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Intimidation through innovative seamanship

Thomas Cochrane earned the nickname Sea Wolf for his audacity, but he also was a superior seaman who delighted in the clever “ruse de guerre.”

He had only 40 men on board the frigate Pallas when three French corvettes approached. Cochrane saw escape was not just useless, but needless.

“It was of the first importance to make a show of strength, though we possessed none,” he writes in his autobiography. With the enemy still far off, he ordered the Pallas’ sails furled with easily broken rope yarn. “The object being to cut all the yarns at once, let fall the sails, and thus impress the enemy with an idea that from such celerity in making sail that we had a numerous and highly disciplined crew.”

The maneuver “succeeded to a marvel,” and the French veered off. Cochrane, in typical fashion, then gave chase, firing the two bow cannons, which were all his skeleton crew could man. Cochrane watched dumbfounded as each enemy ship was run on shore and wrecked by its frightened captain.

The incident formed “one of my most singular recollections, all three being deliberately abandoned and wrecked in the presence of a British frigate with only 40 men on board — the mere semblance of strength saved us, and the panic thereby inspired destroyed the enemy.”

He also knew just what his ship could do and had confidence his crew could make her do it. Again aboard the Pallas, Cochrane was being overtaken by three enemy ships of the line with all sails set. The order was given to “haul down every sail at the same instant [and jibe] the ship as speedily as possible,” Cochrane writes. “Our pursuers … shot past at full speed and ran on several miles before they could … tack.”

Cochrane appeared to run risks, but his officers and crew knew better. His actions were marked by his “extreme care for his men.” He “never needlessly exposed them to danger, planning attacks with complete thoroughness,” wrote a contemporary.

Perhaps that’s why they indulged their innovative captain in such experiments as “gigantic kites to give additional impetus to ships … [made from] a studding-sail boom lashed across a jib-boom and over this spread a large sheet of canvas,” as Cochrane describes his spinnaker-like invention.

He even tested his rig. “Though the kite pulled with a will, it gave such occasional lurches as to give reason to fear for the too-sudden expenditure of his Majesty’s stores,” he confessed. In other words, it threatened to break his ship apart. But, he went on, “the power of such machines, properly constructed, would be very great.”

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This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.