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The deadly hurricane of 1715

The Captain of the merchant sailing ship Urca de Lima shouted his orders to his Officers. They gathered around him on the command deck. The wind speed of the approaching storm had steadily increased to the point that it made a hissing sound as it impacted against the wooden frame of the Dutch-built ship. The lines began to “sing” as if they were violin strings, torn off by the accelerating wind, which also picked up sea spray and hurled it on the flesh of the crew with such force that it stung like bees.

The Urca de Lima of three hundred and five tons was a freighter. Urca was the Spanish term for that type of ship, and the Spanish had regularly used this ship and its veteran crew to sail between Spain and its colonies throughout Spanish Territory (the modern upper part of South and Latin America).

Ten sailors wrestled with the huge rudder behind the captain, intending to use their muscles and sheer will to keep the rudder where the captain had told them to keep it. Essentially, the Captain of Urca de Lima tried to follow the three-masted merchant ship that plowed through the raging waves in front of his ship. However, sometimes strong gusts of tropical rain completely obscured that huge ship! He continually called out to one of the starboard sailors, who was responsible for keeping his eyes fixed on La Capitana, the flagship of the Nueva España Fleet Squadron, commanded by Captain General Juan Estebande Ubilla.

The Mates were the oldest and most experienced sailors. They stopped near the Captain so they could tell him about his concerns. Any one of them jumped into duty when the Captain gave the order to have sailors in charge of him to complete a task. The wind began to roar, and the officers warned their captain of the imminent danger of breaking masts, breaking sails, and the possibility of breaking the main mast. The Captain asked again if Ubilla had reported with his flashlight. He did not have.

The captain knew all his men. Young or old, with or without family, Spanish or some other nationality, they were his family, and he was weighing the risk of any of them against the risk they all had to take if he didn’t send them down the rats’ tails to the sales of reefs. (save the canvas) or adjust the lines that joined the sails to the masts. It was time to do it. He couldn’t wait for Ubilla.

“Reef Sails!” his order passed from the companions to the sailors. Certain sails needed to be reefed, while others would be kept out to catch the rushing wind that kept the ship moving forward. Dozens of men ran up the ratlines to do the Captain’s bidding, something they always did at sea. Except this time, the ship listed sharply to port and the same wind that did so snatched a careless sailor and hurled him to certain death by drowning! One of the Mates tried to mount a ratline to help his men!

“No!” the Captain yelled. “They must!

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

The Captain and crew of the Urca de Lima had begun a routine voyage joining a convoy of armed merchant ships in the Spanish port of Cádiz. From there, in winter, she sailed the convoy south along the west coast of Africa to the Canary Islands with a cargo of European manufactured goods. After resupplying on 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 his merchandise to the port of Veracruz in Mexico. In the early summer of 1715, he took a shipment of vanilla, chocolate, incense, and private collections of silver bullion and coins. He also took porcelain plates that had been packed on mules from the west coast of Mexico, where some other Spanish merchant ship from the Oriente had unloaded them. So prized was porcelain, that the entire annual Spanish treasure fleet assembled was called “The Silver Plate Fleet”, with the silver coming mainly from the Peruvian silver mines and the plate being the plate from China. Of course, the fleet carried other American goods, including gold bullion, gold coins minted in Panama and Mexico, and gold-encrusted artifacts and jewelry stolen from native tribes.

Urca de Lima had set sail with other ships to Havana, Cuba, to assemble in the middle of summer. She was assigned to the Nueva España Fleet Squadron, which combined with the Tierra Firme Squadron to sail to Spain with the safety of numbers. By stacking the firepower of naval guns on dozens of ships, the Silver Fleet did not look so much like a floating shoal to be assaulted by naval ships of a European enemy of Spain. And, by staying together, no ship had to deal with a pirate crew. Pirates tended to find their victims in small fast boats at night.

However, despite all this organization and firepower, all the men had to pray that the fleet would enter the Gulf Stream, and then successfully sail northeast to meet the prevailing westerly winds (southwesterly wind). it was blowing from the northeast) between 30 and 60 degrees. degrees of latitude before a ship-destroying hurricane found them. The Maya tribe of natives worshiped an ocean god they called “Hurakan”, and this had been translated into the native Carib god Hurican. After experiencing the supernatural power of the great summer storms, the Spanish and other Europeans agreed that the phenomenon deserved to have its own name, like this: a hurricane.

Suddenly, it happened. Captain General Ubilla informed all the ships in the squadron that they were released to find what safety they could! The signal came just as the last sailors from Urca de Lima were coming down unharmed from the ratlines. Now, in the Florida Straits, there were few options. It was too risky to try to turn around to reach the port of Havana. Turning to tack wind of such force could break the masts!

Since the wind was blowing to the northwest, staying with the wind risked the ship being washed onto the coral reefs of one of Florida’s key islands, or onto the Florida mainland. But, it might be possible to cheat ahead of the storm and continue to pick up the westerly winds. Those winds were still there and would eventually push the hurricane away or tear it apart. The captain decided to stay the course.

The decision of this captain and the decisions of most of the other captains of the Silver Fleet of 1715 was fateful. Urca de Lima did not make it. Although, most of his crew made it through, and most of the ship’s cargo of silver and Chinese plate was eventually recovered. Recently (June 2015), the remains of another ship from the 1715 Silver Fleet were located!

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