On occasion combat at sea during the Age of Sail could be a display of sailhandling virtuosity, or a tour de force of surprise, which caused the enemy to strike with little bloodshed. More often than not, however, ship to ship combat resembled nothing so much as two drunks having at each other with pool cues in a parking lot.
The October 6, 1779 engagement between HMS Quebec and the French frigate, Surveillante, off Ushant was much more the latter than the former.
During the American Revolutionary War, Britain did not attempt a close blockade of French ports. Rather, a screen of frigates kept a vigil while the ships of the line stayed at anchor at places like Torbay and Spithead. One of those frigates, operating off Guernsey, was the 32-gun 12-pounder frigate HMS Quebec under Captain George Farmer.
We’ve previously encountered Captain Farmer during our account of the shipwreck of HMS Swift and there is no doubt about his courage or intrepidity. He’d achieved post rank shortly after being cleared of the loss of Swift by a court martial and is most famous for commanding the frigate, HMS Seahorse, which carried Midshipmen Horatio Nelson and Thomas Troubridge on its books.
The seeds of this battle were sown in what was nearly a resounding success for Farmer. He worked hand-in-glove with Guernsey fishermen and as a result of their information in early July 1779 he was able to intercept a convoy of 49 French coasters. Quebec was like a fox in a hen run but unfortunately he ran upon a submerged rock and had to throw excess weight overboard to refloat her. Part of that excess weight was his 12-pound cannon.
When he returned to Portsmouth for repairs he found that there were no replacement 12-pounders to be had and so he returned to his patrol station armed with nine pounders which were authorized for much smaller ships, those of 24 or fewer guns.
Dawn on October 6 found Quebec working with the cutter HMS Rambler (10) outside Brest. Three sail were sighted by the lookouts and identified as a ship, a cutter, and a smaller vessel. Farmer ordered Quebec and Rambler to stand in to identify the ships. By 8:00am they had identified the larger ship as a frigate. Quebec cleared for action and by 8:30 the French frigate had opened fire.
The French frigate was Surveillante, a 36-gun, 12-pounder. She was larger than Quebec, fired a much heavier broadside, and had a crew of 255 versus Farmer’s 195. (As an aside, Wikipedia gives her armament at 18 pounders, which, given the French proclivity for overgunning their ships would be possible. The wreck of Surveillante includes has 12-pounder cannon which comports with the contemporaneous French dockyard records.)
The ships closed the distance slowly in light wind and around 10:00 Quebec began returning fire. For nearly an hour they sailed along parallel tracks hammering away at each other. Surveillante pulled a little ahead of Quebec and Farmer, who had the weather gage, tried to quickly cut across her stern and rake her. The French captain matched his maneuver and they returned to positions parallel to each other.
[diagram of the combat scanned from Famous Duels Of The Fleet And Their Lessons by H. B. Money Coutts; Kessinger Publishing, LLC; 2007; ISBN-10: 0548092168]
By now casualties were mounting on both ships. Some of Farmer’s guns were crewed by three men. Both ships had severe damage to sails, masts, and rigging. Farmer had a broken collar bone and crushed finger, probably the result of rigging and blocks falling from overhead. His first lieutenant had his arm shot away and incredibly returned to duty after the surgeon dressed, if that word adequately describes what one does to an amputated limb, the wound.
Around 1pm, after three hours of close combat, Surveillante lost all her masts. The only good news for Surveillante was that the masts went over on the unengaged side so here cannonade of Quebec was uninterrupted. Had Quebec been less severely mauled the action would have had a swift conclusion. But as Farmer ordered Quebec maneuvered to finish off Surveillante, all three of Quebec’s masts were also lost. While the main and foremasts went over the disengaged side, the mizzen mast collapsed over the engaged side blocking several of the cannon’s field of fire.
The ships drifted together with Surveillante’s bowsprit becoming entangled in the wreckage of Quebec’s mizzen mast. Undeterred, Quebec’s gun captains kept up her rate of fire by shooting through the wreckage. The French captain called for borders but they were bloodily repulsed with the Surveillante’s captain taking his third wound of the engagement.
Now Quebec’s mizzen sail and rigging were ablaze from the effect of the blocked cannon shooting through them. Both ships were in danger of destruction from the fire. The French fended Quebec off and managed, with great difficulty, to extinguish the fire that had taken hold on their bowsprit. Quebec, however, was doomed. Sailors began jumping overboard but Surveillante did not have a single boat that was seaworthy and could only throw ropes to those who managed to get close to it.
Farmer ordered the magazine flooded by having the pumps directed into it. He was not successful. In mid afternoon Quebec exploded. Some survivors said that Captain Farmer was one of the last to abandon ship, drowning as he swam to one of Quebec’s surviving small boats. I prefer the another account, this one says Farmer was last seen sitting on an anchor fluke as the ship exploded.
The two cutters, Rambler and her French counterpart, had battered each other for much of the morning to no avail. When the French cutter saw Quebec in flame, she broke off combat to assist. Rambler’s sails and rigging were so badly damaged she was unable to pursue. Only 68 Quebecs survived the action out of a crew of 195. 115 Surveillantes were either killed or wounded out of a crew of 255.
Surveillante made her way under jury rig back into Brest and in this twilight of the age of chivalry, her captain treated the surviving Quebecs as castaways found at sea, not as prisoners of war, seeing them repatriated without parole or exchange.
Surveillante continued to serve the French crown with distinction. She was part of a small squadron that took HMS Romulus (44) in the Chesapeake Bay in February 1781 and was chosen to jointly carry, along with HMS Medea, the news of the signing of the Treaty of Paris to the newly recognized United States.
When the French Revolutionary Wars erupted, Surveillante was fairly long in the tooth. She was converted to a transport armed en flute and was part of the ill fated French expedition to Ireland. Surveillante was badly damaged by storms and made it to Bantry Bay. When the expedition unraveled it was decided that Surveillante would not be sufficiently seaworthy for the trip home. She was scuttled on January 2, 1797.
There she remained, largely forgotten, until 1979 when the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded at the Whiddy Island Oil Terminal off Bantry. In the subsequent recovery operation, Surveillante was discovered in some 100 feet of water. A complete report on the wreck, including side-scan sonar pictures, can be found here.