Category Archives: Navigation and Seamanship

The Christmas Gale of 1811

jutland

England’s lifeblood during the Napoleonic Wars was naval stores to keep its fleet at sea. The primary source of those stores was Scandinavia and Russia and the convoys carrying them traveled via the Baltic and North Sea. As we’ve already seen, this area was so vital that England was willing to expand its war with Napoleon to encompass heretofore neutral powers in order to keep this supply line secure.

The route was treacherous. The relatively shallow depth created significant wave action. The North Sea also caught incoming waves from the Atlantic which then collided with other wave action originating in the English Channel. The Baltic, in particular, was narrow. The weather often prevented accurate latitude calculations and longitude calculation, in the era before the chronometer, was decidedly problematic. A gale, from any point of the compass, immediately placed a ship in danger of being driven onto a lee shore.

This was never more clearly demonstrated than on Christmas Eve, 1811.

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Shipwreck of HMS Apollo


We wrote earlier on the loss of HMS Association and several of her consorts at Scilly. A loss directly attributable to the inability of ships to accurately calculate longitude. Even though James Harrison’s marine chronometer had been accepted since 1773, it was not generally available within the British navy.

As a result these unfortunate instances continued to happen.

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The Wreck of the HMS Association and Consorts

association
In 1707, Britain was embroiled in yet another of its seemingly interminable wars with France and Spain. Rear Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was the British naval commander in the Mediterranean. Working in close cooperation with the British Army under Earl Peterborough, quite an unusual occurrence, Shovel had helped take Barcelona and had effectively blockaded Toulon.

The fleet, however, was falling apart. Having been at sea nearly constantly for three years the ships were in need of a complete refit. In October, Sir Cloudesley departed for shipyards in the Channel ports.

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Casting the Log

log-and-line1
from the National Maritime Museum

It was well that he did, for with the rising of the moon the wind increased, blowing straight into her round, foolish face and across the growing swell. By the time he came on deck Mowett had already takin in the lower studdingsail, and as the night wore on more and more canvas came off until she was under little more than close-reefed fore and main topsails, reefed courses and trysails, yet each time the reefer of the watch cast the log he reported with mounting glee, “six and a half knots, if you please, sir. — Seven knots two fathoms. –Almost eight knots. –Eight knots and three fathoms. –Nine knots. –Ten knots! Oh sir, she’d doing ten knots.”

The Reverse of the Medal, Patrick O’Brian.

Navigation was the critical function required of a ship’s captain and master during the Age of Sail. It made little difference how fast your crew could make sail or serve the great guns if you didn’t know where you were going.

We’ll cover calculating northing and easting in the future. In the last story we looked a how casting the lead allowed a ship to be sure it was in water of a safe depth. In this story we’ll answer the question “How fast am I going?”

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Casting the Lead

leadsman

“Mr. Bush, do you see the battery?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will the longboat. Mr. Rayner will take the launch, and you will land and storm the battery.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“I will give you the word when to hoist out.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“Quarter less eight,” droned the leadsman — Hornblower had listened to each cast subconsciously; now that the water was shoaling he was compelled to give half his attention up to the leadsman’s cries while still scrutinizing the battery. A bare quarter of a mile from it now; it was time to strike.

From Ship of the Line, C. S. Forester.

For a sailor, knowing the depth of the water under the keel was probably more important than knowing a precise northing and easting. You can fix being lost. Not so much with being sunk.

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Points of Sail

points-of-sail

In our time it is too easy to forget how much different sea travel was during the Age of Sail. In our post on Torbay we explained how this bay served as a critical rendezvous for the Channel Fleet while blockading Brest and other French ports. The Fleet not only had to contend with a possible sortie by the French fleet but with the very real possibility that a storm could blow them up Channel and prevailing winds would allow the French out and prevent the Channel Fleet from intercepting them.

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