The Deadly Hurricane of 1715


The Captain of merchant sailing ship Urca de Lima shouted his orders to his Mates. They gathered about him on the command deck. The wind speed of the looming tempest had steadily increased to the point that it made a whistling sound as it impacted the wooden structure of the Dutch-built ship. The lines began to “sing” as if they were strings on a violin, plucked by the accelerating wind, which also picked up sea spray and flung it on the flesh of the crew with such force that it stung like bees!

Three-Hundred-and-Five-ton Urca de Lima was a cargo ship. Urca was the Spanish term for that ship type, and the Spanish had regularly used this ship and her veteran crew to sail between Spain and her colonies along the Spanish Main (modern upper South and Latin America).

Ten seamen grappled with the massive tiller behind the captain, intent on using their muscles and sheer will to keep the rudder where the captain told them to keep it. Essentially, the Captain of Urca de Lima tried to follow the three-mast merchant vessel that plowed through the angry swells in front of his ship. Yet, sometimes heavy squalls of tropical rain completely obscured that massive vessel! Continuously, he called out to one of the seamen to starboard, who was assigned to keep his eyes fixed on The Capitana, the flagship of the New Spain Flota Squadron, under the command of Capitain-General Don Juan Estebande Ubilla.

The Mates were the most experienced and senior seamen. They stood near the Captain so that they could tell him their concerns. Any one of them sprang to duty when the Captain gave an order to have seamen in his charge to complete a task. The wind began to roar, and the Mates warned their Captain of imminent danger of spars breaking off, sails shredding, and of the possibility of a snapped main mast! The Captain asked again if Ubilla had signaled with his lantern. He had not.

The Captain knew all of his men. Young or old, with or without families, Spanish or of some other nationality, they were his family, and he weighed risking any one of them against the risk that all of them must accept if he failed to send them up the ratlines to reef sales (stow the canvas away) or adjust lines that linked sails to spars. It was time to do it. He could not wait on Ubilla.

“Reef Sails!” his order was passed from mates to seamen. Particular sails were to be reefed while others would be kept out to gather the blustering wind that kept the ship moving forward. Dozens of men scampered up the ratlines to do the Captain’s bidding, a thing that they always did at sea. Except, this time, the ship was heeled over hard to port and the same wind that did that would snatch up a careless seaman and fling him to certain death by drowning! One of the Mates attempted to bolt up a ratline to help his men!

“No!” the Captain shouted. “They must do it!

You direct them from the deck. I cannot lose you!”

The Captain and crew of Urca de Lima had begun a routine voyage by joining a convoy of armed merchant vessels at the Spanish port of Cadiz. From there, in winter, she sailed with the convoy south, along Africa’s western coast, to the Canary Islands with a cargo of European manufactured goods. After replenishing at the islands, the convoy picked up the easterly trade winds and sailed with them to various Spanish ports in the Caribbean Sea.

In the winter of 1714/1715, Urca de Lima delivered her goods to the port of Veracruz in Mexico. Early in the summer of 1715, she took on a cargo of vanilla, chocolate, incense, and private collections of silver bars and coins. She also took china plate that had been mule-packed from the west coast of Mexico, where some other Spanish merchant ship from the Orient had offloaded it. So prized was the china, that the entire assembled annual Spanish treasure fleet was called “The silver plate fleet,” with the silver mostly coming from Peruvian silver mines and the plate being the China plates. Of course, the fleet transported other American goods, including gold bars, gold coins minted in Panama and Mexico, and gold and jewel encrusted artifacts pilfered from native tribes.

Urca de Lima had sailed with other ships to Havana, Cuba, to assemble in mid-summer. She was assigned to the New Spain Flota Squadron, which combined with the Tierra Firma Squadron in order to sail to Spain in the safety of numbers. By amassing the firepower of naval guns on dozens of ships, The Silver Plate Fleet did not look so much like a floating bank to be robbed by naval ships of an European enemy of Spain. And, by staying together, no single ship had to contend with a pirate crew. Pirates tended to come upon their victims in small fast ships at night.

Yet, for all of this organization and firepower, all of the men had to pray that the fleet would get into the Gulf Stream, then successfully sail northeast to find the prevailing Westerlies (wind from the Southwest that blew Northeast) at between 30 and 60 degrees latitude before a ship-killing hurricane found them. The Mayan Tribe of natives worshiped an ocean god that they called “Hurakan,” and this had translated to the Carib natives’ god called Hurican. After experiencing the unworldly power of the great summer storms, the Spanish and other Europeans agreed that the phenomena deserved to have its own name, thus: A Hurricane.

Suddenly, it happened. Capitain-General Ubilla signaled all ships in the squadron that they were released to find such safety that they could! The signal came just as the last of the seamen of Urca de Lima came down from the ratlines unharmed. Now in the Straits of Florida, there were few choices. It was too risky to try to turn about to make for the port of Havana. The turn to tack wind of such force might snap the masts!

Since the wind blew to the northwest, to stay with the wind risked the ship to be blown onto the coral reefs of one of the key islands of Florida, or on the Florida mainland. But, it might be possible to cheat out in front of the storm and continue on to pick up the westerly winds. Those winds were still there and they would eventually steer the hurricane away or tear it apart. The captain decided to stay on course.

This captain’s decision and the decisions of most other captains of the 1715 Silver Plate Fleet was fateful. Urca de Lima did not make it. Although, most of her crew did make it, and most of the ship’s cargo of silver and China plate was eventually salvaged. Recently (June 2015), the remains of another ship of the Silver Plate Fleet of 1715 was located! http://www.foxnews.com/science/2015/07/28/florida-family-unearths-gold-coins-worth-1m-from-1715-shipwreck/


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