
Although the Slavonia was running 9 1⁄2 knots, the column seemed likely to pass in front of the steamship when their paths crossed. Accordingly Erichsen did not try to alter the course of the Slavonia; indeed, he would not have altered it had he known ship and spout were sure to meet, for he had encountered waterspouts before and wasn't afraid of them. All he did—in fact, all he had time to do—was to call Third Mate Lorentzen, also an expert in waterspouts.
On rushed the Slavonia, heading west by north: nearer came the waterspout, heading south by east. It soon became evident that the spout could not get by before the Slavonia reached it, and it was now too late to slow up—indeed, a collision was manifestly unavoidable from the start. Lorentzen had scarcely reached the bridge when the watery Philistine was upon the Samson. It just hit the steamer's bows on the starboard side, as depicted in the second cut. A rushing noise accompanied the column, and the water foamed in its wake. Immediately above was a great black cloud from which clouds less dark descended to form a funnel, or inverted cone. The middle of the column was white, apparently because it contained snow.
The column's narrowest diameter was about twelve feet, while it was three times as broad as its base, which reproduced in water and inverted the cloud-formed funnel above. The whole column rotated with a spiral motion.
The waterspout, when it approached, took all the wind out of the fore-staysail of the steamship, which went blind, but the schooner-sail still kept full, and presently the fore-stay-sail filled again.
The Slavonia shook under the shock caused by contact with the column of water, but kept on her course none the worse for the collision. A few flakes of snow on her bow were the only evidence of the collision after the pillar of water had passed off to port.
While the vessel was uninjured, the waterspout soon showed signs that it had received its death-blow. As it sailed off to the southeast it parted in the middle, and the cone of water which formed its base and the cone of cloud which formed its top began to grow smaller by degrees. The waterspout was slowly but surely ceasing to be a waterspout when it disappeared from view in the misty distance some fifteen minutes or more from the time it was sighted.
The Slavonia's encounter with the waterspout took place in latitude 42 degrees 22 minutes north and longitude 52 degrees 35 minutes west. This is rather far north for waterspouts so early in the year. The waterspout crop is generally more plentiful when thunder and lightning are on top, which is in warmer weather. The temperature of the air at the time of the encounter was 37 degrees; water 54 degrees. It had been cold during the night, but grew warmer in the morning. The clouds which overspread the firmament were of the cumulus pattern.
Erichsen and Lorentzen have not only seen other waterspouts, but the first, when on a sailing vessel in the tropics, ran into the very middle of one with no worse result than to deluge the deck of the ship with water as a heavy shower would have done. He thinks an unusually large waterspout might possibly sink a very small vessel, say a pilot boat, but with a ship of ordinary size he considers bombarding a waterspout with cannon a waste of powder.