The February 1960 issue of Crownest Magazine carried a story titled "Bonnie's Storm". HMCS Algonquin was part of the escort group, so that ship shared the experience as well. A short report from Algonquin appears at the end of Bonnie's story.
Plagued by rough weather during their operations with NATO forces in European in the fall of 1959, the five warships of the RCN task force looked forward to smooth sailing on their homeward passage in early December. That their hopes were shattered is now well known. HMCS Bonaventure and her four attendant destroyer escorts, the Algonquin, Iroquois, Sioux and Athabaskan, reached Halifax in mid-December, all reporting damage of varying degrees of severity. In the case of the destroyer escorts, the damage was mostly to deck fittings, although some gear was swept overboard. The Bonaventure, offering a bigger target, suffered heavier damage. An officer in the Iroquois received internal injuries and was placed in hospital in the Azores. Five persons in the Bonaventure were superficially injured. The villain of the story was a furious storm which wandered from its predicted path. The following account of the storm and what the Bonaventure had to contend with while it raged was written by the aircraft carrier's weather officer, Lt.-Cdr. R. M. Morgan.
NATO exercises and her visit to he United Kingdom ended, HMCS Bonaventure slipped from Middle Slip Jetty, Portsmouth, on December 3 and proceeded to sea. For those on board, this was the most anxiously awaited part of the cruise, because we were on our way back to Halifax for Christmas with many surprises for our families loaded on board. There were presents for the kids, frilly things and jewelry for the wife, and bargains for the house. Every inch of available space had something securely stowed away in it - a toy car here, a chest of china there, and, in the officers' flat, an antique grandfather's clock which competed on the hour with the ship's bell. At one juncture, an enthusiastic home builder who wanted space for a dining room suite, suggested that perhaps we could do with one less aircraft on board. Everyone was looking forward to better weather and a few good flying days on the return journey.
We had experienced high winds and heavy seas off Northern Ireland during the previous month, and flying had been impossible most of the time. A number of our pilots had been forced to savour the austerity of service accommodation at diversion airfields in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England, and were hoping for good flying weather, at least near the Azores. However, the departure did not augur well. Outside the Nab Tower, a stiff wind was already blowing and weather was only marginal when we began to take on aircraft. Heavy thunderclouds almost covered the sky, and the visibility was down to two miles in rain at times. The last aircraft was safely on board by 1600, but not a minute too soon, for the wind was now up to gale force from the west as Bonnie turned down the Channel on the homeward leg.
The morning of the 4th dawned brightly. The wind had moderated to 25-30 knots and remained that way throughout the day, but the swell, which had been generating during the past few days, was too heavy for flying operations. The helicopter was launched off Ushant to land one of the ship's company for compassionate reasons, but this was accomplished only by getting in the lee of one of the islands inshore. During the night of the 4th and the forenoon of the 5th, good headway was made across the Bay of Biscay although a heavy westerly swell was still running. Early Saturday morning, December 5, a small storm was developing in the Gulf Stream to the east of Nova Scotia. It was expected to move rapidly across the Atlantic at 50 knots in an east- northeasterly direction, and then curve northeastwards and pass up the west coast of Ireland. By the time it reached the eastern Atlantic, the Bonaventure was expected to be well to the southwest of Finisterre, and so the storm was not considered too great a threat to the ship.
Until early evening, the storm behaved as expected. The wind had begun to freshen again, and a gale was forecast as the centre followed its expected path to the north of the ship. Later, on Saturday evening, radio reception deteriorated to an almost complete blackout and no reliable information on the location of the centre could be obtained for the next 12 hours. On Sunday, December 6, the storm struck with such damaging power and severity that all on board will ever remember it as "the day of the big storm". By early morning, the Met. man had received enough information to pinpoint the storm again, and he discovered that the path was now easterly and that the storm centre would pass into the northern half of the Bay of Biscay, about 200 miles to the north of the ship. A severe gale was expected with winds gusting to 65 knots during the forenoon and continuing during the day. This forecast had barely been made when the wind gained velocity and within an hour had reached hurricane force, with gigantic waves building up. By 0900 the visibility was reduced to one-half-mile in blowing spray, with frequent gusts of over 70 knots. At 1000 the wind had reached its maximum with the passage of the cold front, and an average steady wind of 68 knots was recorded. However, there were frequent gusts of probably 80-85 knots, and it is estimated that the maximum was 90 knots. This is only conjecture, though, for the wind speed recorders on board are not capable of reading above 70 knots. During the forenoon, the waves reached an average height of over 50 feet, and some of the larger ones rose to more than 60 feet. Throughout the height of the storm, the ship behaved remarkably well.
WHAT A STORM!: The Bonaventure noses into a sea that mounts high above bows like a steel grey wall, veined with white foam. CPO James Ward took the photo from high up in the island of the carrier on Dec 6, 1959. (RCN Photo 13N-3132)
She was headed into the seas and rode most of the waves with little trouble. However, the occasional wave out of phase was very dangerous as it swept down the starboard side and across the flight deck. One solid jet of water struck the port mirror and twisted it into a grotesque shape as though it were made of tin foil. Another crashed into the starboard mirror sponson, tearing the welded seams open and buckling the steel bracket supports. When the shivering "old lady" dragged her length over another wave, it was the end for the stern catwalk, and the largest wave of all, probably about 65 feet, came green over the compass platform and stove in the window on the starboard side. The most dangerous period occurred when the forward lift opened up and the hangars began to flood. The free-surface water which began to build up on this large expanse of deck might have threatened the stability of the ship but for the prompt action of the Damage Control Department. Morale remained high throughout this difficult time. Every possible action to mitigate the damaging and dangerous effect of the storm was speedily executed. Water pouring into the forward messes caused discomfort and soaked personal gear, but all was borne with good humour, and the wits provided many laughs.
Mealtime became adventure time. It is to the credit of the galley staffs that hot meals were delivered to the recipients. However, there was many a slip between the plate and the lip. To the chagrin of a number of letter writers, the mail office was flooded and about 400 outgoing letters were reduced to pulp and were bailed out in a bucket. Fortunately, there was no incoming mail in the office at the time. Looking at the loss percentage wise, it was not great, considering that about 30,000 letters had passed through the mail office during the cruise. The heavy seas continued until Monday morning. During this period the bow was pounded mercilessly, plates being stove in and the cable locker flooded. On the morning of the 7th, however, the storm began to subside and it was possible to increase speed and run away southwestward from the heavy-weather area. By this time, the centre of the storm was moving northward into the Britsol Channel giving rise to severe weather in United Kingdom coastal waters. There were ships in distress in the Straits of Dover and the Pentland Firth. According to the radio, a number of crack ocean liners, including the Queen Elizabeth and the United States, were hove to. The French weather ship located about 80 miles to the north of Bonaventure during the height of the storm, reported winds of 100 knots and seas of 60 feet. It had been a very unusual storm, both in its track and wind-intensity, and an unusually severe one, even for the notorious Bay of Biscay.
For many of the ship's complement, it was the worst weather they had ever experienced, and doubtless everyone hopes it will remain a record. The following data indicates the unusual severity of the storm:
Duration of winds of Force 8 or over: 1500/5th-2200/7th;
Duration of Force 12 (Hurricane Force): 1000/6th-1500/6th;
Highest average wind speed: 68 knots at 1000/6th;
Maximum gusts, estimated: 85-90 knots;
Duration of wave height over 50 feet: 1300/6th-1800/6th
Maximum wave height, estimated: 65 feet.
The saga, however, does not end with this storm, for on the 7th its "little brother" developed in the Grand Banks area and began to move rapidly eastward. Fortunately, this one was only beginning to flex its muscles when it struck the carrier on the forenoon of the 8th, making things uncomfortable again for a few hours. This was the last real blow of the voyage and the remainder of the trip home was relatively peaceful. The destroyer escorts had a rough time of it, but came through the big blow with relatively light damage. Here is a description of the Algonquin's experience: "The breakwater was struck by a particularly large sea, forcing it aft and opening the forecastle deck where the two joined. Shoring was required internally to stop the holes and prevent gradual flooding of forward spaces. On arrival in the Azores, the breakwater was braced and patches welded in the deck. "The port navigation light and screen, situated 40 feet above the waterline, were carried away. A plywood screen fitted with the emergency oil light modified to take a jury electric fitting was secured in place. "Owing to a sprung hatch on the quarterdeck, seawater and several hundred pounds of flour from a provision store made a glutinous mess of the nearby kit bag stowage. "The process of eating in the main cafeteria, already a major operation, was further complicated by an electric water cooler breaking adrift with an accompaniment of sparks and even more unwanted water." Although the most spectacular.storm occurred on the return trip, the bad weather of the cruise was by no means confined to this instance. A look at the weather statistics will give some concept of the persistence of the Bonaventure's "little black cloud", and is of particular interest in view of the difficulties experienced by shipping during the latter half of December and early January: Of the 521 hours spent at sea, winds of 30 knots or more were experienced for 284 hours, or 54 per cent of occasions; the number of hours when either wind, high seas, or poor visibility restricted flying were 344 or 66 per cent of occasions.
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