The Gun Ketch covers the year 1793 in the career of Dewey Lambdin’s naval character, Alan Lewrie.
As the story opens in January, 1793. Lewrie has been living for 4 years as a tenant farmer on the estate of Caroline’s uncle, Phineas Chiswick. Lewrie is bored. His grandmother has died living him well off financially. He has three children. He was called up in 1791 for six weeks during the Nootka Sound crisis but the rest of the time he’s been on half pay. He also has feelings of inadequacy as he simply isn’t mastering farming the way he did seamanship, even though the has applied himself diligently. He and Caroline, because of the circumstances of their wedding (see The Gun Ketch) finds himself socially isolated for the local gentry.
As war with Revolutionary France becomes inevitable he receives a message from the Admiralty directing him to report to London for an assignment.
Major spoilers follow.
In the Admiralty waiting rooms he encounters Lieutenant Hogue, who owes his promotion to Lewrie (The King’s Privateer) and Captain Railsford, the first officer and later commander of HMS Desperate (The French Admiral, The King’s Commission). Railsford has just received command of a frigate. From him Lewrie discovers that Captain Treghues (The French Admiral, The King’s Commission) has inherited the title, gone on half pay, and is in parliament.
After several days of waiting, Lewrie receives his assignment as a lieutenant assigned to the Impress Service in Deptford. He protests the assignment but is given the choice of either taking the job offered or being stricken from the list officers eligible for active employment.The only positive development is that his commander will be Captain Lilycrop, formerly Lewrie’s commander in HMS Shrike (The King’s Commission) and now a post captain.
Lewrie performs well and Lilycrop makes his own inquiries as to why Lewrie is in the Impress Service rather than aboard a ship. He also makes appeals on Lewrie’s behalf. Lilycrop finds that he has significant enemies in positions of influence. Rear Admiral Sinclair, who still dislikes Lewrie because of the circumstances of how he entered the Navy and retired Rear Admiral Horace Garvey (The Gun Ketch), because Lewrie exposed his involvement in a piracy ring in the Bahamas.
In April, 1793 the persistence of Lewrie and Lilycrop pays off and Lewrie is assigned as first officer of HMS Cockerel, a 32-gun frigate. Cockerel is an unhappy ship. All officers, save one, are relatives of the captain. The captain is a petty tyrant trying to make a name for himself.
In its first engagement against the navy of Revolutionary France, the crew conspires to hinder the ability of the ship. The captain blames Lewrie for the misconduct.
When the captain suffers a relapse of malaria en route to deliver dispatches to Naples, Lewrie takes temporary command and makes the acquaintance of several historical persons: Sir William Hamilton, Lady Emma Hamilton, Sir John Acton, and King Ferdinand IV. The captain recovers and believes Lewrie has set out to ruin him. He volunteers Lewrie for duty with Allied forces at the siege of Toulon.
In Toulon, Lewrie and his small band are given a floating battery to maneuver while the artillery pieces are served by Spanish artillerymen. They have successes but ultimately their luck runs out and the floating battery is destroyed. Lewrie and his surviving men narrowly escape capture by French lancers. In the process, Lewrie loses his sword to a French officer: Napoleon Bonaparte.
As the French crush the Allied defenses of Toulon, Lewrie and his men are told to ready a captured French man o’ war for sea to transport Royalist families seeking to escape. While in transit to Gibraltar, the small convoy is intercepted by a French squadron. Lewrie fights a skilful delaying action until Royal Navy ships arrive, taking a prize in the meantime and being rewarded with a promotion to commander.