Vanguard in Heavy Weather off Toulon, 19th May 1798 by Geoff Hunt.
The seven months Nelson spent ashore after the disastrous Tenerife campaign which cost him an arm, were the happiest period of his marriage to Fanny. As she nursed him back to health they appeared to be living in domestic bliss, disturbed only by his annoyance at having missed the resounding victory at Camperdown on 11th October 1797. When he became fit for service Nelson was informed that the new 80gun ship Foudroyant which had been intended as his flagship was delayed in construction and instead he was to be given the 10-year-old Vanguard instead. A 74-gun ship of the line, Vanguard had been built in the Royal Dockyard at Deptford near London to the design of Sir Thomas Slade. The greatest naval architect of his age, Slades masterpiece was the Victory, and he introduced the 74-gun ship into British service. The French had been the first to build 2-decker 74s, a far more efficient design than the British 3-decker 80-gun ship. The 74 was also the smallest ship that could carry a battery of 32-pounder guns on the lower deck, 32-pounders having proved to be the most effective naval ordnance in service. As an Admiral, Nelson theoretically left the choice of crew to his Captain, Edward Berry. In practice, however, many old associates were accommodated and Berry himself had served under Nelson on both Agamemnon and Captain. On 29th March 1798 Nelson hoisted his flag in Vanguard, then anchored at Spithead, to the accompaniment of a 15-gun salute. On 1st April the Vanguard sailed to join the Mediterranean fleet under Earl St Vincent off Cadiz. Warmly welcomed by St Vincent, he was ordered to take a small force consisting of Vanguard and two other 74-gun ships and three frigates into the Mediterranean and attempt to find out what the French were doing in Toulon. After picking up stores and the two additional 74s in Gibraltar, Nelson entered the Mediterranean. About 70 miles from Toulon they were fortunate in encountering and taking a small French warship, La Pierre. The captured crew were interrogated individually and it became clear that Napoleon was in Toulon and there were plans for the French fleet to move large numbers of troops to a destination that had not been revealed to the prisoners. Nelson placed his ships 75 miles south of Toulon which he felt would give them the best opportunity to intercept enemy ships coining out of or entering Toulon. We now come to the subject of Geoff Hunts painting. Early on the morning of 19th May, as the artist has portrayed, Nelsons fleet found itself in heavy weather. All the ships began to furl some of their sails and then take down their upper yards and masts. No-one realised that this was the precursor to a near disaster. On the 20th, the threat seemed to have passed and the ships settled down to their usual routine and there was no premonition of any trouble ahead. On the contrary, during the afternoon of 20th, Vanguards crew were hauling up upper masts and yards, the topgallants and royals, in anticipation of some fair weather sailing. But at 8pm the wind began to increase to fresh breezes and the sails were ordered in. By 10pm it was growing worse with the ships close-reefing the topsails on all three masts. By midnight Vanguard was only wearing a special heavy-weather sail while two of the other ships had sails blown out during the night. Vanguard fared considerably worse. At 1am on 21st the main topmast gave way and crashed over the side taking a seaman with it to his death, while another was killed falling onto the deck. Others managed to hold on to the remains of the mast and climb back on board. The main topmast was soon followed by the fore topmast and two hours later the foremast broke just above the deck crashing down over the bows. A third man was killed while clearing the ensuing chaos. In spite of the gale and much reduced sail area, Vanguard was able to change direction and avoid being driven onto the rocky coast of Corsica which was not far distant. The gale continued throughout the afternoon and evening of Monday 21st but then began to moderate in the early hours of the 22nd. Captain Alexander Ball of Alexander was able to take Vanguard in tow but then a new threat appeared. In the late afternoon the winds dropped almost to nothing, creating even greater dangers for ships that were now not far off the rocky coast of Sardinia. The wind remained very light and the ships were in increasing danger as they drifted towards the shore. Nelson hailed Captain Ball in the Alexander with an order to cast off the tow so that Balls ship which was not damaged might at least be saved. With an attitude that could only be called Nelsonic, Ball refused the order even when it was repeated with threats. Within an hour a breeze got up from the north-west sufficient to allow the ships to avoid destruction on the rocky shore and to reach the safe haven of a protected bay. As soon as possible, Nelson visited Alexander to give his grateful thanks to Ball who from then onjoined his circle of constant friends. He wrote later to Fanny, figure to yourself a vain man on Sunday evening at sunset, walking in his cabin with a squadron about him who looked up to their chief to lead them to glory, and in whom this chief placed the firmest reliance. Figure to yourself this proud conceited man, when the sun rose on Monday morning: his ship dismasted, his fleet dispersed, and himself in such distress that the meanest frigate out of France would have been a very unwelcome guest.
|Item Code : LI0023||Vanguard in Heavy Weather off Toulon, 19th May 1798 by Geoff Hunt. - This Edition|
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