Sherborne Castle Dorset - 30th April 2006
Some 47 members met in the agreeable surroundings of the Orangery at Sherborne Castle on 30 April. Our first speaker was Pongo Blanchford, who gave a very fluent presentation on the work he and friends have being doing on the way in which the news of Trafalgar spread. This was a case of an old story very well retold, based on real evidence not romantic fantasy. The project had led to over 3000 emails, recalculation of routes using original logs and sophisticated software. The context of rumour, spin and subsequent fact had a curiously modern feel to it. The participants briefly became media celebrities and it was the making of some careers.
The conclusion was that HMS Nautilus had not landed in Portugal, but sent a message to the shore; that though it was undoubtedly good for his career Captain Sykes acted with honourable initiative in ignoring his orders, to back up HMS Pickle, and indeed had a fleeting contact with a French squadron on his journey home. Again, Lt. Lapenotiere didn’t blab on the way to London, as is often portrayed, and the news in the West Country came from the returning participant ship crews, not fishing boats meeting Pickle. Lapenotiere, who landed first, may have been delayed by the need to raise cash for the considerable expense of the overland trip (it is astonishing that expenses claims have survived!). The meeting of the two men at the doors of the Admiralty is of course, both genuine and legendary.
There remains a mystery as to exactly how the initial rumour reached London overland. It is clear that some message of a great battle, seen from the shore (and therefore without full knowledge of the outcome) had filtered through to London. There is also uncertainty as to when and how the message reached Napoleon, most likely it involved the use of the new French telegraph on part of its journey.
Next, Hugh Sutherland took us on an exciting trip round the world, the 10 month Global Challenge race. As a dinghy sailor, he had worked up to this with a transatlantic race and winter sails in the Channel. Having a heart pacemaker added an additional dimension, and he gave us an amusing account of last minute checkups and updates to his personal electronics.
The twelve yachts are identical and a big effort was made to ensure the very international crews were evenly balanced in age and experience. The race is East to West, against the wind, safer but heavier going, and he found the solidity of the steel hull a reassurance. Despite this, there were two serious injuries in other boats, one at the very limit of helicopter pickup range. The biggest hazard was being tossed around below decks. Morale on board was enhanced by the Italian skipper’s insistence on fresh food, offsetting the limitations of hot bunking and lengthy spells in rough weather.
As navigator, he had a few tense moments with unmarked wrecks in the Plate estuary, whilst racing for the line. Routing via Boston was mainly to avoid piracy off West Africa. Initial good placing slipped as the race progressed, and finished 9th out of 16. Certainly this was the sail of a lifetime, but definitely not at Easyjet pricing!
After lunch, Margaret Wilson talked on excavations and history at the settlement at Fort St. George, far less well known than Jamestown, in "North Virginia" and the first English settlement in New England. The Gifte of God and Mary and John sailed from Topsham, funded mainly by Sir John Popham. The site at Sabino Head has only been confirmed by extended recent archaeology. Margaret had helped there, and the excavations confirmed many details of contemporary accounts and a long lost contemporary map, copied by a Spanish spy and found in Spain in the 19th century.
This was a bleak location. The settlers were driven by the fantasy of the North West passage and the mythical riches of Norumbega. Whilst this settlement failed, it laid the foundations for extending the cod fisheries and eventual permanent settlement. ( more details are in Margaret’s article in the Journal edition 18 ).
During the lunch break and after we had a chance to see the attractive grounds and house. Oddly, a copy of Yachting World for April 1939 was on a table. Flipping the pages there was a description of a non-magnetic diesel engine built for the Admiralty, for "research", presumably on magnetic mines. Now there’s a trail to follow up...
Reported by Jonathan Seagrave
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I only skimmed the article, but I am sure it refers to the same engine and ship.
What a dreadful waste of a fine ship !
The non-magnetic diesel engine could well have been designed for the RRS Research which was ordered by the Admiralty for research into magnetic lines of force. See the article in South West Soundings Issue 47, Feb 2000, or on this website at