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. Continue reading
Anchor from HMS St. George at Strandingsmuseum, Thorsminde, Denmark
Below we discuss the horrendous losses inflicted upon the British Navy by the storm that raged across the North Sea at Christmas 1811. In the course of writing it we stumbled onto some interesting resources and were afraid they would get lost in the shipwreck narrative.
In the immediate aftermath of the wreck of HMS St. George and HMS Defence both wrecks were heavily salvaged. The recovered bodies were buried in the dunes adjacent the wrecks, though the body of Defence’s captain, Captain David Atkins and those of two sailors were buried in a church cemetery.
The wreck of St. George was so remote that even though the cannon were salvaged and moved onto the beach, no one could come up with a way of moving the cannon from the beach to any other location and they were subsequently abandoned.
The sand as well as the wave action and storms visited on Jutland buried the wrecks. But they were not forgotten.
On the morning of October 22, 1812 the USS Vixen, a brig armed with twelve 18-pound carronades, departed its base at St Mary’s, Georgia, for a 30-day cruise raiding British commerce in the Caribbean. Vixen was commanded by 32 year old George Washington Reed, youngest son of George Washington’s adjutant general and had a crew of 110.
The crew was fairly uneventful from a combat and prize money point of view and on November 22, Vixen was homeward bound and two days out of St Mary’s. Then the adventure started.
In March 1770, HMS Swift, a 14 gun sloop-of-war commanded by Captain George Farmer and based at Port Egmont, West Falklands was engaged in a coastal survey of Patagonia. A violent gale materialized out of the South Atlantic and caught the Swift on a lee shore. Farmer ran for shelter in the estuary of the Deseado River in what is now the Santa Clara Cruz Province of Argentina.
Unfortunately for Farmer, Swift struck an uncharted rock, was badly holed, and foundered. The crew managed to get ashore, except for the cook and two marines who drowned — more of which later. The crew was stranded on a desolate coast.
On October 4, 1744 a British fleet led by HMS Victory carrying the flag of Admiral John Balchen encountered a ferocious storm in the Western Approaches of the English Channel. The fleet was dispersed with all ships arriving in port save Victory. A search was mounted. Captain Thomas Grenville, HMS Falkland, landed at Guernsey to replenish his supplies and discovered that wreckage from Victory had washed up there. This led to the belief that Victory had struck Black Rock, part of the Casquets, during the night and gone down with all hands.
Now Victory has been found.
Captain Edward Riou
Earlier I noted how many, if not most, of the actions described in naval fiction actually have deep roots in the history of the Age of Sail. In that initial essay I pointed out how Richard Bolitho’s action in To Glory We Steer of boarding an enemy ship by using another ship as a bridge was actually less remarkable than the historical event, Captain Horatio Nelson of the 74-gun HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent using the 80-gun San Nicholas as a bridge to board and take the 112-gun San Josef.
I came across another instance in this description of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novel, Desolation Island.
The 74-gun ship of the line, HMS Colossus is a textbook case of how during the Age of Sail a captain could do everything exactly right and still end up with a shipwreck.
Colossus was bound home in December 1798 escorting a convoy from the Mediterranean. The ship was in a poor state of repair and when a gale arose around December 6. Knowing his ship could not ride out a full fledged storm, he sought shelter in St. Mary’s Roads, Scilly Isles (pictured above). He arrived in the harbor safely and secured the Colossus with three anchors. One of the anchor cables parted and Colossus grounded on shoals and subsequently broke up. Miraculously, only one man was lost during the incident.
The captain, George Murray, survived a court martial over the loss and went on to fight under Nelson at the Battle of St. Vincent and was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1808.
Researchers from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society have been at work on this site for some years and have produced an interesting report.