The Race for England

Punching into the teeth of strong westerlies the Pickle took two whole days to claw out of the Gulf of Cadiz, but by noon of the 28th she was some 3 or 4 leagues SSW of Cape St. Vincent. It had been a hard close-hauled slog, and her maximum speed during the past two days had consisted of a couple of three hour spurts of just four knots! Now, having opened up the western coast of Portugal, she was able to bear up to the northward. Taking the winds on her larboard quarter she began to make better progress, and shortly before noon her lookouts had made out a ‘… Strange Sail in the WNW Standing towards Us.’ This strange sail was soon discovered to be HM Sloop Nautilus.

As remarked upon previously, at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar the Nautilus was stationed on the tedious business of patrolling off the SW tip of Portugal. This was one of those natural choke-points for shipping running to and from the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. Over the past couple of days, while in the process of working off shore to gain sea-room during the gales, she had run up slightly to the NW of Cape St. Vincent. On the previous day, when some 34 miles off shore, she had detected a ship in the NNE standing to the Southward. Closing with her in the early afternoon, her captain reluctantly hove-too after Nautilus had fired three shots across her bows. She proved to be ‘an American Ship from Falmouth to Lisbon.’

Neither Sykes nor Bamber identify her by name, but she can only have been the Cabinet, Captain Woodend, master, which had sailed from Falmouth for Leghorn on October 10th, with a cargo of salt-cured Cornish pilchards for the Italian market. After due inspection of her papers and crew she was allowed to proceed on her voyage. [13]

About four that afternoon, as they stood in for the shore again, they saw another sail. This sail was in the NE, but they did not try and close with her. The following morning, Monday the 28th of October, land was descried in the SE at first light, and towards noon they saw ‘…a strange Ship SSE.’ This must have been the Pickle, though she was not at first identified as such on board the Nautilus. Shortly afterwards the Pickle crossed their track to the northward, and at one p.m. (the wind then serving them better), the Nautilus ‘… bore up in chace of a Schooner standing to the Northw.d crossed Top G.t yards and made all Sail ans.d Private Signal and exchanged N.os with the Pickle Schooner hailed her and dropped a boat on board.’

On board the Pickle Almy recorded that at half past three they – ‘hove to and Spoke the Notlus the Cap.t of the Notlus Came on Board made Sail in C.o’

In her heady dash for England, it was anticipated by Collingwood, that the Pickle would encounter other naval vessels and contingencies to prevent unnecessary delay had been made for this. But whether or not they specifically envisaged a meeting with the Nautilus is not certain,though the last line of the following note suggests that it was. And, while the exact sequence of events has not been determined, it must have gone something like this.

In the Royal Navy seniority was everything, and as senior officer Sykes would normally have expected Lapenotiere to report to him on board his vessel once they drew within hailing distance. However, Lapenotiere must have intimated that he could not comply with Captain Sykes’ request and for Sykes to report on board the Pickle – which he did, possibly in a state of high dudgeon. Once onboard the Pickle, he was duly handed the following note. –


A Note received from L.t Lapenotiere [14]

I have received positive orders not to be detained by any Vefsel – if any Ship should come up with the Pickle I am desired to request the Ship to send her Boat as my Dispatches are of the greatest consequence –

An action took place between the Combined Fleets and the British Squadron on the 21st. Ins.t which ended in favour of the latter – 20 out of 33 Enemy Sail of the Line were taken but I fear that in consequence of the late bad weather 2 of them got into Cadiz and that the remainder have been destroyed –

Admiral Collingwood Commands The Commander in Chief was Killed in the Action The French Commander in Chief Villeneuve is taken 

The Admiral said something to me about your going to Lisbon but what I Know not on recollection he said I was not to be detained –

Signed J. R. Lapenotiere
Cap.t Sykes

Collingwood had apparently given verbal instructions to Lapenotiere, on what to say to Captain Sykes in the probable event that he fell in with the Nautilus. These in effect appear to have instructed Sykes to carry the news into Lisbon, to inform our Ambassador there. However the last sentence is so loosely phrased by Lapenotiere as to give Sykes some sea-room for free interpretation of his instructions – so long as he did not detain the Pickle.

Lapenotiere also made notes of his conversation with Sykes, on board the Pickle, though as drafted these are with an unidentified person ‘off Cape S.t Vincent 28th 4 PM.’ But this can only refer to his conversation with Captain Sykes. In it Lapenotiere apparently gave details of the battle, and must have given Sykes his rendering of Nelson’s historic pre-battle signal – regrettably, the full text of this note has yet to be read by the author. [15]

Neither Almy nor Bamber make any mention of Sykes returning to his vessel, so he might have remained on board the Pickle for some time. But the timing of Lapenotiere’s notes at ‘4 pm.,’ and Sykes subsequent letter to Lord Collingwood [see below], implies that he remained on board for just a half-an-hour.

From Lapenotiere’s orders it would seem that the two vessels did not remain hove too for longer than necessary, and Almy implies that they almost immediately got under way again, sailing in company for a while. This all fits with Sykes remaining onboard the Pickle just long enough to exchange the key elements of information, and perhaps take a glass of Madeira.

Shortly afterwards the two vessels went their separate ways, and by eight o’clock the next morning Almy noted that the ‘Notlus’ was still in sight, and the Rock of Lisbon bore SE about four leagues.

Despite his current orders, shortly after regaining his ship Captain Sykes resolved to run for home with his summary of the momentous news of the battle and the death of Lord Nelson. In his defence it might be said that as the great deciding sea-battle had been fought, and Nelson killed, Sykes’ orders no longer applied. No British ships needed to be appraised of Nelson’s standing orders, and there was no combined French and Spanish fleet for any additional French ships from the north to join! Even so, the abandoning of his station seems highly questionable.

After first running in for the mouth of the Tagus, the Nautilus fired several guns at around seven-thirty that morning, in an apparently vain attempt to ‘bring too’ a Pilot Boat. A little later they did stop another Portuguese vessel, and sent their dispatches and letters ashore to the Ambassador by her. According to Sykes, it was about eight o’clock that morning when he wrote the following letter to Lord Collingwood to clear his yard-arm and justify his actions.

His Majesty’s Sloop Nautilus
off the rock of Lisbon

October 29th 1805 8 AM/

Falling in with the Pickle Schooner off Cape St. Vincent yesterday afternoon at 4 PM, charged, with your important dispatches of the late ever memorable and most glorious Victory over the Combined Fleets, being moderate with a heavy swell, I dropt on board, and learning from L.t Lapenotiere, that he had partly your Commands that I should proceed to Lisbon, and understood for the purpose of communicating the great Event, I have accordingly reached the Mouth of the Tagus at 8 this morning, and forwarded a Letter to Lord Rob.t Fitzgerald, founded on the memorandums I was enabled to collect, in the short time, I was on board the Pickle –

The wind being now a fresh and favourable Gale to proceed further Northward, and finding with Care and Oeconomy, I could make the Provisions and Water last to reach England, I have ventured to proceed, solely actuated by a zeal for the Service, and in hopes to meet your wishes on the occasion, in becoming a security for the information of the Pickle should any accident befall her –

In thus acting Sir, I much wish to deserve your commendation
And have the honor to be
Your most obedient
Very humble Servant
Signed John Sykes
Vice Adm.l Collingwood
Commander in Chief

Sykes’s justification for taking this course of action was well couched, but to my mind remains an inadequate excuse for spontaneous action with questionable motives. While the above letter may have been written about 8 o’clock, Almy implies that it was some time later before it and the other dispatches were sent ashore. He notes that at nine-fifteen the Nautilus was tacked and hove too while she ‘… boarded a Portuguese Boat and sent a dispatch into Lisbon by her.’ There is no indication that the Nautilus waited for any reply from the shore, or that any of her crew went in with the dispatches. By half-past nine she was again under way when she ‘… made all possible Sail to the Northward.’

Nautilus’s race with the Pickle for England and Glory was now well and truly on!

For Sykes and his crew the Pickle’s news of the battle off Cape Trafalgar must have been particularly galling. It was a case of being so near yet so very very far. For weeks, Nautilus had been patrolling off the south west tip of Portugal, and at nine o’clock on the morning of the great battle she had spoken with HMS Melpomene [16] with an unidentified ship in tow. At the time the British fleet was engaging the combined fleets of France and Spain she was well to the north west of the battle area, some 7 or 8 miles off Point Sagres. And, with the prevailing westerlies, not even distant rumblings of the battle carried their way. Indeed, a week after the event her captain and ship’s company were still totally unaware of any battle when they fell in with the Pickle on her homeward dash with the Trafalgar dispatches.

Ambassadorial Confirmation

In the short interval between Sykes learning of the Trafalgar news from Lapenotiere and sending dispatches on shore by a passing Portuguese boat, he had determined to race Lapenotiere home to England with the news.

There was clearly no opportunity for Gambier, the Consul, to compose a meaningful report, and ever if there had there been he had no personal knowledge of events, and thus nothing meaningful to add other than being ‘associated’ with the momentous news. In fact no diplomatic dispatches giving news of the battle have yet been discovered in the Foreign Office records. Which seems to give the lie to Sykes’ later statement to The Times that he was carrying dispatches home from Consul Gambier. Robert Fitzgerald, the Ambassador to the Portuguese court being away from Lisbon at this time. An unrelated letter to Consul Gambier – dated at Downing Street on October the 29th, is on file in the National Archives, but the earliest correspondence from Lisbon mentioning the battle, is a letter composed by Fitzgerald on November 4th – some six days after the Pickle and Nautilus passed by the mouth of the Tagus. By this letter it would appear that Fitzgerald had just returned to duty, and now wanted to be ‘associated’ with the great news. His letter reads –

Lisbon Nov.r 4th 1805
By the Walsingham

My Lord

The further Delay of the Packet, which a Combination of the same tempestuous Weather, which prevented it’s sailing at the Time originally appointed, has occasioned, affords me the opportunity of resuming my Correspondence with your Lordships …

… I beg, My Lord, most heartily to unite with those of mine own Country in the general Exultation at so complete a Triumph, and to offer your Lordships, in particular, my sincerest Congratulations on the occasion.

Letters from Cadiz affirm, that several of the Enemy’s Ships, which escaped into that Port, are in a perilous Situation having grounded as they came in, in the Gale.

Robert Stephen Fitzgerald. [17]

The regular Falmouth packet from Lisbon, the Walsingham did not reach Falmouth until November 13th. She had been detained for some considerable time beyond her scheduled departure – initially by the same succession of gales that had threatened the survival of the British fleet after the battle. By the 4th of November the battle itself was clearly old news and of no account. However, the intelligence that some of the enemy ships which escaped after the battle had since come to grief in Cadiz harbour, was clearly considered well worth mentioning.

The second paragraph of an abstract from another Lisbon letter of the above date, as published in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of November 23rd, casts doubt on whether Sykes’ dispatches were in fact ever delivered to the Ambassador at Lisbon. The dispatches therein noted as received from Collingwood having been dated some five days later than those sent home by the Pickle, and two days after the Nautilus had squared-up for home and glory.

LISBON, November 4. – “I take the advantage of an extra packet sailing for Falmouth, to give you joy of the glorious victory over the superior Combined Fleets of France and Spain on the 21st ult. by Nelson and Collingwood; but the loss of the immortal Nelson, has occasioned the deepest grief in Lisbon, even amongst the Portuguese.

Dispatches of the 31st ult. from Vice Admiral Collingwood, dated at sea, were received by our Ambassador Lord Robert Fitzgerald, the 2d inst. in which he congratulates his Lordship on the above important victory…”’

While this abstract is un-attributed, it was clearly taken from a letter written by one of the Lisbon ambassadorial staff. The content was confirmed in further letters from Lisbon dated November 5th, published in the same edition of the newspaper and stating the arrival there – ‘… of dispatches to our Ambassador, Lord R. Fitzgerald, from Vice-Admiral Collingwood, dated 31st of October, off Trafalgar …’ These must have been the second set of additional dispatches [the first bearing date October 28th.] sent to Faro, for Lisbon, possibly in the cutter Entreprenante.

The Homeward Dash

At noon on October 29th both Sykes and Bamber put the Rock of Lisbon an improbable ‘8 miles south by west’ of the Nautilus, which would have put them at best perilously close in shore. This may have reflected the degree of magnetic variation at that time, which would have put magnetic north well to the westward of true north. At the same time Almy put the Pickle as having the ‘Burling rocks EbN 1/2 E, Distant 4 leagues.’ Which placed her then about 50 miles ahead of her rival.

Maritime historians frequently reiterate how fast and weatherly these early American schooners were, and thus how eminently suitable they were as dispatch vessels. By all accounts her fine Bermudan build should also have stood in her favour, but the Pickle seems sadly out of trim, and showed no signs of being an ocean thoroughbred during this passage. Some have attributed this to the Navy Board’s failing to appreciate the finer points of rigging of these craft, and their insistence on giving them heavy spars and rigging, and poorly cut sails.

Whatever, during the ‘first watch’ on the night of the 28th, she achieved her best speed for the whole passage, logging eight and a half knots for three hours, with a leading wind. Thereafter, as the wind backed her speed fell off, so that by the time she approached the Burlings on the 29th she was down to six or seven knots. Plunging heavily in the broken seas, she only managed to cover 109 nautical miles during the next 24 hours, and a little before noon on the 30th she again sighted the Nautilus – now in chase. At noon Almy entered their position as being in latitude 41° 8’ N, longitude 9° 38’ W, ‘Cape finisterre N 7° 30’ E Distance 105 miles.’

However, at the same time – on one of the few occasions that he actually did so – Sykes gave his noon position as latitude 41° 40’ N, longitude 9° 43’ W, ‘Cape ffinisterre N 8° E 110 miles.’ His distance and bearing from Cape Finisterre would appear reasonable, but his latitude would have put him well ahead of the Pickle – which he was clearly not! Whatever their actual relative positions, the Nautilus was then overhauling the Picklehand over fist, but at one p.m. the Pickle was still ahead when Almy recorded ‘Fresh Breezes & Cloudy Notlus in Sight to the SSW.’

During the next 24 hours the wind gradually backed into the south east, and Nautilus claimed her best day’s run of 142 nautical miles. Her square rig was clearly better adapted for running free, but the wind, which was now coming off the land, was squally and fluky.

During this same period, the Pickle could only manage 137 miles, and she found herself punching into a heavy swell, aftermath of the succession of recent gales. As she cleared Cape Finisterre and opened up the Bay of Biscay, the angle of the swell inclined eastward, leaving her plunging into short heavy cross seas. Under a fair press of canvas, she was constantly shipping green water over the bows, and during the forenoon watch she was found to be considerably down by the head. A quick check below found that the fore-peak was filling with water in consequence of the limbers (the drainage slots cut into the hull timbers) becoming choked. The water cascading below filling the fore-peak – instead of running back to the pump wells. In double-quick time a bucket chain was formed and for the rest of that watch all hands were employed in either bailing the fore-peak, or manning the pumps.

In the heavy cross sea running it would be wrong to think that the larger Nautilus was having a much easier time. Her square rig had some steadying effect, but the succession of squalls proved tiresome, and her hands were constantly employed making and reducing sail.

She was however making more headway, and at noon on the 31st, separated by less than thirty minutes of latitude and nineteen minutes of longitude, the Nautilus was slightly ahead of her rival.

Throughout the afternoon of the 31st the Pickle’s crew were kept constantly bailing and pumping, as the wind veered into the south west and again began increasing once more to gale force. Now running at between five and six knots, she was still plunging sickeningly, and about five that evening Lapenotiere reluctantly ordered four of his six guns and their carriages hove over the side to relieve the ship. This was no light decision, but Almy’s laconic log entry records it as just another matter of fact – ‘At 5 the Gale Increased hove 4 Guns & Carriages over Board.’ Freed of this weight on deck, the Pickle was able to increase her speed a little, and for the next eight or nine hours she ran to the north eastward at six or seven knots.

During the first watch, however, they were again forced to reduce sail – ‘At ½ p-10 took two Reefs in the Main Sail And handed it took two Reefs in the fore Sail & Struck the fore Top mast.’ Her speed now dropped to five and a half knots, with an occasional burst of six and a half in the squalls.

By noon on the 1st of November, the Pickle was estimated to have made good 140 nautical miles N 36° E, during the past 24 hours – her best recorded day’s run. Nautilus’s corresponding noon position is less satisfactory, consisting of just an isolated latitude of 46° 21’ N, with no direction or bearing from land, and no distance run. If accurate this would have put her within 16 minutes of latitude of the Pickle, but her true position is highly conjectural.

The previous afternoon the Nautilus had made and answered the private signal with an unidentified warship which then heading down south. ‘At 1.30 made 387 to her afterwards heard several Guns fired and saw a Signal flying on board her 4 other large Ships in the South’ Neither this warship, nor any of the four large ships to the south have been identified, but may well have been ships of the Rochfort squadron being sought by Sir Richard Strachan. Later that afternoon those on board the Nautilus saw ‘… 3 large Ships and a Brig bearing EbN standing to the Westward made the Private Signal with 2 Guns to them not ans.d.’ and shortly afterwards, ‘3.30 made them out to be a line of Battle Ships 2 Frigates & a Brig apparently French.’ These enemy vessels were a significant threat to the survival of the little sloop. They must have caused much anxiety as they closed, and Captain’s Sykes’ log records –

At 4 obs.d the Line of Battle Ships shew French Colours to a Brig passing near them afterwards make a Signal of a French Pendant over 2 strange Flags to the Mizen Peak in Studd.g Sails and hauled our wind to the SE cleared Ship for Action & made all Sail the Enemy standing to the NW apparently from the Wind. 5.30 lost sight of them set the Stab.d Studd.g Sails.’

Bamber’s corresponding log entry is in a similar vein, but much briefer. ‘… fell in with a French Squadron hauled our wind and beat to quarters. At 5.30 lost sight of them made all sail.’

That evening saw all the hands being mustered for the gruesome business of witnessing punishment when, ‘At 10 Punished Alex.n Petrie & Jn.o Donaldson Seamen with 36 Lashes & 24 Lashes for Insolence & neglect of duty.’ There is no more revealing information about the specific neglect of these two seamen did, but one can only assume that it probably related to their conduct about the time of their potential encounter with the French squadron.

In circumspectly avoiding a fight with a superior French National squadron the Nautilus inevitably lost some time, which allowed the Pickle(whose apparent track lay somewhat to the east of this incident) to again draw ahead. At noon on the 2nd, Sykes calculated that the Nautilus had only made good 64 miles on her intended track during the past 24 hours, and was still 112 miles off Ushant. Lapenotiere on the other hand reckoned the Pickle had made good 102 miles and was now only 105 miles off the Lizard. Pickle was now a good 50 or 60 miles ahead.

In the Chops of the Channel

Over the next 24 hours both vessels encountered light airs with an easterly slant, though those met by Pickle appear to have been more baffling than those encountered by the Nautilus, just 50 miles or so distant. In the early afternoon of the 2nd the Pickle had particular trouble maintaining her course, and for some time her men toiled at the cumbersome sweeps, trying to keep her heading the right way – so much for handy Bermudian schooners. Even so, during this day’s run the Pickle was pushed well up ’till she was less than 30 miles from the Scillies. And, although this took her well to the northward of Nautilus’s track, she seems to have been able to maintain better speed, so that she was still well ahead in the early hours of November 3rd.

By the fickle writhings of fate it was now Pickle’s turn to be delayed. At seven-thirty on the morning of the 3rd her lookouts spotted two sails in the north eastern quadrant. The Pickle was making 6 knots at the time (better than their average speed during this passage), but by nine o’clock the vessels had closed to within signalling distance. The Pickle’s crew then ‘… made the Private Sig.l And our N.o & made the Signal 387 & 311 And 216 all answard then answard the Signal to Come within hail then made the Sig.l 351 which was answard out Boat our Commander went on Board of the Superb.’ This was one signal to report on board that Lapenotiere could not ignore – it was just his luck to have fallen in with Vice Admiral Sir John Duckworth enroute to join Nelson’s fleet off Cadiz.

After a frustrating period of delay in England, while a suitable vessel was found to accommodate Rear-Admiral Sir John Duckworth, he eventually went out in the Superb. Duckworth had been requested by Lord Nelson, to act as his third in command – Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder having been peremptorily summoned home by the Lords of the Admiralty, to face a Court Martial. After an engagement with the Combined Fleets 112 miles NW of Cape Finisterre on 22nd July, he was now to be charged with not having ‘done his utmost to renew the said engagement, and to take or destroy every ship of the enemy… !’, Recalled on October 4th, Nelson allowed his friend the honour of going home in the Prince of Wales (98) – a deliberate act which deprived Nelson of one of his key ships of the line. Naturally enough, Calder appears to have been in no great hurry to return to face his accusers. Released prior to the battle, the Prince of Wales was not reported until she was off Plymouth on November 8th, four days after the news of the battle first reached England.

On November 3rd, Calder’s replacement Sir John Duckworth, sailing with Captain R. G. Keats as his flag captain, was at last on his way out to join Nelson’s fleet. The original intention of the Lords of the Admiralty had been to send him out on the Acasta, but she had failed to return to England in time. After some procrastination Duckworth shifted his entourage and flag from the London [which was found to be unfit for sea ?] to the Superb on October 30th. [18]

After the usual frantic last minute preparations for sea she finally sailed on November 2nd – leaving in company with the Powerful. The following morning these two ships fell in with the Pickle off the Scillies, and early in the forenoon watch Duckworth ordered Lapenotiere to repair on board – only to receive the galling tidings that he had missed the honour of serving in a momentous battle off Cape Trafalgar.

After having made his report to Admiral Duckworth, Lapenotiere returned on board his command about 10:00 – having lost the best part of an hour in the process. The Pickle now resumed her run homeward for England, and her next noon position put them just 63 miles SW of the Lizard, while the Nautilus was still 69 miles SW of Ushant.

About six on the evening of the 3rd, the Pickle came into soundings in 65 fathoms, and when the eight p.m. log entry was made it was noted that there were then ‘… Several Sail in Sight.’ At midnight she again took soundings, when they found they were in 52 fathoms and once again several sail were in sight. By two a.m. on the 4th of November they were within three leagues of the Lizard, having made good a steady five knots over the past eight hours. At four they were still SSW of the Lizard, just a couple of miles off, where they were experiencing moderate breezes and cloudy conditions. After three a.m., presumably because they were now well within sight of land, Almy ceases to note their speed and courses.

At six a.m. on the 4th., he observes that they, ‘Made Sail Set the fore top Sail & top Gallant Sail & Square Sail & Top Mast Studding Sail.’ He makes no direct comment about the wind, but it must have been falling off to have allowed them to set nearly every scrap of sail that they had. At eight a.m. they were still to the south of the Lizard, which now bore ‘… WNW ½ N 4 Leagues,’ with ‘… ditto Weather.’ Despite the wind being in the south, they seem unable to make much progress to northward, and had been carried nearly 12 miles past the Lizard Point. It was quite normal to open up Falmouth Bay, giving the Manacles Reef a wide berth, but four leagues imply another factor. The Pickle must have then been in the grip of a thwarting tidal stream. Making slow progress a change of plan was called for, and Almy recorded, ‘At 9:45 Shortened Sail & hove too out Boat and Commander Landed at Falmouth with his dispatches.

More … Arrival at Falmouth