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The Loss Of Hms Repulse


The Repulse was one of the ships belonging to the Channel fleet, under
the command of Sir Allen Gardner, but had been detached for the purpose
of intercepting provision vessels going into Brest. On the night of
March 10th, 1800, she struck upon a sunken rock, supposed to be the
Mace, about twenty-five leagues southeast of Ushant. The crew made good
a landing on one of the Glenan Islands, about two miles from the
continent. Here the captain, and most of the officers, were made
prisoners, and sent to Quimper; but Mr. Rother, the first lieutenant,
Mr. Gordon, the fifth, Mr. Finn, the master, two midshipmen, and eight
seamen, got into the larger cutter; and, on the fourth day after leaving
the ship, during which interval they experienced bad weather, and were,
at times, near perishing, arrived safe at Guernsey.

The following letter from one of the officers who escaped, to his
father, gives a full account of the loss of the Repulse, and likewise
of the adventures of the boat's crew, from the time of their quitting
the ship till their arrival at Guernsey:--

"GUERNSEY, March 13th, 1800.

"MY DEAR FATHER,--I embrace the opportunity of a packet sailing for
England, to acquaint you with the unfortunate fate of the Repulse.
Coming off the Penmarks, in company with the Agamemnon, on Saturday,
March 9th, it then blowing a very heavy gale of wind, Captain Alms was
thrown down the companion ladder by the rolling of the ship, by which
accident some of his ribs were broken and he was much bruised. The same
day, we parted company with the Agamemnon, in chase of a strange sail
to leeward; and, about six in the evening, we came up with and
re-captured the Princess Royal packet, from the West Indies. Next
morning, Captain Alms, finding himself much worse, resolved to put into
Torbay. We accordingly bore up and shaped a course, which, if our
reckoning had been correct, would have carried us far enough to the
westward of Ushant. But, unfortunately, owing to the thickness of the
weather (not having had an observation for some days), and to the
different set of the tides, which are very strong on this coast, the
ship had got nearly three degrees to the east of her reckoning; and at
twelve o'clock the same night going under an easy sail, that the prize
might be able to keep up, breakers were discovered ahead. It was
extremely foggy, and the ship was going at the rate of about seven
knots, with the wind almost right aft, so that our endeavours to clear
the danger were ineffectual. In a moment the ship struck with great
violence and was instantly so completely surrounded with rocks, that we
could not even see the opening which we had entered. In this dreadful
situation we continued nearly three quarters of an hour, the ship, from
the great surf that ran among the rocks, striking so violently, that we
every moment expected she would go to pieces.

"I shall not attempt to describe the appearance of so many men, with
certain and almost instant death staring them in the face: but I cannot
forbear observing, that those whom I ever considered the greatest
reprobates now became the greatest cowards, and were so overcome by
their awful situation, that they were totally unable to exert themselves
for their own perservation. We had no hopes of deliverance. The prize
was, indeed, in company, and we kept firing guns to inform her of our
danger. It was, however, absolutely impossible for us to receive any
assistance from that quarter; and if our firing enabled her to escape
herself it was as much as we could expect. That nothing on our part
might be left untried, the sails were hove aback, and, with the Divine
assistance, the ship backed astern, clear of the danger.

"Our joy on this occasion was, however, of short duration, for the ship
made so much water, that in half an hour it reached as high as the orlop
deck; and the rudder having lost all command, there appeared to be no
other chance of saving our lives than by running for the coast of
France. Accordingly, having got her head round to the eastward, we made
all the sail we could. We had now sufficient employment for all hands,
some were busy at the pumps, others were engaged in throwing the guns
overboard, and otherwise lightening the ship; while others, again, were
employed in lining a sail with beds, blankets, etc., which being got
over the bows, and bowsed taut up to the ship's bottom, was of very
great service. The water being considerably above the orlop deck, we
were enabled to bale at the hatchway; by which, and the wonderful
exertions of men actuated by the fear of death, we were enabled to keep
her afloat till five o'clock, when, to our inexpressible joy, the echo
of the report of one of our guns announced our being near the land, the
fog being so thick that we could not see the length of the ship. But
judge what must have been our sensations when we found ourselves within
half a ship's length of a lee shore, bounded by a precipice as high as
our mast head, against which the sea broke with excessive violence, and
on which we were running with great rapidity. The only chance of
preservation we now had, was by letting go an anchor, which, however,
did not bring us up. At the moment when we expected to be dashed to
pieces, our jib-boom almost touching the precipice, Providence again
interposed in our behalf, and the eddy wind, reverberating from the
rock, took the sail aback, and most miraculously saved us from

"We now cut the cable, and the ship drifted along the shore, till we
cleared a rugged point a quarter of a mile to the leeward of us, when
she filled and ran up under a weather shore, which, being very high,
sheltered us a good deal. Here we grounded; but, from the heavy surf,
the ship continued striking with such violence that we were afraid she
would go to pieces before we could leave her. We therefore made what
haste we could in getting the boat out, and then cut away the masts,
when she lay tolerably easy.

"As I had early in the morning resolved within myself to attempt
escaping in one of the boats, rather than be made prisoner, I mentioned
my design to Mr. Gordon, fifth lieutenant, who readily agreed to
accompany me. The eight-oared cutter being hoisted, I got into her, as
she was the best boat for the purpose, under pretence of seeking a
landing place; and having taken on board as many men as she could
conveniently carry, I landed them to the leeward of the point about a
mile from the ship, and then returned for another cargo. Having
disclosed my plan to the boat's crew, I sent one of them on board the
ship for a compass, boat's mast, sails, etc., but, to my infinite
mortification, he could only get a compass, the boat's sail being down
in the store-room. The pilot now came into my boat to go on shore. I
thought if I could secure him, it would be a great point, and I was glad
to obtain his concurrence.

"I had made four or five more trips between the ship and the shore, when
Mr. Rothery, the first lieutenant, called me to take him on board, which
I did, and was agreeably surprised to find that Mr. Gordon had
acquainted him with our secret, that he was resolved to go with us, and
had made some provision for the voyage. It consisted of some pieces of
hung beef, which, though raw, was better than nothing, a small quantity
of bread, and half a dozen of brandy, as he imagined, but which
afterwards proved to be wine. When I mentioned our want of sail, he
replied that we must make shift to supply that deficiency with some
table-cloths and sheets he had brought with him.

"We still continued going and returning, till almost all the people were
landed, and on our way had fortunately picked up the jolly-boat's mast
and sails, and the masts and yards belonging to several other boats, so
that the only article we now wanted was water. I recollected the fire
cask in the mizen chains, which we desired a man to push overboard.
Having picked it up and taken it in, with Mr. Gordon, we again
committed ourselves to the mercy of the waves and the care of

"But before I leave the ship, it will be proper to mention the number of
lives that were lost. When we first struck upon the rock, five of the
crew, whose apprehensions were too powerful for any other consideration,
got into a boat that was hung over the quarter, and in their hurry to
escape, cut one of the tackles by which the boat was suspended, while
they kept the other fast. The boat, consequently, hung by one end, and
they were all thrown out and drowned.

"I forgot to mention that, while the boats were employed in landing the
people, those on board had thrown the ends of several hawsers on shore,
which the peasantry made fast to the rock, and which being hauled taut
on board, they could go on shore upon them with great ease. Two men,
however, being intoxicated, fell off the hawsers into the water, and
perished. These, together with four marines, who lay upon deck
dead-drunk at the time we came away, and who, I believe, were not
afterwards carried on shore, are, as far as I know, all that suffered on
this occasion.

"Having a fair wind, we set the jolly-boat's sail for a fore sail, then
made a sparing breakfast and thought to recruit our spirits with a dram,
when, to our great disappointment, we found we had nothing but wine.
This was not the greatest of our misfortune, for, upon broaching our
water, we found it so strongly impregnated with the varnish with which
the cask had been so frequently laid over, that it was scarcely
drinkable, and even made some of us sick.

"One of the men having, fortunately, some sail needles in his pocket,
all hands turned to sail-making, some sewing, others unlaying rope, and
making it into twine. A table-cloth and a sheet sewed together made an
excellent main sail; and out of a piece of canvas we happened to have in
the boat we contrived to make a mizen sail, so that in a couple of hours
we had a complete suit.

"About twelve o'clock we were much alarmed by being becalmed among the
Penmark rocks, and they were obliged to pull hard to avoid being dashed
to pieces against them. We soon afterwards had a fine breeze, and about
five found ourselves close in with the land, a few miles to the
southward of Cape Roz. The wind was so scant that we could barely lie
along shore, and were obliged to pass several signal posts, at each of
which the enemy had a gun, so that we every moment expected to be fired
at. I believe by our being so badly rigged, and white sail, they took us
for Frenchmen.

"About dusk, we had another narrow escape among a reef of rocks, which
lay off Cape Roz, and upon which we were set by a very heavy swell and a
strong tide. It was now nearly dark, and, as it had every appearance of
blowing hard, we ran down into a deep bay, a little to the southward of
Brest Harbour, purposing to come to an anchor till the morning; but in
luffing up round a point, under which we intended to take shelter, we
were much surprised by the appearance of something like a fort, and soon
found our fears realised when the sentinel hailed us in French, which he
did twice. We now bore up, and made sail from it as fast as we could,
and I fancy were out of reach before they could get a gun ready, as we
saw a number of lights moving about.

"Some of the boat's crew now thought our undertaking so desperate that
they proposed to surrender rather than run any further risk. It was,
however, agreed to wait till daylight, and we accordingly came to an
anchor in the middle of the bay, not daring to trust ourselves any more
in shore. About eleven, the wind having moderated, and the moon shining
bright, we got under weigh, and ran between the Saints and the main,
which is a very dangerous passage. By two o'clock next morning we were
clean off Ushant, having also passed between that and the main. We were
now in high spirits to think we had got clear of the coast of France,
and regaled ourselves with an additional glass of wine; having also a
fair wind for England, which continued all that day till four in the
afternoon, when, to our great distress, it fell calm, at a time when, by
the distance we had to run, we computed ourselves at no more than eight
leagues from Plymouth. At seven, a breeze sprang up from the northward,
and at eight it blew extremely violent, with a heavy sea. The gale
continued to increase till eleven, when our situation became very
alarming, exposed to a heavy gale of wind, in the middle of the English
Channel, in an open boat, with the sea breaking over us in such a manner
that we expected each succeeding wave would overwhelm the boat and
terminate our existence.

"The pilot, after some consideration, proposed to us, as the only chance
we had remaining, to bear up for the island of Guernsey or Jersey. To
this proposal we all would readily have acceded, but were of opinion
that if he once put the boat before the sea she would immediately fill.
During our consultation a singular circumstance occurred, which
determined us to follow the pilot's advice. Three distinct flashes of
lightning were perceived, at regular intervals, in the southeast which
was exactly the direction the islands bore from us. This the
superstition of the boat's crew interpreted as a signal from heaven. We
accordingly bore up, and stood in the same direction in which we had
observed the lightning.

"Next morning the gale rather abated; and about two o'clock in the
afternoon, to our inexpressible joy, we discovered the island of
Guernsey; but the wind failing, we did not make the land till late the
following morning."

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