Touch and Go follows the career of C. Northcote Parkinson’s naval character Richard Delancey from late 1797 through the Peace of Amiens.
When we last enountered Richard Delancey, he was unemployed due to using his command, the fireship Spitfire, as it was intended to be used. His resourcefulness, however, won him the respect and patronage of the aristocratic Captain Ashley. This, in turn, led him to be made commander into the 18-gun sloop HMS Merlin.
Major spoilers follow.
Delancey takes command of Merlin at Gibraltar. Merlin is a fairly new ship but has been poorly managed by a lackadaisical commander. Delancey’s first mission is to escort a convoy from Gibraltar to Palermo. During that voyage Delancey makes the difficult transition from lieutenant to commander and proves himself to be a demanding, detail-oriented commander who will not accept anything but the best from his ship, his men, or himself. Unfortunately, his first lieutenant is a lot less than helpful to him.
Several months of running routine convoys comes to an end in an encounter with two French corvettes. They attempt to lure Merlin away from her convoy. Delancey realizes the trap and protects his convoy. His first lieutenant is not as astute and is critical of Delancey for not attacking one of the corvettes.
The next convoy finds Delancey working with an aging 28-gun frigate. The commander of the frigate is gravely ill leaving Delancey in command of the escort by virtue of his seniority over the frigate’s first lieutenant. He anticipates encountering the two French warships again and uses the occasion of setting the frigate’s captain ashore in a hospital to spread rumors about the convoy’s plan and to engage in a clever ruse. In due course, the convoy does encounter the two corvettes. Merlin batters one into submission, the second is taken by the frigate which is disguised as a merchantman. [Editor’s note: Parkinson, either accidentally or to advance the plot, completely misrepresents how prize money was apportioned between ships.]
Delancey is assigned to the squadron commanded by Thomas Troubridge during the siege of Valletta, Malta, and helps foil the attempted relief of that garrison by the French navy. He does so at personal cost as he decides to pursue a heavily laden supply ship which is critical to the garrison rather than taking an accompanying corvette which might have seen him made post.
Eventually Delancey gets an mission that allows him to sail independently, escorting a merchantman as far as Gibraltar, and he uses the opportunity to raid French shipping at Majorca. In doing so, he makes the acquaintance of Lord Cochrane in HMS Speedy. Cochrane’s laissez faire attitude towards all except prize money rubs Delancey the wrong way and it is clear they will not be close friends. The master of the merchantman is not a skilled mariner and becomes separated from Merlin over one night. Delancey finds it aground on the African coast with Arab tribesmen gathering to take it for salvage. Delancey manages to bring the ship off.
Merlin intercepts a small Spanish vessel and receives word that Speedy and Lord Cochran have been captured. To evade the squadron that caught Cochrane, Delancey hugs the African coast. He is in need of water because they were forced to jettion all the water from the merchantman to lighten it enough to get it to float. They visit a North African port and Delancey witnesses a slave auction with unforeseen consequences.
Delancey safely arrives in Gibraltar bringing news of Cochrane’s capture to a nearly empty port. He meets the only other naval officer there, Commander George Heneage Dundas, and finds that Admiral Saumarez is blockading the Spanish fleet at Cadiz. He is present at the Battle of Algeciras and attempts to evacuate HMS Hannibal, which is aground and under fire from shore batteries. He admires the courage of fellow Guernseyman Saumarez and his defense of Saumarez’s actions earns him Saumarez’s affection… but not his daughter’s.
Rumors of peace are circulating as Delancey prepares to depart for England. He happens to meet a friend from his days as a commander of a revenue cutter and concocts a plan to maximize his chances of taking a substantial prize before the war ends. Events spiral out of control and Delancey is confronted with some hard decisions which makes the whole plan truly touch and go.