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Captain Riou and the Iceberg

Edward Riou was born near Faversham in Kent in 1762, the son of a junior officer in the British army. In 1774 the 12-year-old Riou joined the navy as a midshipman. Why he chose the navy rather than follow his father into the army is unknown, but he did well. After two years serving in the Channel Fleet he was selected to join the Discovery, one of the ships that Captain James Cook led on his third and final voyage of exploration.

This must have been an extraordinary experience for the teenager, although his time in the Pacific is chiefly remembered for the fate of his pet dog. The animal was quite vicious, and after repeated incidents of his biting colleagues, was court-martialled in a mock trial by the members of the midshipman’s mess, sentenced to death, cooked and then eaten. Riou returned to England in October 1780 and was commissioned lieutenant. He served in the final stages of the War of American Independence both in the Channel and in the West Indies.

During the peace that followed, Riou remained in the navy, serving in various postings both in Britain and in Newfoundland. In 1789 he received his first command, the 44-gun Guardian which had been commissioned en-flute (with its gun’s removed) as a storeship. The ship was loaded with farm machinery, plants, stores, live cattle and convicts for the new British colony at Botany Bay. Among his officers was a young midshipman named Thomas Pitt, the nephew of Prime Minister William Pitt. With over three hundred people aboard his ship, Riou left Spithead on 8 September 1789.

The first leg of the voyage was uneventful, and the Guardian arrived in Cape Town without incident. At the Cape, Riou encountered an old colleague from his time serving under Cook, Lieutenant William Bligh. Bligh was on his way home following the mutiny aboard his command, the Bounty, and his epic 3,600 mile voyage in an open boat. Riou took on yet more cattle and plants, reprovisioned his ship, and left on the last leg of his journey to Australia, doubtless thanking his lucky stars that he had not had to endure such an ordeal. He sailed steadily southwards to pick up the prevailing westerlies in the Southern Ocean that would take him to his destination.

On Christmas Eve 1789 a large iceberg was spotted close to the Guardian. With so many live animals, plants and people onboard, the ship was getting through prodigious quantities of fresh water. As the weather was calm, Riou decided to use the berg to replenish his stocks and despatched boats to collect ice. By the time the last of his ship’s boats had returned the day was over and darkness was at hand. To make matters worse, a bank of fog rolled in completely hiding the iceberg.

Riou’s ship was in a perilous position. He posted lookouts and began slowly sail forward through the fog. After several hours, when he had decided the danger must have passed, a strange pale glow was reported just ahead. The ship turned away, and a huge wall of ice higher than the ship’s masts appeared alongside. At this moment the wind picked up, pushing the Guardian towards the berg. Moments later she struck on a vicious claw of ice beneath the surface that pulled off her rudder and tore a long gash in the hull. Riou stayed calm and managed to sail the ship clear.

The crippled Guardian was in a dreadful state, alone in the Southern Ocean, thousands of miles from land, with two feet of water in the hold, and more pouring in. Worse still, the wind continued to strengthen, reaching gale force. Riou and his men spent the long night battling to save their ship in the heaving seas. The pumps were manned and a fothering sail (a piece of canvas threaded with short lengths of oakum like a carpet) was made to plug the hole in the side. By dawn on Christmas day there was six feet of water in the hold, but thanks to the sail the exhausted men at the pumps were starting to make progress. Then the sail under the hull split.

Many of the crew wanted to abandon ship and take to the boats, but Riou convinced them to stay and attempt another fothering sail. While the new sail was prepared, the captain ordered stores and livestock to be thrown overboard to lighten the ship. During this work Riou was badly injured when his hand was crushed. The weather continued to get worse and the new sail too was ripped from the hull by the waves. By Christmas night the water in the hold had reached seven feet. The ship was now so low in the water that the sea was coming over the sides as she rolled in the huge waves, and she was beginning to settle by the stern.

Again the seamen, joined by the convicts, demanded to be allowed to take to the boats, and this time Riou agreed. He was well aware that there were not enough boats for everyone and announced that he would stay on the Guardian with anyone who volunteered to remain and try and save her. He put a letter to the Admiralty in one of the boats in which one phrase makes clear he knew the probable outcome when he wrote “…as there seems no possibility of my remaining many hours in this world…”

Two hundred and fifty-nine people left in the five boats, leaving Riou and sixty-two who chose to remain behind, including Midshipman Thomas Pitt and twenty-one of the convicts. By now the main deck of the Guardian was nearly awash with sixteen feet of water in the hold and most of her sails damaged by the gale. As her captain was preparing for the end, he became aware of a knocking against the underside of the gun deck. When he investigated this, he realised that it was caused by empty barrels floating free in the hold. Perhaps they might supply enough extra buoyancy to keep his ship afloat? He had the gundeck hatches sealed, and another sail put under the hull over the gash when the weather improved. Then, with the pumps manned once more he set what little sail remained, and slowly hauled his first command around back towards the Cape of Good Hope.

It took Riou and his small crew nine weeks to reach safety, pumping all the way. The Guardian, now little more than a waterlogged hulk, had to be run aground to prevent her from sinking, and was wrecked shortly afterwards when a gale struck the coast. All of those who remained onboard survived, while of the those that took to the boats only fifteen got to safety when they were picked up by a passing French merchantman.

Back in London, Riou was feted both for his courage and seamanship in getting his command back to port, and for saving the Prime Minister’s young nephew. He was promoted, and used his new-found influence to ensure that all the convicts who stayed to help him received royal pardons. He later became a successful frigate captain, and helped Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen where he commanded the smaller ships in the action. Typically, before the battle he arranged to land the Danish members of his crew so that they would not have to fight their fellow countrymen. He was killed towards the end of the action, aged only 39. Nelson, who rated Riou very highly, was distraught when he herd of his death.


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