Audacious action

Nov/Dec 1999

It was precisely 200 years ago, also at the turn of a century, when the British brig, Sophie, carrying the diminutive arsenal of 14 four-pound cannon, challenged, fought and actually captured the Spanish 32-gun frigate, Cacafuego, in the Mediterranean Sea, thus creating the nickname `Lucky’ Jack Aubrey for the British captain who was lionized for the accomplishment.

Both the captain and the brig are fictitious, of course, they being the principal subjects of Patrick O’Brian’s first novel in the popular Aubrey-Maturin series published by W.W. Norton.

The Cacafuego action, as well as others in the novel, closely mimic the cruise record of England’s famed Lord Thomas Cochrane, then an equally young and daring new captain, which occurred during 1800-1801, according to Dean King, who has authored a number of naval history books including, Harbors and High Seas, which provides historic and geographic coloring for each of the O’Brian novels.

The daylight action took place in calm weather off the coast of Barcelona. Let’s call it 41° N, 2° E, even through the engagement probably took place somewhat closer to shore than that. Although Cochrane, with his little brig, Speedy, actually challenged and captured the Spanish frigate El Gamo, in May of 1801, the author gives us the same outrageous fight reproduced in the fall of 1800. We’ll call it Oct. 1, though no specific date is given.

A. Just to get us started, by today’s standards of longitude, what is the arc-distance in time between the prime meridian and this location?

The fight between Sophie and Cacafuego involved a number of daring calculations, otherwise known as risks, on the part of the British captain. Sophie, being much smaller at 158 tons displacement, was maneuvered directly alongside her 600-ton enemy so that the frigate’s guns could only fire above the little brig’s deck while the British guns, when fully elevated, could fire at close range up and into the main deck of the Spanish ship, thus causing considerable damage. Second, the British sailors cleverly pushed themselves away from the enemy hull using long poles, each time the Spanish tried to board, all the while peppering the frustrated boarders with musket fire. Third, when Sophie finally pulled away and maneuvered back for its own boarding attempt (with its 58 sailors vs. 319 aboard the enemy), Capt. Aubrey had half his crew darken their faces with stove black and board, after initial concealment, from a different end of the ship, thus playing on Spanish superstitions and fears and adding to the element of surprise.

B. Noon on that day probably took place while prisoners were being herded below, and while assistance was being offered to fallen comrades on both sides and repairs commenced to both ships. It is unlikely that a noon sight was taken to determine latitude, given the circumstances and the close proximity of land just to the north. But, just for the exercise of it, what would have been the rough altitude of the sun? (Use 1999 almanac).

C. In a more normal (and modern) navigation setting, what would have been the local hour angle of the sun at six bells in the afternoon watch?

With two ships heavily damaged, 300 angry prisoners being guarded below deck, and consistently uncooperative weather, Sophie’s captain and crew went through an exhausting ordeal getting themselves and their capture back to their base at Port Mahon on the nearby island of Minorca, located at 39° 50′ N, 4° 18′ E.

D. What was the rhumb line distance and direction as the crow flies that they had to sail under such conditions?

By Ocean Navigator