Wednesday, January 19, 2011

History: On Stormy Seas

During the War of 1812, which began and to some degree ended at sea, both sides gave out letters of marque to virtually any sea captain with an armed ship and a little experience who chose to apply. My own ancestor Renato Beluche was one of the few (in fact, he may have been the only) Baratarians who applied for and was given a U.S. letter of marque. His brig Spy, which he captained, was relatively successful against the British in and around their Jamaica Station. She was also patently illegal according to international maritime law as she carried not only her U.S. commission but one from the free state of Cartagena as well. This got Uncle Renato in trouble in the Bay of Biscay in 1813 when he dismasted in a storm while being pursued by a British frigate. He was boarded and Beluche lost his ship and got a few months in jail at Plymouth, England. I’m sure he would have agreed that some time in a dank British gaol is still better than a hanging.

Around the same time American Captain George Coggeshall found himself in a similar situation aboard his privateering schooner David Porter. Named after the Continental Navy hero and father of Commodore David Porter, who himself sired naval heroes David Farragut and David Dixon Porter, the schooner found herself caught in a terrifying blow in the Bay of Biscay on this day in 1814. Here is Coggeshall’s log entry from that day:

It blew a perfect hurricane, which soon raised a high cross-sea: at 8 o’clock A.M. I hove the schooner to under a double-reefed foresail, lowered the fore-yard near the deck and got everything as snug as possible. At 12 o’clock noon, a tremendous sea struck her in the wake of the starboard fore-shrouds. The force of the sea broke one of the top timbers or stauncheons and split open the plank-sheer, sot that I could see directly into the hold from on deck. As the gale continued to rage violently, I feared we might ship another sea, and therefore prepared, as it were, to anchor the vessel head to wind. For this purpose we took a square-sail boom, spanned it at each end with a new four inch rope, and made our small bower cable fast to the bight of the span, and with the other end fastened to the foremast, threw it overboard, and payed out about sixty fathoms of cable: she then rode like a gull in the water.

The staccato prose does not diminish the anxiety that must have been felt by every member of the crew in that storm. Coggeshall’s David Porter road her out, as he said like a gull, bobbing in the green water with his ship safely secured to her bower anchor. Thank goodness he had new cable. David Porter managed to slip past the blockade at Brest, France – to which port Renato Beluche was running when Spy was overtaken – and refit before heading back toward home. Every man aboard her would have a tall tale to tell, with the need for very little embellishment, once they got back to Baltimore.

Speaking of Baltimore – and completely off the subject – Happy 202nd Birthday to the inventor of modern horror as well as the detective story: Edgar A. Poe. Rest well, Laureate.

Header: Norwegian Harbor of Refuge by Hans Gude c 1873


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That's a good scary story. Seems appropriate for Poe's birthday (RIP).

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It's not as scary as Poe's own "Descent into a Maelstrom" but it really happened. In all fairness, those kinds of things happened a lot in the great age of sail; we just don't have a record of them.