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Victory and defeat at sea


Loss of HMS Victory, distress guns firing, 4 October 1744 by Peter Monamy

The predecessor to Nelson's Victory has been found, solving one of the greatest mysteries in naval history. Interest has focused on the thousands of gold coins that went down with the ship, and who will own the prize.

We're interested in the men who went down with her. They were almost within sight of the wives, children, mothers and sweethearts waiting for them on shore when they were caught in a gale, and went down with the loss of all on board. To be so close to home! The admiral who had risen through the ranks, the young midshipmen, the senior mate, the bosun, the doctor, the Marines, each a man (or boy) with a life to live.

It took the skill of hundreds of these men to sail a first-rate ship of the line, to handle sheets, stays and bowlines so precisely their ship would travel up into the eye of the wind and carry on beyond it, her sails braced round, filling and bearing her out to sea. Never mind a thousand other challenges, not least navigating and staying off the rocks. One wild storm could sink them all. Patrick O'Brian describes a storm in the English Channel in his novel Post Captain -

Throughout the night the wind backed until it was blowing hard from the north; there it stayed, north-east, north, or north-west, never allowing more than close-reefed topsails, if that, for nine days on end, nine days of rain, snow, steep wicked seas, and a perpetual fighting for their lives; nine days in which Jack rarely left the deck and young Parslow never once took off his clothes; nine days of wearing, lying to, scudding under bare poles, and never a sight of the sun - no notion of their position within fifty miles and more. And when at last a strong south-wester allowed them to make up their enormous leeway, their noonday observation showed that they were where they had started from.

. . .This long week's blow, when they were close on foundering twice a day and when everybody knew it, had crammed a deal of training into a short time - short when measured by the calendar rather than by mortal dread. Training in manoeuvres of every kind, but particularly in the use of the pumps: they had not stopped for an hour since the second day of the blow.

Now as they sailed up the Channel, passing Selsey Bill with a light air on the quarter and topgallantsails set. . . .there were seventeen men in the sick-bay - two hernias, five bad falls with broken bones, and the rest the usual wounds from falling spars or blocks or ropes crossing a hand or leg. . .a lee-lurch, laying the Polychrest on her beam-ends, had shot the dazed first lieutenant down the main hatchway, damaging his shoulder.

It was a hard, dangerous, rewarding life. Admiral Sir John Balchen, who went down with HMS Victory and a thousand men, had been called out of retirement to rescue a British squadron trapped by the French. He was 74, and had been at sea since he was 15. He had spent his career in suppressing piracy, guarding merchant convoys, and the drudgery of blockade. Familiar with battles, tropical diseases and storms, he was known for never quitting.

When he was still a captain, Balchen was charged with guarding merchant ships. His first famous action occurred in the same month as his last. On 10 October 1707 his convoy left the safety of Portsmouth harbour, and was ambushed by a French squadron. Although the French warships outweighed and outgunned them, Balchen and the other captains took their ships into battle to allow the merchant convoy time to escape. He surrendered only after his ship had had been boarded by French ships of the line.

Popular with sailors below decks, Balchen was known for his seamanship. There was one difference on this voyage - for almost the first time in his life he was bringing back a large prize. According to the time-honoured formula, it would have been shared with every man on board.

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