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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
On the 11th in the evening, by letters from Bordeaux, I learned that the day before, on the 10th, the town had surrendered by capitulation to a portion of Lord Wellington’s army, that no person had been molested, and that perfect good order was observed throughout the city.
All this appeared very well with respect to Bordeaux, but still I was fearful that the English would come down and take Lateste before I could get to sea. The next day, March 12th, the wind was from the westward and the pilot would not take my vessel to sea. He said that it was impossible to get out, that there was too great a swell on the bar, etc. The next day, the 13th, the weather was clear and the wind fresh at N.N.E. In the morning I prevailed on the pilot to come on board. He told me that the tide would suit at five o’clock in the afternoon, and if there should not be too much sea on the bar at that hour, he would take the vessel out. Accordingly, at four o’clock I requested him to get under weigh and be ready to pass the bar at five. I now found he was unwilling to go out at all.
He said, “Captain, if we should succeed in getting out, it would be impossible to land me.” I then offered him double pilotage, told him I was fearful the English would come down in the morning and make a prize of my vessel, and that I would treble his pilotage, and pledged him my honor that if I waited a week outside, I would land him in safety. At last my patience was exhausted, and I found the more I coaxed and strove to persuade him to go, the more obstinate he became. At length I said, “If you will not go to sea, pilot, just get the schooner under weigh, and go down below the fort and anchor there within the bar.” To this proposition he consented.
While getting under weigh, I went below and put into my pocket a loaded pistol and again returned on deck. We soon got below the fort, and it was five o’clock, precisely the hour he had named as the most suitable to safe out over the bar. I then placed the pistol to his ear and told him to proceed to sea, or he was a dead man, and that if the schooner took the ground his life should pay the forfeit. The poor fellow was terribly frightened and said he would do his best; and thus, in less than fifteen minutes from the time we filled away, we were fairly over and outside of this dreadful bar. I then discharged the pistol and assured the pilot I would do him no harm, and that I would wait a week if it was necessary for good weather to land him in safety. He now appeared more tranquil and composed but could not refrain from talking occasionally of his poor wife and children and seemed to have a lurking fear that I would carry him to America.
I stood off and on during the night and in the morning, March 14th. The wind was light off shore from the eastward. As the sea was smooth I stood close in to the beach and got our boat ready to land the pilot. I gave him several letters to my friends and an order for a considerable sum over and above his regular pilotage, notwithstanding I had compelled him to take my vessel to sea. At eight o’clock in the morning, my second officer with four men took Mr. Pilot on shore. I gave the officer of the boat positive orders to back the boat, stern on to the shore, and let the pilot jump out whenever he could do so with safety. I took a spyglass and soon had the pleasure to see the man land and scamper up the beach.
The boat soon returned and was hoisted on board when we made sail and stood off in a N.W. direction. The wind was light from the eastward and the weather fine and clear. During the night we had not much wind and of course made but little progress. At daylight, March 15th, 1814, saw a large ship on our weather quarter. I soon made her out to be a frigate, distant about two miles. We were now in a very unpleasant position: early in the morning, with a frigate dead to windward. I manoeuvred for some ten or fifteen minutes in hopes of drawing him down to leeward so that I should be able to weather him on one tack or the other. (This was often done at the commencement of the war, with American schooners, for if the pilot boats could succeed in getting the enemy under their lee, they would laugh at their adversary.) This manoeuvre, however, did not succeed. He only kept off about 4 or 6 points, and I have no doubt he thought it impossible for me to elude his grasp. All this time I was losing ground, and the ship not more than two gun shots to windward.
I held a short consultation with my officers on the subject of attempting to get to windward, namely by receiving a broadside, or by running off to leeward. They all thought it best to ply the windward and receive his fire. I stated that we should have to pass him within pistol shot, and the probability was that he would shoot away some of our spars, in which case we should inevitably be captured. I knew the schooner sailed very fast off the wind, and I thought the chance of escape better to run to leeward. I accordingly gave orders to get the square sail and studding-sails all ready to run up at the same moment. The frigate, not dreaming of my running to leeward, was unprepared to chase off the wind, and I should think it was at least five minutes before he had a studding-sail set, so that I gained about a mile at the commencement of the chase.
The wind was light from the E.N.E. and the weather very fine. I ordered holes bored in all the water casks except four and the water pumped into buckets to wet the sails, also to throw overboard sand ballast to lighten the schooner. After this was done we began to draw away from the frigate, so that at noon I had gained eight or ten miles on the chase. At four in the afternoon he was nearly out of sight and appeared like a speck on the water.