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For want of a pilot…

On this day in 1803 the 6th rate frigate armed en flute HMS Determinée struck broadside on a sunken rock near Noirmont Point on the western side of St. Aubin Bay in the Jersey Channel Islands and was immediately bilged (read: “big giant hole in bottom”). In less than three minutes the height of water inside the ship was level with the surface of the sea and within fifteen minutes the ship was nearly under water.

With the ship sinking so quickly and a strong tide running Determinée’s captain, Alexander Becher, ordered the anchors dropped so the vessel wouldn’t drift into deeper water. He also ordered the sailors out the rigging (they were trying to furl the sails) thinking their added weight might upset the position of the ship and ordered them to start launching the ship’s boats.

At the time, the ship was transporting the 81st Regiment of Foot (Loyal Lincoln Volunteers) from Spithead to Jersey so not only were their soldiers aboard but some of their wives and children as well. As you can imagine, with women and children aboard a panic ensued despite the crew’s efforts to keep everyone calm. As the boats were launched there was a mad rush to get into them which may have caused the unstable Determinée to roll over onto its side. As the ship rolled Captain Becher and many others were thrown into the water. The captain scrambled back on board the sinking vessel and into its rigging and from there directed the rescue efforts.

The officers remained on board the wreck for about three-and-a-half hours and assisted by boats from the HMS Aurora and HMS Camilla made sure that everyone they could find was taken from the wreck.

Despite everyone’s efforts, the quick sinking and the panic led to the loss of nineteen people (although some sources indicate forty people were lost). Becher stated that “a Midshipman and one seaman belonging to the ship, and 10 soldiers, 2 women and 3 children of the 81st regiment and a woman and child of the Invalids” were lost.

Interestingly, the main contributing factor to the wreck was Captain Becher’s inability to obtain a pilot for the voyage. He asked twice while in Spithead, tried again at Cowes and Yarmouth (he even sent an officer ashore to try and obtain assistance). As the two vessels sailed through the Great Russell Channel off Guernsey they constantly flew the signal for a pilot and fired many guns to draw attention to the signal but no pilot ever appeared. Not having any other option and with the weather being fine, Becher decided to try and enter the port by following in the HMS Aurora’s wake. Both he and the master felt that as long as they paid strict attention to Aurora’s motions and duplicated them the ship would be safe. Sadly, this was not the case.

Captain Becher and his officers were court martialed but acquitted as the court agreed that the captain had tried “every means in his power to obtain a pilot for Jersey both before he sailed from Spithead, and during the voyage without effect.”

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