The US Central America left Havana at nine o'clock on the
morning of the 8th with clear weather and every prospect for a pleasant
passage. But that prospect began to change on Wednesday, September 9. Virginia
birch was chatting on deck when, as she later remembered, "a squall came up, and
the wind blew like a hurricane."
By Thursday, September 10, merchant
captain Thomas Badger concurred. "It blew a perfect hurricane and the sea ran
mountains high." Although Badger and his wife were passengers on this voyage,
he commanded his own ship, the Jane A. Falkinberg, back on the West Coast, and
he knew a real storm when he saw one.
By that evening the seas were so
rough that most people were sick in their cabins. Judge Alonzo Castle Monson
later recalled that "the evening games of cards and other pastimes for
diversion and amusement usual in the cabin were dispensed with." This must have
been a disappointment to the judge, an inveterate gambler. Earlier during the
voyage, Commander Herndon and been Monson's partner at whist; but on this night
the commander had more important matters on his mind.
If they slept at
all, passengers and crew awoke on Friday to find the storm as violent as
before, and possibly even worse. The pounding seas finally began to exact a
toll on the laboring vessel's hull. At nine o'clock in the morning, Chief
Engineer George Ashby reported that the ship was taking on considerable water.
A deadly series of misfortunes plagued the vessel during the hours that
followed. The combined effects of the gale and flooding caused it to list to
starboard, making it impossible for coal tenders to navigate their wheelbarrows
through the narrow passages between the storage bunkers and fire rooms.
If the tenders could not keep the boilers lit, the sidewheels would quit
turning. This would make it impossible for the ship to keep its bow facing into
the waves, leaving it at the mercy of the sea. Efforts by a bucket brigade to
pass the coal were in turn undermined when the rising water reached the bunkers
and putout most of the lamps.
The gale and waves continued to
intensify, and by midmorning the crew was no longer able to hold the
storm-buffeted steamer on course. At about 10 o'clock in the morning, the third
officer set the storm spencer, but it soon blew to pieces. By then, reported
the second officer, James Frazer, the ship "was so high out of the water that
she would not head to the wind and sea."