Cynthia Barnett in the New York Times:
On the 25th of October in 1859, the steam clipper Royal Charter rounded the island of Anglesey off the coast of Wales on what was supposed to be the celebratory last evening of its two-month journey from Melbourne to Liverpool. Some 500 men, women and children were nearly home, many feeling blessed with fortunes worked from Australia’s Ballarat goldfields. Gold bullion and specie were crammed into pockets, hidden in money belts and locked up in the strongroom.
The day’s weather had been murky, the barometer falling. As the Royal Charter neared Anglesey’s rocky cliffs, an ominous haze overtook the skies of early evening. No one knows whether the ship’s experienced captain, Thomas Taylor, saw these and other telltale signs, according to Peter Moore’s riveting account of the battle between ship and storm that raged over the next 12 hours. “Confronted with a decision — 59 days out from Melbourne on a 60-day voyage, passengers toasting him at the dining table,” Moore writes in “The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future,” “Taylor chose to sail on.”
The decision is one of the most second-guessed in the history of meteorology. It is also one of the most fateful, and not only for the terrifying finale that saw the Royal Charter bashed onto the rocks, all but 41 of its passengers crushed or drowned, many weighted down by the gold in their pockets.
Then as now, it often takes disaster to bring about wise policy changes that emerge from science, the best ideas so often ahead of their time.