Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, or “Admiral Tombstone” as his sailors called him, had a reputation in the Royal Navy as an unlucky commander. In 1780 he was censured for being too slow crossing the Atlantic with critically needed reinforcements. The following year he failed to defeat the French fleet in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay, which led to the disastrous British surrender at Yorktown. So in 1782, when he left Jamaica with a convoy of merchantmen, just as the season of autumn storms in the Atlantic was at hand, his sailors might have been forgiven for feeling uneasy. Admiral Tombstone did not disappoint them.
On the afternoon of the 16th September, the convoy was hit by a savage gale from the South East. Graves, aboard his flagship, the 74 gun Ramillies, ordered his ships to reduce sail, strike their upper masts down on deck, and then take up station, bow-on to the elements, to ride out the storm. No sooner had this been done, then mountainous seas and a howling wind descended on them, increasing in ferocity as night fell.
The Ramillies was now prepared for the onslaught, and all might have been well, if the wind direction had not suddenly veered around at 3.00am in the morning, taking the big ship aback. Her main mast snapped clean off, just above the deck, as did the upper two thirds of her mizzen, while the yards on her foremast were all ripped from their slings. This mass of debris trailed over the side, acting like a colossal sea anchor. As her crew struggled to cut it free, the Ramillies was dragged slowly around by the force of the gale, until she was stern-on to the storm. A huge wave struck her, breaking her rudder. Now she was out of control, and the mountainous seas smashed through her vulnerable stern, flooding the ship.
In a matter of minutes a proud 74 gun ship of the line had been turned into a wreck. The scene on board must have been hellish. A black night, full of crashing waves and howling wind; water cascading freely about her decks; and the endless, terrible thumping of the main mast, still attached by numerous shrouds, as it crashed against the side of the hull like a battering ram. Graves awoke to find his cabin knee-deep in water. He struggled into what sodden clothes he could find in the dark, and struggled up on deck to join the Ramillies’s captain, Sylverius Moriarty.
The crew of the Ramillies battled through the rest of the night to save their ship. They finally succeeded in cutting loose the wreckage, although not before the main mast had badly damaged the hull, allowing more water to flood in. They repaired the rudder, and managed to set a few scraps of sail on the stumps of the remaining masts to give the ship steerage way. Then they set to work at the pumps, trying to remove the tons of water that were inside the hold.
By dawn it was clear they were barely holding their own. There was still six foot of water in the ship, with more leaking in through the damaged hull. Debris, floating freely around the flooded hold, kept choking the pumps. The crew was set to work with chains of buckets in a desperate attempt to save the ship, and when this didn’t work, they took to throwing her guns and shot over the side. By dusk her crew were exhausted, but as night fell again, the gale was blowing just as strong.
Now the waves that battered her from without combined with the water that sloshed around inside her, damaging her hull still further. It washed away the caulking from between her planking. Heavy items broke free and the tide of water within shifted her shingle ballast until it blocked the mechanism of her pumps altogether. By the second dawn she was in a critical state, with only the chains of men with buckets so tired they could barely stand, to battle the rising water. And still the gale roared on.
Anchors followed guns over the side, as the crew struggled to save their ship. Tackles were rigged to haul the heavier stores from the flooded hold and to pitch them into the sea. A large cable was wound around the damaged hull to try and hold the Ramillies together. There could be no rest for anyone on board. Officers and men alike both took their turn at the buckets. Her exhausted crew laboured on through that day, and into a third night, with the weather only slightly more moderate.
The following day, was spent throwing almost everything left onboard over the side. Spars, cables, powder from the magazine, all went over the side. Then part of the orlop deck collapsed into her hold, as the fabric of the ship continued to disintegrate. Towards dawn the battered Ramillies began to settle by the bow, and the order was given to abandon ship. The merchantmen of the convoy that had survived the storm gathered around the stricken hulk to take off her crew. No one, not even the admiral, was able to take any possessions, other than the clothes they stood in. The last man to leave was her second lieutenant, whose final act was to set a fire going in the part of the ship still above the waves, close to several barrels of dry powder that had been saved from the flooding. Shortly after he had left in the last boat, there was an explosion and a ball of fire. When the smoke cleared, nothing remained of the Ramillies.