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When Paul Clancy was researching his new book, "Ironclad: The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor," he could find only sketchy information about the storm that sank the vessel.

To elaborate what he had found into a full weather report, he turned to Larry Atkinson, an expert in coastal oceanography on the faculty of Old Dominion University.

Clancy, a former newspaper reporter who wrote about recovery operations at the Monitor wreck site when he was on the staff of The Virginian-Pilot, assembled dozens of weather references he found in ships' logs, crewmen's letter and 19th century accounts of the sinking. "Larry was just the perfect person to put all the pieces together," Clancy said. "He took the trouble to come over to my house and sit at my dining room table and pore over the documents with me."

Atkinson, eminent ODU professor and Samuel L. and Fay M. Slover Professor of Oceanography, said all the clues pointed to a "classic low (pressure system) moving up over the Carolinas."

Their collaboration makes for suspenseful reading, as Clancy is able to describe a weather pattern that could have lured the Monitor to its doom in the Atlantic Ocean just south of Cape Hatteras.

Sixteen of the 61 men on the Monitor were lost when the vessel sank Dec. 31, 1862, while being towed by the side-wheel steamer USS Rhode Island. The vessels were en route from Hampton Roads to Beaufort, N.C. The sinking came just nine months after the famous, indecisive battle between the Monitor and the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack).

The Monitor's orders to Beaufort required an ocean voyage for which it was not suited; it had been designed as a river patrol ship. But the weather on Dec. 29, 1862, when it left Hampton Roads was balmy and the ironclad's officers anticipated a quick and uneventful trip to the North Carolina port, according to Clancy's research.

At dawn on the morning of the 30th, according to ships' logs, a slight wind began to blow from the southwest, but conditions still seemed near perfect. Atkinson, nevertheless, took note of a letter written by a Monitor survivor describing the morning sky: "Cloud banks were seen rising in the south and west and they gradually increased till the sun was obscured by their cold grey mantle."

Clancy's prose fleshes out Atkinson's interpretation: "The low-pressure systems that move up from the south are often called Cape Hatteras lows, a name strikingly appropriate in this context…. Imagine a spinning circle, turning counterclockwise as it moves north. On a ship sailing down the Atlantic off North Carolina you would begin to experience winds out of the south as they wheel around the bottom of the circle. As the counterclockwise vortex caused by the low spins, it drags dry, cold air down from the north, likely the Great Lakes region. This chilly, dense air, whipsawing around the low, ducks under the warm, moist air of the high like a wedge and generates a bank of clouds and a band of rain. All along the interface between cold and warm air, this 'cold grey mantle,' which could be several thousand feet high, presides."

Regular weather data-wind direction and speed, air temperature, water temperature, barometric pressure-logged by crew members of the Monitor and Rhode Island, as well as personal writings of the crews, support Atkinson's storm scenario. The weather buffeted the small ironclad during the afternoon and early evening of the 30th, but by suppertime the seas still were not a matter of great concern. The Monitor's skipper decided against seeking safe haven in the lee of Cape Hatteras, and continued under tow around the cape.

"I'd worked off Cape Hatteras doing research and I had experience with bad weather there," Atkinson said. "They had no way of knowing it back then, but the worse was still to come."

During the night of the 30th, the winds picked up and the sea rose. After midnight, with leaks increasing in number and intensity, the Monitor sank.
Portions of the wreck-including the famous iron turret-and hundreds of artifacts have been recovered and entrusted to The Mariners' Museum in Newport News. The USS Monitor Center will open at the museum in 2007.

Clancy's book (McGraw Hill, $24.95) arrives in bookstores this month. The author has written for USA Today, The Washington Star and Smithsonian magazine, in addition to The Virginian-Pilot.

This article was posted on: September 16, 2005

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