Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An early Christmas gift - for ME!

I know I know, total update failure. I apologize to all three of my regular readers who noticed I had failed to post yesterday or Monday. Nevertheless, I was hard at work and got plenty accomplished to talk about here today. So. There it is.

There are very few people who could probably get that movie quote. 5 points.


I spent my time this weekend out in the wintry weather taking lines of Monomoys No. 2 and 3 - which, by the way, are doing great in the cold - and also studying up and preparing for this week, where I've been travelling a bit, mostly where my job has been taking me. On Monday I had a great chance to go rummage through the collections at the National Archives Main Branch in Washington DC, an opportunity for which I'd been waiting some time now, and gleaned a great deal of information from many documents, many of which are 200+ years old (!). Those of you who follow NHS on Facebook have seen some of the pictures - and for those who haven't you might want to scoot over and check them out - but I'm sure there are questions about the subject of my study.

For about the last two years now I've been studying the American Sloops of War - ship-rigged vessels smaller than a frigate but still rather formidable. Nearly all were low, flush-decked ships mounting 16-22 guns, and only very late in the sailing Navy was a spar deck added to some. These vessels were truly a mainstay of the early American Navy, but are often overshadowed by the exploits of their bigger and longer-lived partners, the famous frigates. There is a great deal of information available on sloops, and studying the evolution of designs, their unique abilities including shoal-water action, and the range of their service has been of particular interest to me every time I pick up material on the American Sailing Navy.

There is one sloop that stands out for me above the others - Hornet. Built in Baltimore in 1805, this little ship, first built as a brig (two masts, square rigged) and later re-rigged as a ship (three masts square rigged), had an uncommonly long service life and a tremendous range of employments. From 1805 to 1810 she was employed chasing French privateers away from shipping on the US eastern seaboard, and in 1811 she sailed for Europe and brought back dispatches that caused Congress to declare war on Great Britain, starting the War of 1812. In 1812 she cruised in a squadron under Commodore Rodgers in company with the frigates PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES, CONGRESS and the brig ARGUS. She sailed with CONSTITUTION in a cruise to the South Atlantic and was a supposed favorite escort of that ship, specifically requested by several of her noted and famous captains. She captured several ships, including two men of war in famous actions prompting Congress to vote medals struck to commemorate the occasion. Her efficient gunnery was particularly noted among the entire fledgling Navy as having "no equal" by Commodore Isaac Hull.

After the War of 1812, she was dispatched to Tripoli for the second Tripolitan War. Later, she was one of the first ships to patrol the West coast of Africa against slavers when importation of slaves from there became illegal - our first joint activity (partnership) with the British. She voyaged to the Baltic on diplomatic missions, and into the Mediterranean repeatedly. She spent the later part of her career eradicating piracy from the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Her 24 year career (in an era when most sloops had a 6 to 10 year life span) ended in 1829 when she is presumed to have foundered off the coast of Mexico in a hurricane with all hands. At the time, she was participating in humanitarian efforts, pulling Americans out of Mexico during an insurrection. The last sighting of her was by a merchant captain, who from the wreck of his own capsized ship saw her scud by under bare poles "like a phantom ship", the crew working in the hurricane to get her upper spars down "in a flurry, but in good order". The account reads like a scene from a suspense movie.

The goal of our research was to identify where the ship was and when, so as to build a more complete record of her activities during her service life. We also gleaned valuable information such as handling characteristics in foul weather, notes after action, and the names of several prizes unrecorded elsewhere.

There is a certain moment of Zen when you handle these 180-200 year old logs and read "Cape Henry Lighthouse" or "Old Point Comfort" - places I see every day. There is even a deeper moment reading sightings of "Mount Pico" in the Azores and "Gibraltar" - far away places few people except mariners ever get to see - and many times over at that. Reading the navigational bearings off the volcanic mountains of the Azores reminded me of the first time I ever saw them aboard the Training Ship Empire State, and immediately connected with those long-dead observers 200 years ago. Goosebumps. and a smile.

So, good times in DC, but now its back to work.


Due to the holidays, work travel and other distractions, I'm taking a bit of a hiatus from the regular entries here. Check back for regular 'quips' and whatnot but I don't anticipate writing much until the new year.

So until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a fantastic New Year to you all, and I'll catch you on the flip side.


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