When Thomas Cochrane reported for duty to his uncle Lord Alexander Cochrane’s ship at age 17 to begin his career in the British navy, he had little more to offer than a burning desire to succeed.
First to notice the thin, serious Scottish lad was Lt. Jack Larmour. This popular, experienced and happy-go-lucky sailor took Cochrane under his wing, for which the future admiral would be forever grateful. Even in his bitter old age, thoughts of Larmour brought a smile to Cochrane’s face.
Either Larmour or Cochrane could have been the model for novelist Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. (O’Brian chose Cochrane.) Both were natural sailors who began as common crewmembers and worked their way up the ladder to the officer ranks through sheer ability. “For his superior seamanship, the Admiralty was glad to promote [Larmour] from the forecastle to the quarter deck,” wrote Cochrane. “Lucky was the captain who could secure such an officer.”
Cochrane went through the usual hazing and difficulties of a new midshipman, but Larmour soon
realized this was not the foppish nephew of a lord. Larmour taught the young Cochrane the ways of the ship and the sea. Cochrane ate it up. In his autobiography, he recalls asking to skip shore leave one day so he could stay on board and help Larmour with some rigging work. “This was graciously conceded on the condition that … I would put off [my] officer’s [uniform] and assume the garb of the seaman. Nothing could be more to my taste. So, with knife in belt and marlinspike in hand, the captain of the forecastle undertook my improvement in the arts of knotting and splicing.”
Cochrane’s days as a simple midshipman were perhaps his happiest. “Few more kindly recollections are impressed upon my memory than those of my first naval instructor, honest Jack Larmour,” he wrote in his old age.
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This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.