On the evening of August 12, 1912, as they were accustomed to doing every day, the fishermen of several ports along the Bizkaian coast set out in small 40-50 feet boats to fish in the waters close to their homes. This was a form of coastal rather than deep-sea fishing, a typical Basque practice and one intimately linked to the traditional culture of Basque fishing communities as a whole. It had been a mild day with a warming southerly wind, but all of a sudden, as the evening drifted into night, there was a dramatic change, and a cold northerly wind came in from an area of low pressure in the far North Atlantic, around Iceland: an unprecedented phenomenon for that time of year. The air temperature fell dramatically, and the sea became increasingly more squally.
At the time a number of these boats were approximately 45-50 miles off of the Bizkaian coast. This would have been just about the moment they were thinking of returning to port with their evening catch, but instead they got caught up in the storm, which carried on ferociously all night and into the morning of August 13. The boats could not cope with such appalling conditions and many sank.
On shore, people realized that their loved ones and neighbors were in danger, and an appeal was made to send out rescue launches, but between the terrible conditions at sea and the time it was taking to alert the authorities in Bilbao, help was not immediately forthcoming.
In total, there were 143 recorded deaths, most of them fishermen from Bermeo, but including others from Lekeitio, Elantxobe, and Ondarroa. A memorial service was held for all the dead on August 23 in Bermeo, to which King Alfonso XIII also came.
The tragedy marked a watershed moment in fishing practices and techniques in the Bay of Biscay.
Check out the following two-part video about the tragedy, recreating life in fishing communities at the time (in Basque):