Wooden Ships, Iron Men and Patrick O’Brian

star of India in San Diego
Star of India, San Diego Maritime Museum. Rich Grant photos.

The Fighting Sailing Ships of Author Patrick O’Brian, and Where You Can Still See Them

By Rich Grant
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

HMS Surprise
HMS Surprise in normal conditions has programs for kids to man a ship’s boat.

From a distance, there are few things more beautiful than a tall ship.  Even if docked, there is something about the symmetry and balance of the masts and rigging that is so pleasing to the eye.

But for the men on board, it is hard to imagine a more difficult life.  Especially on the warships.

In the Napoleonic era, these tall ships were essentially floating batteries of cannons in which every inch of the ship was dedicated to increasing its fighting ability.

Patrick O’Brian’s Books

The horror, the beauty, and the romance of these sailing warships have never been captured better than by naval fiction writer Patrick O’Brian (1914–2000).

In twenty sea novels, he followed naval captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Irish-Catalan physician Stephen Maturin through the Napoleonic Wars and around the world.  Millions of readers have gone to sea with O’Brian or have seen the Academy Award-winning film version of his first novel, Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe.

Canons of the Constitution
The long guns, the 24-pounders of the USS Constitution in Boston, Mass.

In these dismal days of being homebound and travel restricted, you cannot have a better companion or guide to hundreds of far-flung sea adventures than Patrick O’Brian.

And when the pandemic finally winds down, you can join Captain Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and stroll the wood decks of 19th-century tall ships brimming with cannons.

There are five great places to enter the O’Brian books and experience naval warfare in person.  But first, a little background.

Life Aboard a Naval Ship

It took surprisingly few men to actually sail the monster naval vessels.  The acts of raising and lowering the sails, maintaining the rigging and masts, and navigating were done by trained, able seamen and officers.

But manning the guns was another thing. Each cannon required up to a dozen men to move, load, and reload the massive guns, and planning for the inevitable casualties in battle meant there had to be lots of spare men who could step over bloody, wounded sailors and take their place.

To put as many guns as possible on a ship meant cramming in way more men than the ship could comfortably hold.

All these men had to be fed and clothed for a voyage that could last a year or more.  It is simply unimaginable to think of the conditions of 821 men all living at sea in a ship just 227 feet long, as was the HMS Victory.

It’s no wonder 90 percent of the casualties came from disease and accidents.

HMS Victory in Portsmouth England
The HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England

But there were plenty of horrific battle casualties, too.  A 32-pound cannonball fired at near point-blank range could take down ten men as it ripped across the deck, severing limbs as it went.

Worse, if a cannonball hit wood, the splinters would fly in all directions, creating jagged, painful wounds that were almost impossible to treat.

If a ball hit a cannon and knocked it from its ropes, you would learn quickly where the expression “loose cannon” comes from as tons of metal on wheels swirled back and forth across the deck like a raging bull.

Then there were snipers in the rigging, falling masts and spars, canister (coffee tins filled with balls fired from cannons turning them into massive shotguns), and possibly worst of all, the order to “Board!”  With a cutlass in your hand and a brace of pistols in your belt, you would have to grab a rope, swing across the sea to the enemy ship, and fight hand-to-hand for your life.

Keeping the Seamen in Order

It’s a wonder anyone survived.  Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, it took “rum, buggery and the lash” to keep seamen in order.

He didn’t actually say that, but he admitted, he wished he had.  And it’s certainly not far from the mark, especially the rum part.

Sailors in Nelson’s navy got between 6.5 and 8 pints of beer a day, or a half-pint of 95-proof rum.

So it’s time to follow the advice of the poet John Masfield, who wrote, “ I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”  Here are the best sail fighting ships to visit.

H.M.S. Surprise, San Diego Maritime Museum

USS Constitution Museum showing the terror of the gundeck
USS Constitution Museum showing the terror of the gundeck in a painting.

The HMS Surprise would be the most famous of all British frigate sailing ships, except for two things:  it’s floating in San Diego’s harbor, and, of course, it never existed.

This Surprise is the fictional ship of Captain Jack Aubrey.  In making the movie “Master & Commander,” 20th Century Fox spared no expense to re-create an authentic 24-gun frigate from the era of Nelson and Napoleon.   

san diego maritime museum
San Diego Maritime Museum has a model shipbuilders exhibit where you can watch model ships being constructed

They started with a replica of a British frigate that had originally been launched in Connecticut in 1970 as the HMS Rose.

After sailing her through the Panama Canal and down the coast of South America to the Galapagos Islands for the film, the ship eventually ended up at the San Diego Maritime Museum, where it now floats beside an array of historic craft, including the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship.

They make for one of the most attractive maritime settings to be found in any city, and the accompanying museum is wonderful, filled with ship models, paintings, and nautical exhibits, as well as a chance to walk the gun deck of the Surprise.

As you crouch walking past the big guns, nicknamed Jumping Billy, Sudden Death, and Wilful Murder,  keep your head down to avoid bumping it on the low beams.  The captain’s quarters at the stern of the ship are much smaller than the stateroom showed in the film, but with the swaying of the ship underfoot, and panoramic sea views from the windows, the effect is enough to get anyone’s nautical blood pumping.

There are photos from the film showing the Surprise in action, as well as some uniforms used in the movie.

USS Constitution Museum under sail
USS Constitution Museum under sail.

Bobbing next door is the 212-foot-long Star of India.  Launched in 1863, she made 21 trips around the world transporting emigrants to New Zealand, some of the voyages taking up to a year.

U.S.S. Constitution, Boston Harbor

Authorized to be built by George Washington and launched in 1797, the U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest U.S. commissioned naval vessel still afloat.

Undefeated in battle, she was the flagship during the First Barbary War and captured five British frigates during the War of 1812.

At a time where the British navy ruled the waves, the Constitution was so innovative and powerful, that the British Admiralty gave orders that no English frigate was to engage her in ship-to-ship combat.  The reason was the new design created by American Joshua Humphreys.

Ships of the Line

At this time, most big naval ships were either frigates, fast three-masted ships carrying 24 to 50 guns, or “ships of the line,” huge, slow-moving behemoths with three or four decks of cannons, some 64 to 100+ guns.

Humphreys decided to extend the frigate, make it longer and more powerful, but also keep it fast.  The Constitution carried 30 long guns that could fire a 24-pound ball nearly a mile, and 22 carronades, called “smashers,” that fired 32-pound balls over short distances.

With this armament, the Constitution could beat any ship its size, or outrun and escape from anything larger.  Even better, it’s 21-inch-thick walls were so hard that cannonballs bounced off, giving it the nickname “Old Ironsides.”  After the ship’s last battle, they found 32 enemy cannonballs embedded in the hull, but none went through.

The cabin of the HMS Surprise is much smaller than in the film, but shows how every inch on a ship was used for fighting, including the captain's cabin which had cannons in it. The furniture and walls would be removed in battle to avoid splinters.
The cabin of the HMS Surprise is much smaller than in the film but shows how every inch on a ship was used for fighting, including the captain’s cabin which had cannons in it. The furniture and walls would be removed in battle to avoid splinters.

Of course, the tight-fitting areas below deck on the ship are not COVID-friendly, so the ship is not currently open for tours.

The Constitution Museum, 100 yards away, is also temporarily closed but check back for information.

The museum has a combination of real artifacts and high-tech exhibits that bring to life what it was like being on a fighting tall ship.  You can command the ship, see it in battle, play simulation games, look at the swords and guns carried by captains and crew, replay its most famous engagements and try your hand at navigation.

But no experience can top walking on the wood deck of the actual ship.  While it’s closed for tours, you can at least see it in the harbor, which is indeed a beautiful sight.  When things reopen, the fun way to get there is to take a ferry from Boston’s airport to Boston Harbor, and then take another ferry across Boston Harbor directly to Old Ironsides in Charlestown Navy Yard.

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England with London skyline in the background. The photo is taken from the Greenwich Mean Time Observatory which shares the park with the Maritime Museum
The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England with the London skyline in the background. The photo is taken from the Greenwich Mean Time Observatory which shares the park with the Maritime Museum

Nothing is more fun than to arrive at this ship by water.  And coming by ferry, you are sailing through history.  The ferry route is the exact same route the British took to get to Bunker Hill and that Paul Revere took on his midnight ride, both in 1775

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth, England

It would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely naval hero than Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.  He went to sea at age 12 as a 5-foot 4-inch boy prone to seasickness.  He lost his right eye in fighting in Corsica, his right arm in skirmishing in the Canary Islands and he became involved in a scandalous affair with a married woman that could have wrecked his career.  Instead, he became England’s greatest hero.  You can find out why in two incredible stops.

guns on the HMS Surprise
A row of cannons on the HMS Surprise

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is a half-hour south of London by Tube (or even better, an hour by water taxi on the Thames River) and tells Nelson’s entire story, from a young midshipman who was chased by a polar bear in the Arctic to the hero of Trafalgar.

Here is everything Nelson, including the uniform he was wearing when he was shot and killed at Trafalgar, the bullet hole still visible.

A Naval Genius

You soon learn Nelson was a naval genius.  Before him, major sea battles involved huge ships sailing in long lines opposite each other, pounding the enemy with broadsides until one gave way.  In what came to be called “the Nelson Touch,” the diminutive admiral trusted in the superior gunnery of the British sailor and so he ordered his ships to sail directly at the enemy’s line and breakthrough.

Once through the line, he encouraged each captain to place his ship alongside an enemy and destroy them.  Which they did, in battle after battle from the Nile in Egypt to Copenhagen in Denmark.

The uniform Nelson was wearing when he was shot and killed at the battle of Trafalgar. You can see the bullet hole by his left shoulder. The bullet, fired from above by a French sniper, went down and penetrated Nelson's spine.
The uniform Nelson was wearing when he was shot and killed at the battle of Trafalgar. You can see the bullet hole by his left shoulder. The bullet, fired from above by a French sniper, went down and penetrated Nelson’s spine.

The Maritime Museum is a wonderful tribute to Nelson with portraits, artifacts, and an animated re-creation of his greatest victory at Trafalgar.

An especially neat feature is an area of video exhibits that show simulated ship-to-ship actions, explaining what projectiles could be fired.  The digital cannonballs and grapeshot come right at you.

As a bonus, the clipper ship the Cutty Sark is dry-docked in Greenwich, a short distance from the museum.

This is perhaps the most unusual presentation of a tall ship anywhere, that highlights how much of a ship is actually underwater and not usually visible.

Built in 1869, the Cutty Sark was one of the fastest ships in the world until sailing ships were replaced by steam-powered vessels.

Also, a short walk from the museum is the Trafalgar Tavern, a historic old pub with a sailing ship motif, waterside views, and a wonderful statue of Nelson.  It was one of Charles Dickens’ favorite pubs.

The Trafalgar Tavern near the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England was a favorite of Charles Dickens
The Trafalgar Tavern near the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England was a favorite of Charles Dickens

Ninety minutes from London by train from Waterloo Station takes you to Portsmouth and the world’s most famous warship.  Today it is the oldest naval ship still in commission after 242 years – The HMS Victory.  This was of course Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar – a floating battery ram with four decks carrying 104 guns.

At Waterloo, the British army had 161 cannon, but the guns on just the HMS Victory were much bigger than those of the entire army.  One broadside from the HMS Victory blasted 1.25 tons of metal at the enemy, and the crew was capable of firing every 90 seconds.

The sheer hell of the lower gun deck is unimaginable.  This long unobstructed deck has nothing on it but cannons, and yet this is where 600 of the crew lived, eating all their meals on drop-down tables with 480 sailors sleeping in hammocks side-by-side in shifts.

On tours, when they reopen, you can see the spot on the Quarter Deck where Nelson was shot by a French sniper.  His officers begged him not to wear an admiral’s uniform with his medals, which would make him a superb target, but Nelson refused.  Down on the Orlop Deck, you can

The fortified Harbor entrance of La Rochelle, France. Donald Grant photo.
The fortified Harbor entrance of La Rochelle, France. Donald Grant photo.

see where the wounded Nelson was carried and died two hours later, surrounded by his officers after having won the most decisive naval victory in history.

More than 57 men were killed on the Victory with 102 wounded and the British Navy lost 1,587 men killed or wounded.  But the combined French-Spanish fleet was destroyed with 22 ships captured or sunk and 16,000 casualties.

Nelson’s body was placed in a cask of rum to preserve it and brought back to London for burial.  When it was opened, it was discovered the rum was gone!

Some enterprising sailors and drilled holes and drank it, which is why rum is called “Nelson’s Blood.”   It could be true.

The Frigate Hermione, Rochefort, France

Even the English admitted that the French made the best ships.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the British captured 361 French ships and turned many of them into their own warships.

Including the HMS Surprise.  Both the real English frigate by that name and the fictional one in Patrick O’Brian’s books started as French light frigates that were captured.

Photo by Donald Grant, the frigate L'Hermoine
Photo by Donald Grant, the frigate L’Hermoine

You can see a real French frigate, l’Hermione, in the port of Rochefort, France and it’s in excellent condition.  That’s because it was recently built from scratch at a cost of $22 million.

The ship, an absolute beauty, was constructed from 1997-2015 using mostly traditional construction methods, although power tools were used.

The original Hermione was launched in 1778 and was the ship that in 1780 carried the Marquis de Lafayette to America, where he befriended and fought beside George Washington and helped bring France into the Revolution on the American side.

The replica was built to commemorate this historic event and help strengthen Franco-American relations.

The ship has sailed to America and throughout the Medeterrian, though it is currently closed due to COVID restrictions.

Rochefort is near La Rochelle, a knockout of a town with a fortress at the harbor entrance, an armory, castles, and dozens of waterside cafes, with seagulls squawking up above and ships constantly coming and going.

The bar of the Hotel des Templiers in Collioure, France is made of a longboat
The bar of the Hotel des Templiers in Collioure, France is made of a longboat

Hotel des Templiers Restaurant, Collioure, France

Patrick O’Brian lived in Collioure, France, from 1949 until his death in 2000 and is buried here in the town cemetery next to his second wife Mary.

He scratched all 20 of his sea novels out by hand, and it was not until late in life that he really achieved any fame.  Located near the French-Spanish border on the Mediterranean,

Collioure is as picturesque a sea town as you can imagine, with a fortress, castle, colorful alleyways, and of course, waterfront cafes.

O’Brian’s favorite was the Hotel des Templiers Restaurant.  For three generations, artists and writers have been attracted to this lovely hotel and restaurant, many donating paintings to it, which now hang by the hundreds covering every inch of the walls.

Patrick O'Brian and Pablo Picasso in the Hotel es Templiers bar in France.
Patrick O’Brian and Pablo Picasso in the Hotel es Templiers bar in France.

The bar is a long open boat with the bartenders inside it, and their outdoor tables and chairs are on the stone quay overlooking the castle.

Incredibly, O’Brian met artist Pablo Picasso in the bar and they became lifelong friends.  O’Brian took time off from his sea novels to write Picasso’s biography.  There’s a photo of the two friends behind the bar.

Mussels and Frites

For lovers of Patrick O’Brian and naval fiction, few experiences can match a drink at the bar followed by mussels and Frites outside by the water.

It’s worth the trouble to find O’Brian’s grave in the town cemetery.  His simple flagstone lies in the shadow between two larger tombs, much like most of his life was in shadow.

He was born with a different name and may have worked in intelligence in World War II.  Or, he or may not have.  He spun yarns about himself that were not true and hid much that was.

But looking out from the graveyard over Collioure and sea, one thing is definitely true.  Patrick O’Brian created a vision of life and battle at sea that has brought adventure and excitement to his millions of fans.

Want More?

Well, of course, you can’t go right now.  But if you haven’t read Patrick O’Brian, then lockdown is the perfect time to start.

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