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A Yankee Skipper Who Preyed On British Shipping Relates His Wartime Experiences
American sea captain George Coggeshall tells of his experiences evading the British navy during the War of 1812 and spending over half a century at sea.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
My bills of lading were filled up upon this principle to Bordeaux or a port in France, and so that on the arrival of the goods, the owners or agents were bound to receive them at any port or place where the vessel was fortunate enough to enter. My object was to get as near Bordeaux as possible; still I did not like to attempt entering the Garonne, as the English generally kept stationed several frigates and smaller vessels directly off the Cordovan Light, which rendered it extremely difficult and hazardous to enter. I therefore decided to run for the harbor of Lateste.
About a week before we got into port, while in the Bay of Biscay, namely on the 19th and 20th of January, we encountered one of the most severe gales from the westward that I have ever experienced. It commenced early on the morning of the 19th and blew a perfect hurricane, which soon raised a high, cross sea. At 8 A.M., I hove the schooner to under a double reefed foresail, lowered down the foreyard near the deck and got everything as snug as possible. At 12 o’clock noon a tremendous sea struck her in the wake of the starboard fore-shrouds. The force of the sea broke one of the toptimbers or stanchions [uprights which support a ship’s deck] and split open the planksheer [the heavy plank forming the outer edge of the deck] so that I could see directly into the hold. The force of the sea and the weight of the water that came on board threw the vessel nearly on her beam ends. Fortunately the weight of water that fell into the foresail split the sail and tore away the bulwarks; and being thus relieved, she gradually righted.
We then threw overboard two of the lee guns, water casks, etc., and after nailing tarred canvas and leather over the broken plank-sheer, got ready to wear ship [to change course by turning the stern to windward], fearing the injury received in the wake of the starboard fore-shrouds would endanger the foremast. We accordingly got ready to hoist a small piece of the mainsail, and thus kept her off before the wind for a few minutes, and watched a favorable smooth time to bring her to the wind on the other tack. During the time that the schooner ran before the wind she appeared literally to leap from one sea to another. We soon, however, brought her up to the wind on the other tack without accident, and thus under a small piece of the mainsail she lay to pretty well. But as the gale continued to rage violently, I feared we might ship another sea, and therefore prepared, as it were, to anchor the vessel head to the wind.
For this purpose we took a square sail boom, spanned it at each end with a new four-inch rope and made our small bower cable fast to the bight of the span; and with the other end fastened to the foremast, threw it overboard and payed out about 60 fathoms of cable. She then rode like a gull on the water, and I was absolutely astonished to see the good effect of this experiment. The spar broke the sea and kept the schooner nearly head to the wind until the gale subsided.
The next day in the afternoon, January 20th, we again made sail, and on the 26th, six days after this dreadful tempest, got safe into Lateste, 37 days from Charleston.
While we providentially escaped destruction, other ships were not so fortunate; many were wrecked and stranded along the coast, and five sail of English transports were thrown on shore near Lateste, and most of their crews perished in the same gale. On my arrival at Lateste, all my papers were sent up to Paris; and although we were all well, still we were compelled by the government to ride quarantine for six days.
Lateste is a poor little village principally supported by fish and oysters taken in its waters and sold in Bordeaux, from which city it is distant 30 miles and 56 miles from the mouth of the Garonne. With a bad sand bar at the mouth of the harbor, it is only a fit entrance for small vessels of a light draft of water, and even for small vessels it is dangerous to approach in bad weather.
[Coggeshall landed to find Napoleon’s empire on the verge of collapse as the Allied Armies pressed in on France from all sides. Austrian and Russian troops were advancing on Paris and Wellington’s British army was moving up from Spain. For the moment, however, Coggeshall was more concerned about his business difficulties with the Bordeaux merchants to whom his cargo was consigned. They flatly refused to handle it; although after much bickering they did advance him enough money to purchase a small cargo of wine and brandy. Coggeshall’s plan was to send the Porter and her new cargo back to America, while he remained to look after the cotton. He knew that the sooner his ship set sail the better, for detachments of Wellington’s forces were already reported close to Bordeaux.]
In the midst of all my trouble and confusion, I will devote a few moments to relate some of the peculiarities of this part of France. The large tract of country lying between Bayonne and Bordeaux is familiarly called the Landes. It is bounded on the west by the Bay of Biscay and extends about 25 leagues east into France. The face of the country is generally low, flat, sandy and barren. Its forests consist principally of pine or fir trees, and the land is generally miserably cultivated. The peasantry are wretchedly poor and mostly clothed in sheep skins. The Basque is the language of the country, and it is only the upper classes or educated people that speak French.
In the summer season the sands are extremely hot, and in the spring and fall months the country being low is often wet and muddy, which I suppose is the cause of so many of the country people—particularly the peasants and shepherds—walking on stilts, a foot or two above the ground, with a long balance pole to support them and regulate their movements.