Waterspouts are (simplistically) tornadoes at sea, or on rivers and lakes. They have usually been regarded as curiosities of nature, because, unlike tornadoes, they do not often inconvenience the human race. Many waterspouts are feeble vortices which probably could not even come into existence in the turbulent air over the land, but they should not be taken lightly. Spouts have crossed onto land and become tornadoes, and some are tornadoes which have passed onto water. Even spouts far out in the ocean can be of tornadic size and power.
'Waterspout' is a rather inappropriate name, since spouts consist almost entirely of whirling cloud, with a plume of spray (the cascade) at the surface whipped up by the vortex as it touches the water. They do illustrate the difficulty of studying natural phenomena in the days before video and photography. Spouts could not be predicted, captured, or studied at leisure. Any student of waterspouts would have to rely on the accounts of people who had seen one, and they were not seen very often. They didn't even leave any physical traces unless they came ashore, which was an even rarer event. This is why the idea that spouts were literally waterspouts, streams of water pouring from the clouds (and raising spray when they hit the sea) lasted so long. An 18th Century scientist, defending the stream-of-water theory, even said, "the wonderful catalogue of nature needed not whirlwind-waterspouts to increase the number."
Waterspouts are whirlwinds, of course (something the Roman poet Lucretius knew), but it seems that powerful spouts can carry large amounts of water in the lower parts of their vortex. Some even lift water into their parent cloud, as shown by falls of salt rain after the spout has dissipated. Waterspouts are usually held responsible for the mysterious falls of fish and other aquatic animals. There are difficulties with this theory, but nobody has yet come up with a better one.
The chronology of remarkable waterspouts below is not inclusive. Many unusual spouts have had to be left out due to lack of space.
A waterspout off Rugen Island, Baltic Sea, 1937.
1456 August 24
A waterspout came ashore near Ancona and traversed Italy from east to west as a tornado before reaching the sea again near Pisa. The storm was about 2 miles wide, "whirling in circles with intense velocity".
1556 September 23 (other dates have been given)
A tornadic waterspout in Grand Harbour, Malta, wrecked the war fleet of the Knights of St. John. Many vessels were sunk, capsized, thrown out of the water or smashed. Over 600 knights, soldiers and slaves were drowned. Houses were destroyed on land.
1626 June 12
A waterspout appeared on the River Thames in London near the Houses of Parliament, during a violent thunderstorm. Many MPs had a good view of the cascade (there does not seem to have been a funnel cloud) from the windows of the House.
William Dampier, in a 300-ton ship off the Guinea Coast of Africa, saw several waterspouts. One approached and struck the ship. It made a great noise and raised an immense volume of spray. Dampier says "the wind whirling round" almost overset the ship, which was dismasted.
1749 June 11
A waterspout on the Tyrrhenian Sea came ashore and became a tornado with a track 43 kilometres long from Ostia to Rome.
1761 May 4
A huge tornadic waterspout appeared on the Ashley River near Charles-Town, South Carolina, at 2 pm. It followed the course of the river to Rebellion Road (a river anchorage). It made a roaring, rumbling noise and left part of the river dry. Another waterspout came down the Cooper River and appeared to join with the first. Out of 40 vessels in Rebellion Road, five were sunk and many others dismasted. A sloop 10 leagues from land had her deck covered with leaves of bushes and trees. This was evidently a powerful tornado which happened to pass mainly over water, although in its long track it did do some damage on land.
1767 September 30
A 'pyramidical luminous form' appeared on the water of Isla in Perthshire, Scotland. It "rolled along the water with amazing impetuosity". The spout destroyed an arch of a bridge being built at Blairgowerie, and vanished in the water of Erick. This spout may have actually been luminous from some form of electrical effect, though the whiteness of the lifted spray may have been taken for luminosity.
A waterspout off Nice, April 12, 1780
1781 June 20
The Pheasant, a Royal Navy cutter, was struck by a 'whirlwind' in the English Channel, and sank with the loss of all but four of her crew. Thunderstorms in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire.
Waterspouts on the Mediterranean near Nice, 19 March 1789
1814 June 30
A tornado in South Carolina became a waterspout as it moved on to Port Royal Sound. It struck the schooner Alligator, killing at least 25 of the 40 persons aboard. The spout then became a tornado and uprooted thousands of trees on Paris Island.
1820 September 8
A tornado passed across the city of Sevastopol in the Crimea, destroying many buildings. It then passed onto South Bay as a waterspout and capsized several boats. On the other side of the bay it became a tornado again and destroyed a forest.
1836 May 21
A steamer was sunk on the River Euphrates by a tornadic waterspout.
1850 October 14
The brig Lady Flora was sunk by a 'whirlwind' 30 miles west of Gozo, Malta. All hands were lost except one.
1851 November or December?
The Illustrated London News of December 20, 1851 says that, according to a report from Malta dated December 8, two waterspouts crossed the coast of Sicily near Marsala, and became two giant tornadoes a quarter of a mile apart. They appear to have moved in a NE direction, and returned to the sea at Castellamare. "Half the town" was destroyed, and 200 of the inhabitants were washed into the sea, where all perished. Many vessels in the harbour were destroyed and their crews drowned. "Upwards of 500 persons" were killed in total. The tornadoes were accompanied by torrents of rain and huge hailstones.
1854 January 22
The ship Asia was struck by a waterspout at 0°S., 82°E. (Indian Ocean), and almost totally dismasted. The Illustrated London News of April 22, 1854, has a picture of the event, although it is probable that the artist had never seen a waterspout.
1855 November 18
James Squires observed the formation of a huge waterspout outside Tunis in the early morning. The waterspout “presented the appearance of a huge oak, a most colossal trunk supporting a majestic head.” The spout moved slowly across the harbour of Tunis, sinking five brigs and schooners, and dismasting one. Three persons were drowned.
Three waterspouts in the Straits of Malacca, November 7, 1857
The troopship Blerioe Castle in peril, October 14, 1858, mid-Atlantic. Several masts were carried away.
The ship Lady Denison was allegedly pursued by a waterspout travelling at a speed of 'at least' 60 mph. It appeared as an eddy of spray on the sea, without a funnel cloud. The ship changed course, but the whirl changed direction instantly also. "And…we tacked round to almost every point of the compass, and…the fearful thing followed us at every turn, until we succeeded in clearing it by tacking to the S.S.W." 9 spouts (with funnels) passed the ship in 20 minutes and ranged themselves close together on the ship's lee. A 'frantic gale' was blowing and the sky was covered with black clouds. The location and month of this event are not given. The day was the 17th. The ship left Launceston (presumably in Tasmania, as the story was taken by the Illustrated London News from the Sydney Morning Herald) on the 12th.
1871 June 16
During a violent thunderstorm over Constantinople, three waterspouts swept over different parts of the Bosphorus. One destroyed a caique.
1872 August 25
A waterspout appeared during a thunderstorm on Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland and moved rapidly up the lake from the south. It came ashore as a tornado near Staffordstown, and damaged trees and roofs on a three-mile long track.
1874 August 12
A waterspout in a thunderstorm at Langley, South Carolina, passed over a 600 acre 'pond' for ten minutes. The level of the pond was lowered by 2 inches, and the spout was calculated to have lifted 11,668 tons of water. The funnel then lifted and was drawn up into the cloud. No rain fell, and what happened to the 4,181,760 cubic feet of water drawn up by the spout is unknown.
1878 April 11
A small news item in the Monthly Weather Review of June, 1878 records what, if the report is accurate, must have been the most deadly tornado in world history. It ‘came from the sea in the form of a waterspout’, struck the settlement of Stameeu in China, and went on to cause ‘immense damage’ to the city of Canton. The path was 600 yards wide. Over ten thousand persons were ‘reported killed’.
1878 April 21
A tornado in Iowa which killed 10 people became a waterspout on the appropriately named Storm Lake. Immense waves beat against the shore, and "millions of barrels of water" were drawn up.
1879 December 28
Two "luminous columns of mist or spray" were seen near the Tay Bridge, Scotland, just before it collapsed. 75 lives were lost when a train fell from the bridge. A severe gale was blowing at the time.
1885 April 10
The barque Ceylon, in lat. 31°N., long. 71°W., (WSW of the Bermudas), had her main and mizzenmasts carried away by a waterspout. The captain was hurt and the first mate killed by falling masts and spars.
1888 January 28
The steamship River Avon, near Bermuda, reported a waterspout over a mile wide.
1888 February 12
The steamship Earnmoor, 35°N., 74°W (near the Bahamas), reported that more than 30 waterspouts passed the ship. Many more were seen near the same position by other vessels. On March 14, 20 or 30 spouts were seen near that vicinity by the S.S. Faedrelandet.
1888 April 25
The schooner Baltic was hit by a waterspout in 30°N., 76°W. She was thrown on to her beam ends, the deck was flooded and boats were carried away. The crew cut away the mainmast to right the vessel.
1889 June 13?
A waterspout formed at Steyl-Teeglen in Holland and then withdrew into a cloud, disintegrating with loud detonations. A huge quantity of water and many fish fell immediately after. This is from Corliss, who only gives the year. Charles Fort (Book of the Damned) says there was a fish fall in Holland on June 13, 1889. He does not mention a waterspout.
The coiling waterspout seen from the Burrawong
1894 August 18
Three waterspouts were seen from the SS Burrawong, 15 miles south of Seal Rocks, New South Wales, Australia, descending from a heavy raincloud. The third spout had "water spouting up in a continuous stream right up to the cloud." Then the spout became very long, swaying and coiling about like a serpent. "All at once it made a complete coil, then burst, great quantities of water poured out of the lower part of the coil, and in a few seconds…vanished"
1895 March 2
Several waterspouts were seen under a huge dark cloud from the Signal Station, Sydney, Australia. The largest was vertical, about 400 feet high and 40 feet wide. Spray rose to 100 feet, "while a great roaring noise could be heard." It is quite unusual for a spout to make a noise. This one's roar was audible from 4 miles away, indicating that it was a very powerful tornadic waterspout.
The giant waterspout of August 19, 1896
1896 August 19
A giant waterspout formed from a thunderstorm on the junction of Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds, Massachusetts. The funnel cloud formed and dissolved three times, though an invisible vortex still raised spray. The funnel cloud was largest on its second appearance, when it was vertical. It formed a pillar 3,600 feet high. At cloud base it was 840 feet wide, in the middle 144 feet wide, and at sea level 240 feet wide. The cascade was 720 feet wide (this was also the diameter of the actual vortex, with the funnel cloud marking the low-pressure core). Spray rose to 420 feet.
1898 May 16
At least 20 waterspouts formed from a huge cumulonimbus cloud off Eden, New South Wales, Australia. The first was "as straight as a shaft, and was estimated to be thirty times as high as a clipper ship, say 5,000 feet." D.R. Crichton, a mining engineer, set up a theodolite in Imley-street, Eden, and took measurements of the second waterspout, which was calculated to be 'nearly' 8 nautical miles from him. (He says that by the time he did this "the nearest and largest waterspout had disappeared"). The spout was vertical. Its height from sea level was 5,014 feet. The top and bottom were cone-shaped, about 100 feet in diameter and 250 feet long. Between the cones was a column about 10 feet in diameter. This appears to be the highest waterspout ever recorded. But was the first one higher?
1900 February 18
The schooner Metha Nelson was "pursued by a column of water which emitted flashes of lightning" in the Pacific. The schooner was thrown on to her beam ends as the spout passed, but righted herself.
1902 April 4
The large steamship Hestia, off Cape Hatteras, encountered several waterspouts forming from thunder clouds. The largest headed directly for the ship and could not be avoided. There was a roar, strong gusts, and a shock as the spout struck. It caused minor damage.
A waterspout bears down on a ship in the North Pacific, August 1916
1918 February 2
A waterspout formed in Port Phillip Bay and came ashore at Brighton, Victoria, Australia. It destroyed houses from Brighton to Bentleigh. 2 people were killed. The waterspout, whose winds were estimated at 200 mph, accompanied a thunderstorm with jagged hail.
1919 December 28
The S.S. War Hermit observed a waterspout south of Cape Comorin, India. The sea was smooth. The spout formed from a cumulonimbus cloud with a base, according to sextant measurements, 4,600 feet above the sea surface. At cloud base the spout was 500 feet wide and at sea level it was 150 feet. The cascade was 250 feet wide and spray was lifted to 300 feet. The spout lasted 13 minutes. One of the highest waterspouts on record.
1922 October 16
During a thunderstorm in the Grecian Archipelago, observers on board the RFA Bacchus saw a long black streak of 'water' rise from the sea to a height of 1,000 feet. It increased in size until a waterspout 1,800 feet high and 50 to 60 feet in diameter formed. It lasted 16 minutes. Spray rose to 100 feet. Probably a case where an invisible vortex descended to the sea and a funnel cloud formed as the whirl then strengthened.
A waterspout in the Mediterranean, February 6, 1923
(Painting by Chris Chatfield)
1923 March 30
At 2.25 am, the White Star liner Pittsburgh was hit bow-on by a waterspout in mid-Atlantic. It appears to have been a very intense spout that had lifted a large amount of water in the lower part of its funnel. Many tons of water fell on the forward superstructure. The crow's nest, 70 feet above the waterline, was flooded. The ship had to stop for an hour to make repairs.
1926 October 28
Four waterspouts were seen in the western Pacific, about 32°N., 146°E. The first was of 'normal' type. The second was a huge cylinder about 1,000 feet in diameter, with spray rising to a height of 600 feet. The third was seen forming from directly beneath, and appeared between bands of cloud moving in opposite directions. The fourth spout "tried to form and failed and series of bands of clouds reaching from sea surface from the cloud revolved around the axis of a cylinder remaining nearly vertical and parallel to each other."
1927 June 7
Three waterspouts were seen about 4 miles off Vera Cruz harbour. The first spout, about 3 minutes before it dissolved, "palpitated in the middle…as if it were breathing, throwing off at the same time what appeared to be like smoke."
1929 April 2
An ominous cumulonimbus cloud was over Hillsborough Bay, Florida, when a whirl of spray appeared on the sea surface. A funnel then descended from the cloud, a 'tail' rose up out of the spray to meet it, and they met in midair to form a waterspout 1,500 feet high and 50 feet wide with clockwise rotation. A steamer fired on the spout with a small gun, with little effect. The spout drew up mud and seaweed from the bottom of the bay through 15 feet of water. The spout passed out of the bay (it had formed just offshore) and was hidden by rain. This may have been a tornado that happened to touch down on water. Spouts appear to form in at least three different ways: (1). The cascade appears and then a funnel descends. (2). A funnel descends to the sea and then forms a cascade. (3). Funnel and cascade appear simultaneously and join up, as in this case.
Nocturnal waterspouts in the Mediterranean, February 7, 1930
(Painting by Chris Chatfield)
A waterspout in the Bay of Bengal, May 31, 1930
(Painting by Chris Chatfield)
1935 May 12
Observers aboard the M.V. Rangitata, in the South Pacific Ocean, 40°S., 167°W., saw a waterspout form beneath a heavy rain cloud. Five minutes later, three smaller spouts formed, with their bases apparently joining that of the large spout. This is a rare observation of a multiple-vortex waterspout.
1935 September 5
A late afternoon tornado formed near Norfolk, Virginia, passed onto water, then struck Craney Island, where it destroyed buildings. It then passed onto Hampton Roads as a waterspout, then became a tornado again on land. A car was carried 85 feet and dropped undamaged, and three empty railway cars weighing 60,000 pounds were overturned. The tornado crossed Masons Creek as a waterspout, then as a tornado it tore two huge steel doors off hangars at the Naval Air Station. It became a waterspout again over Willoughby Bay, then a tornado over Willoughby Spit, where it demolished a garage. The tornado moved onto Chesapeake Bay as a waterspout, and about two miles into the bay it retreated into the cloud. This was therefore a tornado-waterspout-tornado-waterspout-tornado-waterspout-tornado-waterspout-tornado-waterspout!
A waterspout in the China Sea, February 22, 1936
(Painting by Chris Chatfield)
John Caldwell sailed a small boat through a waterspout in mid-Pacific. Spray blew across the deck, and inside the funnel there was "a damp circular wind of 30 knots, if it was that strong." Caldwell, who had seen dozens of waterspouts, dismissed the idea that they had 'hurricane winds' inside, and believed they were all harmless. Some evidently are, but sailing through spouts cannot be recommended. Some really are tornadoes at sea. If a waterspout is making a roaring noise, or a cascade is being lifted to a great height, then the spout should be avoided.
1949 March 14
An RAF Harvard aircraft sighted a waterspout off Pulau Ubin island, Singapore. The spout was about 70 feet wide, and "writhing convulsively". The parent cloud base was about 1,200 feet. The pilot flew through the spout at a height of about 600 feet. The plane was completely enveloped for a short time. There was no increased turbulence, and the only effect on the aircraft was that it became wet all over. The spout was unaffected by the passage of the aircraft.
1950 May 31
The S.S. Dallas Star, in the North Pacific, 10°N., 87°W., observed two narrow waterspouts close together, which reached the sea from a cloud base with a reported height of 4,600 feet.
The triple-walled spout seen from the Empire Fowey
1951 May 27
The S.S. Empire Fowey in the South China Sea observed a triple-walled waterspout. A thin tube-like spout formed a second hollow tube inside. Then a cloud 'sleeve' grew downwards from the cloud base around the original tube, and a similar 'sleeve' developed upwards from the sea.
1951 August 18
The S.S. Pacific Nomad, in the North Pacific, 37°N., 163°W. reported a waterspout. "It appeared to rotate rapidly, first clockwise, then anticlockwise, continually changing the direction of rotation." It seems that the observers must have been the victims of an optical illusion here (watch a film of a tornado and try to decide which way it is rotating). As the Marine Observer said, such a change of rotation is not physically possible.
1957 April 12
A waterspout which formed in Nassau harbour, Bahamas, brushed the coast, where it capsized boats and did some property damage. An aircraft flying near the spout saw sheets of corrugated iron lifted to about 800 feet.
A waterspout in the Straits of Malacca, September 1968
(Photo by Philip Chatfield)
1969 May 27
Two people on Boca Grande Key, Florida, saw the funnel of a waterspout descending from the cloud and coming towards them. They held on to the concrete pillars of a shelter as the spout passed over. The shelter was uprooted with its concrete foundations and carried 60 feet. The two observers were dropped into trees and escaped injury.
1970 September 11
A waterspout in the Gulf of Venice near Santa Elena island lifted and sank a steam yacht. 36 of the 60 passengers lost their lives. The waterspout came ashore at Iésolo and destroyed a camp site. 11 people were killed and several hundred injured.
A waterspout in the North Atlantic Ocean, March 26, 1974
(Painting by Chris Chatfield)
1980 May 8
A waterspout in San Antonio Bay, Texas, sank a shrimp boat. One crew member was lost and the other two injured.