The Age of Sail produced some interesting characters and exceptional leaders. Sometimes they are all rolled into one, as in the case of Lord Cochrane.
What makes the British Navy notable, in my view anyway, is the degree to which it was a meritocracy operating within an aristocratic society. While it is true that those with connections did benefit from their social status it was equally true that advancement in the Royal Navy was open to men of modest birth but exceptional ability. One such is Sir Edward Pellew.
Pellew is familiar to readers of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels as a patron of Hornblower. He could have been expected to favor the talented Hornblower, even though he was son of a country doctor, because Pellew himself of modest means, his father captained a packet based out of Dover.
Even though Pellew got off to a shakey start, (here the wikipedia entry is incorrect) he entered the Royal Navy at age 14 and was put ashore by the captain of that ship for quarreling with him over an injustice done to a fellow midshipman. He managed to gain another appointment as midshipman and proceded to distinguish himself.
He was bold and a masterful seaman. While many are familiar with the Indefatigable and Amazon driving the French 74-gun Droits de l’Homme into the surf near the Breton village of Plozévet with the loss of over 1000 French sailors and troops.
Fewer still realize that he fought with great distinction as a midshipman at the Battle of Valcour Island against an American fleet led by General Benedict Arnold or that he was captured at the Battle of Saratoga and subsequently exchanged.
Pellew represents both the good of the Royal Navy (his promotion based on merit and his highly proficient seamanship) and the bad (using his rank to advance the career of his son). But he stands as giant of the Age of Sail