As fate would have it in 1758, the same year of Lord Nelson's birth the Board of Admiralty ordered twelve new ships of the line, among them a 'first-rate' ship with 100 guns, to be named Victory. HMS Victory is a first-rate warship with four masts built to be a floating gun platform with 100 cannon of different calibers arranged on three decks. She took seven years to build at a cost is today's money of 50 million English pounds, designed by Thomas Slade of the Royal Navy and laid down in Chatham Dockyard, England. Sir John Lindsay, Victory's first Captain, took command In March 1778. On May 8, 1778, she set sail for sea duty for the first time exactly 13 years and a day, 4,746 days from the time of her launching. Her active service life began on Friday June 13 when she sailed from Spithead as the Flagship of the Channel Fleet and first cleared her decks for action on the July 23, 1778.
A story in itself is the construction of the Victory. The 18th century shipwrights had only simple gear and tools and the difficulty of moving enormous timbers from where they were felled to the dockyard in Chatham. This extensive skilled workforce of about 250 men were required to accomplish the work. The shipwrights needed a hundred acres of oak forest, about 6,000 selected mature oak trees found in the weald forest of Kent and Sussex in England. The balance of the timber needed was fir, elm, and pine and was cut and stored knowing the wood required seasoning or drying for many years.
First the keel on July 23, 1759 then the frame was constructed; shipwrights would normally cover the ship in canvas for several months for more seasoning of the wood. Luck would have it for Victory that the Seven Years' War ended so her construction was stalled. Peace meant that she was not needed so her frame remained covered for three years, this increased seasoning turned out to increase her strength and sturdiness. Certain sections of a ship framework had to be made from a single piece of oak, so mature oak trees of great size were sought after. The largest oak trees required were for the 30 feet high "stern post" which took some of the greatest stresses placed on the ship. Other valued oak trees had "Y" shaped curved branches which enabled the knees and clamps to be made from one piece for increased strength. Perhaps the most difficult of the trees to locate were the timbers used for the wing transom needing a very wide forked mature oak tree. Light supple wood like fir and spruce was required for the decks, masts & yard arms. Seven mature elm trunks were used for the keel.
The Victory having 3 masts and a bow sprit is called a rigged ship vessel. Each of the masts supports yards horizontal spars were named after their respective masts. The lower yard, topsail yard and the topgallant yards were made from either fir or pine because of its light weight and being flexible. The masts required so much bulk it took 7 trees to make each one, each tree were combined and built-in as one with iron hoops and joined tightly with hundreds of yards of ropes. The masts used 27 miles of rigging and carried four acres of canvas for the sails. Two tons of iron and copper nails are needed for the deck. Iron bolts were passed through the timbers and joints with the ends clenched with washers holding the ship together. A ship the size of Victory required more than 26 miles (42 km) of flax and hemp rope with the largest rope for the anchors being 19 inches (47 cm) in circumference. As an historical note typically, hemp contains below 0.3% THC, while cannabis grown for marijuana can contain anywhere from 6 or 7 % to 20% or even more. The smoking lamp was not lit on board Victory.
Close to four acres of sails were needed comprising of 37 sails with a total sail area of 6,500 square yards (5, 428 square meters). Dundee weavers who manufactured the bolts of cloth for the Navy during this period and would have spent around 1,200 hours just to stitch the top sail together. Spare sails were needed so an additional 23 sails were carried on board. When in full sail HMS Victory carried thirty seven different sails. These canvas sails were mostly hung from horizontal yard arms mounted on her four masts, the bowsprit, the foremast, the mainmast and the mizenmast. Just the right combination of sail had to be rigged, to little sail and the ship did not move fast enough through the water. Too much sail in a strong wind and the mast might snap. At times little sail was necessary for leaving or entering ports. To trim or adjust a sail the crew had to climb the rope ladders to their assigned "yard" the horizontal bar that supported the sail. The orders were to "make sail" or unfurl the area of sail to catch more wind, or "trim sail" to reduce or furl the sail area by rolling up and tying down the sail. The crew of Victory was expected to hear the order, climb the rope rigging ladders to their assigned station and have full sail in six minutes. 120 plus men were needed to accomplish this task and it was not uncommon for inexperienced sailors to fall to their death from wet ropes and gusts of wind. HMS Victory's design allowed speeds up to 8 knots or 10 mph, and being a First Rate ship being maneuverable required her for active service between 1778 and 1805 and became one of the most sought after ships in the Navy.
The Victory carried 7 anchors of various sizes; the two main anchors were used for holding the ship in deep water. The larger and heaviest of the two weighing 4 tons was always rigged on the starboard or right hand side of the ship due to prevailing winds found in the northern hemisphere. It was the heaviest work on board to raise the anchor, and at the center of the ship were two capstans connected together vertically. All hands helped in this being the most difficult job on board for sailors and marines alike. The capstan was a big wench with 12 heavy wood bars made long enough for six men to stand side by side and walk around the capstan pushing against the bars to raise the anchor. Around 144 men were needed to raise the largest anchor, the huge anchor cable made of hemp was very heavy especially when wet. The anchor rope cable was carefully coiled to prevent the cable from rotting and the crew stored it on a special slatted floor allowing the water to drain off and air to circulate around the rope to dry. Below the water line additional protection was needed for the ships oak hull due to the teredo worm. The teredos are not worms at all, but rather saltwater clams notorious for boring into and destroying anything wooden immersed in sea water, like a wooden ship. The remedy for ships of the period was covering the hulls bottom with copper sheeting. Victory's hull needed 3,923 copper sheets of 4ft by 1ft pieces (15,692 sqft) weighing a total of 17 tons.
Six boats carried aboard HMS Victory were comprised of a Launch, Barge, 3 Cutters and a Pinnace which is a light boat, propelled by sails or oars, formerly used as a tender for guiding merchant and war vessels. These boats were used for many purposes including conveying stores, personnel, mooring and anchoring the ship. They were also employed for towing when calm wind stalled the ship. The Launch was the largest of the boats on board being 34 feet (10.3m) long and used for carrying men and supplies, and at times anchor work. The boat was usually rowed by 16 oarsmen, and could also be sailed. Troops were ferried to shore in the boats and were the first assault craft to be used in war. The boats were not considered lifeboats, to lower a boat took too much time to save a sailor who fell overboard, life at sea was expendable. During battle removing wooden objects was necessary to reduce collateral damage of splintered wood flying across the deck. All wood items were sent below the main and gun decks, like mess tables, benches and furniture. The boats were towed behind to limit cannon hits creating flying splinters. When clearing the decks for action was called an experienced crew could clear the decks in a ship the size of Victory in ten minutes.
All cannon on the Victory were short ranged smooth bore muzzle loaders. Three main types of shot were used in the cannon, round solid shot, used to pummel an enemy ship's hull. Next dismantling shot, used to hammer down the masts and rigging, third was anti-personnel shot or grape shot, which were small iron balls used to maim and kill enemy crew members. A broadside was when all the cannons fired on one side of the ship. To keep the ship from listing badly the guns were fired one by one from bow to stern in a wave effect. Each carriage and cannon weighted about 1,500 lbs. A trick of the era to extend the range was to skip the cannon shot off the water like one would do with a pebble on a pond. When the enemy was sighted, the Royal Marine drummer would, Beat to Quarters, a special drum roll which on modern ships has reverted to sounding a bugle for Action Stations. Both methods are calls for Battle Stations and the crew would clear the decks for action and man the guns. Each cannon had its own crew which was typically twelve men and a boy, who would run to the lower decks for the gunpowder filled cartridges from the magazines below decks. All Royal Navy gun crews like the ones on Victory would go through countless drills to prepare their guns for firing by constantly practicing to fire a broadside continuously every ninety seconds. Most naval battles would often begin with great lines of opposing warships sailing past each other firing broadsides with no assured outcome. Normally what was required was close-quarter hand-to-hand fighting between the crews of ships alongside each other. In these deadly battles pikes, cutlasses, pistols and downward musket fire from the rigging was used with great accuracy by the crews on both sides.
On July 9, 1778 Victory put to sea along with a force of thirty ships of the line. A French fleet of twenty-nine ships was sighted 14 days later on July 23rd 100 miles (160 km) west of Ushant. The French had orders to avoid battle, and upon sighting the British fleet two of the French ships escaped into the port of Brest. Both fleets found themselves maneuvering during heavy winds in a squall. The battle began with the British more or less in a column and the French in a less effective position. In Battle weather can play a role, at the beginning the winds allowed the French to sail there First Ships of the Line against the British. At almost noon Victory opened fire on the Bretagne a 110 gun ship of the line which sailed in line with the Ville de Paris of 90 guns. The engagement was indecisive however Sir Hugh Palliser's British rear division suffered a great deal. Due to the loss of British ships Admiral Keppel was blamed and court marshaled however after review he was cleared for the actions during the first battle of Ushant.
At the second battle of Ushant in March 1780 Victory was commanded by Captain Henry Cromwell and flew the flag of Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt. Victory sailed with a total of 18 ships, eleven other ships of the line, a 50-gun fourth-rate, and five frigates, to overtake a French convoy that sailed from Brest. Kempenfelt was unaware that the convoy was protected by 21 ships of the line with Adrimal de Guichen in command. Kempenfelt ordered a chase when the French fleet was sighted on December 12th. When the British sighted the French greater compliment of ships, Kempenfelt was forced to withdraw with the 15 captured prize ships from the French convoy. As in the first battle the weather removed the possibility for a decisive battle with the French.
On May 11 1803 the war between Britain and France and Napoleon Bonaparte evolved with Spain becoming allied with France. Five days before, Vice-Admiral Nelson hoisted his flag in Victory 1803. Samuel Sutton was assigned as his flag captain of Victory as she sailed as Nelson's flag ship of the Mediterranean fleet. The color was changed from red to the black and yellow scheme. Her gun ports were originally yellow to match the hull but later repainted black, giving a pattern called the Nelson's checkerboard.
Victory was passing the island of Toro on 4 April, 1805, Nelson cruised towards Sicily expecting the French fleet would be sailing for Egypt, however Villeneuve was entering Cadiz to connect with the Spanish fleet. When French Admiral Villeneuve learned that he was to be removed from command he took his ships to sea on the morning of October 19, sailing north towards the Mediterranean and unknowingly towards the British fleet, launching the Battle of Trafalgar. The first casualty on Monday morning October 21, 1805 was the landsman Aaron Crocan a seaman with less than a year's experience at sea. At five thirty he fell overboard from HMS Conqueror into a heavy swell and was never seen again. As a boat was started to be lowered a shout from the masthead called "ship ahoy", the combined fleet had been spotted and was about 11 miles away. From Victory Nelson issued a rapid series of signals to gather the fleet towards the enemy. The British ships began to form up behind Victory and the Royal Sovereign. The French and Spanish Grand Fleet sailed in line about two hundred yards apart. The Grand Fleet had 40 sail and the British had 32 ships, at about 8am most of the British crews had breakfast, soon Nelson's famous last signal was sent, "England expects that every man will do his duty".
The normal battle at sea of the day would have been both fleets sailing parallel against each other firing broadsides. Nelson inVictory decided to divide his fleet into two battle lines and sail through the enemy fleet at a 90 degree perpendicular angle. This initiative strategy became the "Crossing the T" plan or being able to fire a broadside at your enemy while they could only fire forward or aft with minimum cannon towards the British ships. Victory lost 57 killed and 102 wounded, Admiral Nelson was shot and mortally wounded. The British fleet killed was 449 and had 1,246 wounded with no ships lost. The French lost 2,218 men and had 1,155 sailors wounded. The Spanish men killed were 1,025 and 1,383 wounded. 7,000 men were captured on 21 French and Spanish ships, along with one ship destroyed. The battle made Britain the master of the seas and Nelson the supreme hero in British history with Victory becoming the most principle warship of sail, even to this day.
Today HMS Victory remains in commission as the flagship of the Royal Navy's Home Command. She is the oldest commissioned warship in the world in her role as a museum ship but is held on cradles in dry dock - the USS Constitution of the American Navy, launched 32 years later, is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat.
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