Category Archives: Sailing ships

Pickle Night on board HMS Pickle at Vilamoura

HMS Pickle

Pickle Night, the 5th November, is a well known occasion in the Royal Navy, when  warrant officers celebrate the original HMS Pickle’s celebrated very fast nine-day voyage in 1805 to bring news of the victory at Trafalgar and Nelson’s death back to Britain.

(By comparison, commissioned officers celebrate Trafalgar Night.)

Captain Dennis Dixon, who recently spent a happy Pickle Night on board HMS Pickle  has written an account of his evening:

‘A warm thank you, from all of us who live in Portugal, Vilamoura who had an opportunity to celebrate Pickle night.

‘We arrived at the marina as the sun was setting. A slight westerly wind blew gently as I looked upon Pickle, a magical little ship built for fast passages: 22m long, she is a two masted schooner with just 10 guns.

‘She certainly wasn’t like HMS Victory, a man-of-war with a 100 guns, but stepping on board was like going back into time. New owner Mal Nicholson showed us around this magnificent ship with pride.

‘As night fell we all settle down to a selection of wonderful food which was kindly donated by a local Chinese restaurant and Sharon Smith a very good local chef, a few of the guests brought along some mouth watering desserts.

‘Malcolm was most generous with both his time and with the local wines. We sat around solid wooden tables which were well lit by a selection of oil burning lamps, surrounded by wooden blocks, shackles, sheets and rope rigging. Time passed easily as we chatted throughout the night.

‘I was just a little taken back when it occurred to me that little Pickle had brought so many different nationalities together on this special night: in the course of just a few hours I had spoken with French, Welsh, Chinese, Portuguese, Canadians, as well as English people.

‘Towards the end of a wonderful night it felt right to toast Pickle herself and to spend a few moments remembering all those who died that day, including Admiral Lord Nelson as well as sailors of all nationalities.’

Visit the HMS Pickle Facebook page.

PS – there’s a ballad written by a chap called Roger Laing describing the race to England that made HMS Pickle famous. It makes clear that the trip wasn’t what you’d call uneventful.

The Ballad of the Pickle

‘Make haste, little Pickle‘ the Admiral said,
‘Go and tell England that Nelson is dead.
In his moment of triumph, a sharpshooter aimed
And the life of our hero his musket ball claimed.
They took him below – in the orlop he lay,
As his spirit and lifeblood ebbed slowly away
He whispered “Thank God” in his faltering breath,
“My duty is done” and slipped unto death.’

‘The battle is won ! Make their Lordships aware
That the Fleet has prevailed and will shortly repair
To Gibraltar for succour, refit and thanksgiving
To bury the dead and to comfort the living.
Bellerophon, Thunderer, Swiftsure and Mars,
Colossus and Neptune – all have lost spars.
My own Royal Sovereign the leeward van led
And suffered in consequence three score men dead.’

‘So fly, gallant schooner and shake out all sail
For you carry great tidings and canvas-clad mail
For their Lordships, whose spirits our victory will gladden
Though the news of our loss the whole Nation will sadden.
God speed you to England ? make haste while it’s light.
Delay not a moment and fly through the night.
Young Captain I charge you – La Penotiere’s your name.
Hasten to London and tell of our fame.’

So with Collingwood’s blessing the Pickle departed
Past Cadiz she sailed – round St Vincent she started.
With five points to starboard, then ten degrees more,
The Pole Star ahead and away from lee shore.
Past Lisbon to leeward – Oporto in sight,
Close-hauled all day – past Finnisterre that night.
On through wild Biscay the little craft lunged,
While mizzen stays hummed and through ocean spray plunged.

But while rounding Ushant, the hurricane shrieked,
Through cedar-clad decking, the wild water leaked.
‘Lighten ship!’ Cried her Captain, ‘Or all will be lost’
So into the ocean her cannon they tossed.
But once in the Channel, the tempest abated
The great Neptune’s ire all finally sated.
At last on the ninth day, ‘Land ho!’ came the cry,
Their landfall was Falmouth, past Lizard hard by.

Not waiting a moment the Captain alighted,
Commanded a coachman, the first that he sighted.
To London they galloped all day and all night;
Past midnight the third day was London in sight.
‘Ere dawn the good news round the City was sung
And the King ordered Nation-wide church bells be rung.
The news of this victory brought England great gladness,
Though tinged with the loss of her hero, great sadness.

So countrymen all, whether landsman or tar,
‘Three cheers for the Pickle!’ the smallest by far
Of that glorious fleet on that glorious day,
From whence for a century Britannia held sway.
When Nelson looks down from his heavenly portal
As we offer the toast to the Memory Immortal,
‘Remember the Pickle‘, he’d certainly say,
For she also served – on that fateful day.



Alan Villiers’ photographs on the Royal Museum Greenwich’s wonderful Flickr account

A selection of Alan Villiers famous photos appears on the Royal Museum Greenwich’s wonderful Flickr Photostream.

Villiers seems to have been a naturally talented photographer, but I’m also struck by the sharpness and contrast of the images he was able to take using large format film on his Box Brownie camera.

The life and times of John Short of Watchet 1839-1933

John Short book

Buy this book here.

Most of us have heard and enjoyed singing sea shanties at some point. From books by yachting writers of the past (Francis B Cooke, for example) we know they enjoyed singing them a century ago (in the same era as some of the the collectors were collecting the songs), and composers and film makers have long used them as a device to signify sailing ships and sailors.

But while we’re all aware of the iconic status of sea shanties, most of us probably have little idea of the lives of those who used them in earnest to enable a group of men to work in time doing tasks such as:

  • hauling halliards (the lines that raise sails)
  • heaving on a capstan (for example, to raise the anchor)
  • pumping seawater from a ship’s leaky bilges (there were plenty of them, particularly in the years before Plimsoll’s reforms)

Where and when these songs were collected, and from whom, may also be a bit of a mystery – many of the books that I’ve seen over the years haven’t bothered to include the information.

Tom Brown’s A Sailor’s Life is therefore very welcome – for it answers both of these questions, describing as it does the life of mariner John  Short of Watchet, a man whose long career followed an arc that began with going to sea as a boy, working as a deep sea sailor in his young life, then worked on local boats, and eventually becoming a hoveller (a kind of local pilot and harbour boatman) as he grew older.

Happily for him and us, he does not seem to have got into the kinds of troubles involving drink, women and crimpers that are described by so many of the ‘warning’ type of sea songs.

Yankee Jack, as he was often called as an acknowledgement of his trips across the Atlantic, was also a popular local singer whose huge collection of sea songs and shanties (more than 150) going back to the mid 19th century were noted by the legendary folk song collector Cecil Sharp.

I’ve known  author Tom Brown since the 70s, though not well as I might have done as he’s generally a quiet chap, at least until he starts singing. But you have to watch the quiet ones, and I have to say this is a cracking book full of stories and detail: which ships Short sailed with, when, what his roles were on board, all referenced from Lloyd’s list and many other sources, and all spelt out very carefully.

Where there is ambiguity or doubt in the sources, Tom wisely takes great care to say so before arguing for his own conclusions. There are illuminating notes, too, about the ships themselves.

This material must have taken untold hours of research and thought.

The book also includes  wonderful set of 50-odd songs from Short’s remarkable collection. Thanks to Short’s long career and excellent memory, many of these are of an earlier vintage than those noted from other sources and often show interesting differences, while others are very much the versions that were found in the school books of my youth or in Stan Hugill’s classic book Songs of the Sea.

I must confess to a soft spot for John Short, for Watchet and its harbour, which in recent years has been overlooked by a statue of the old boy. Three decades ago my parents had a well-used second home in Watchet for some years (they later retired to the area), and I know the steps – still unchanged – where the best known photos of Yankee Jack were taken.

So you might have cause to think I’m a little prejudiced. Nevertheless, I’m very happy to say that, on my shelves at least, A Sailor’s Life earns an honoured place alongside Songs of the Sea and Roy Palmer’s Boxing the Compass.

There’s a handy orderform here.