Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, C.B., R.N. (1819 –1870)
The latest inductee to our Hall of Fame is the British sea-captain, Cowper Phipps Coles. Incredible as it may seem to us today our hero joined the Royal Navy at the tender age of eleven and distinguished himself during the Crimean war at the seige of Sevastopol and by August 1856 had become the commander of a Black Sea paddle steamer, the Stromboli.
It was during this time that Cowper took his first tentative steps into marine craft design. He together with some colleagues constructed a 45 foot raft called the Lady Nancy from twenty nine casks lashed together with spars. The raft was able to carry a 32 pounder gun and because of the small draft of the vessel it was able to navigate the shallows, get closer to the Russians and maximise the damage it could inflict on them. His superior, Admiral Lyons, recognised the strategic edge that such a design provided and sent Coles to the Admiralty to present his ideas. Work commenced on developing a larger raft but, alas, the war ended before construction was complete.
Following the end of the war, on half pay from the navy, Coles set about designing turret towers for gun ships. Whilst battle ships were bristling with armaments they were fixed. On 10th March 1859 our hero applied for a patent for a revolving turret which would revolutionise the effectiveness of battle ships although the Americans were the first to incorporate revolving turrets into their ships.
Coles then sought to incorporate his two innovations – a vessel with a low draft and a revolving turret – into one design. Coles submitted a number of proposals but met with scepticism from the Admiralty and he had to fight hard, including running what would now be termed a PR campaign enlisting support from Prince Albert amongst others, to get his ideas adopted.
His greatest achievement was to get his plans for the HMS Captain approved. The vessel was designed such that the distance between the deck and the water line was just 8 feet but because of mistakes committed during its construction which made it heavier than envisaged, it actually floated some 14 inches lower. The vessel performed well in trials, being marginally slower than the fastest then ship in the fleet under steam and faster under sail. It weathered a gale successfully.
Alas, as you would expect with our inductees, disaster was soon to strike. On 6th September 1870 the Captain, with Coles on board, was cruising off Cape Finisterre. The wind got up and water started washing over the weather deck, the vessel being so low in the water. Shortly after midnight the vessel was heeling over at eighteen degrees and was felt to lurch to starboard twice. Before the Captain’s orders to drop the foresail could be carried out, the vessel lurched alarmingly and capsized and sank. Just 18 of the crew survived, around 480 perishing including Coles.
The subsequent inquiry, which was in the form of a court-martial, established that the vessel was inherently unstable, compared with other designs, if the roll was greater than 18 degrees.
Captain Coles, for your innovations in ship design and for paying for your ingenuity withy your life, you are a worthy inductee.
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