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The loss of HMS Crescent

HMS Crescent was a 36-gun Flora class frigate launched in 1784. She was one of a new breed armed with a main battery of 18 pounder cannons, built to respond to the heavier French and Spanish warships that the Royal Navy encountered during the American War of Independence. She had an active career, serving first on blockade duty in the Channel, and later in the West Indies. Her most celebrated battle came in 1794, when she was commanded by Captain James Saumarez, a Channel Islander and noted fighting captain who would go on to be one of Nelson’s Band of Brothers. Under his command, the Crescent fought a single-ship action off the coast of Normandy against the equal-sized French frigate Reunion. The Crescent defeated and captured her opponent, and Saumarez was rewarded with a knighthood. 


In 1808 the Crescent was commanded by Captain John Temple and was sent to join the Royal Navy’s Baltic Fleet. She left Great Yarmouth in December to cross the North Sea, but as she approached the Skagerrak, the funnel of water that lies at the mouth of the Baltic, the weather began to deteriorate.  A gale blew up from the west and the sea became very rough. As the short winter day came to an end, the crew glimpsed the rocky coast of Norway to the north and that of Denmark to the south.


Captain Temple had been allocated two experienced Baltic pilots, who advised him that if the Crescent was to hove to (that is turn bow on to the storm) under reefed topsails, she would slowly be pushed into the Skagerrak by the wind. Here, the pilots told him, there was plenty of sea room. When morning came, the weather would improve, and the ship would be in the right position to sail into the Baltic. Temple followed this advice, but stationed reliable hands in the bow to take regular soundings of the depth of water beneath the ship.


Initially the frigate was in twenty-five fathoms (150 feet), which was more than adequate, but then the depth began to steadily reduce. When it reached thirteen fathoms, Temple queried the situation with the pilots, who assured him that all was well. By now the night was so black that nothing could be seen, and the gale was getting ever stronger. The next sounding recorded ten fathoms, but before another cast could be taken the Crescent’s hull grounded on a reef.


Captain Temple and his officers now sprang into action. A combination of the huge sea beating on the stricken ship and the reefed topsail was now canting the frigate dangerously over, so he sent his topmen aloft to take in sail. The night was still so dark little could be made out, but he launched one of his ship’s boats to sound around the Crescent and find out more about her position. When it returned it reported that all the water to the east of them was full of shoals and reefs, and that the gale combined with a strong easterly current was pushing the ship deeper into trouble.


Temple decided that the only way to save the ship was to haul her off the reef and into deeper water using the ship’s anchor. This was lowered into the Crescent’s longboat, the only one big enough to take its weight, and the boat crew set off towards the west, while those onboard paid out the anchor cable. But they were trying to make progress into the teeth of both the gale and the current, and were burdened by the huge weight of the anchor. The other ship’s boats were then launched too, and helped to tow the longboat. Inch by inch they clawed their way through mountainous seas, until they were too exhausted to make further progress. They dropped the anchor and returned to the ship.


Meanwhile, the situation was deteriorating on board. The damaged hull was leaking badly, with each successive wave battering her further. Soon water was flooding in at a faster rate than the pumps could handle. To lighten her, Temple set the remaining crew to work throwing her shot and guns over the side. This failed to improve matters, so he ordered her heavier provisions to follow. When the boats returned, he brought most of their crews onboard and manned the capstans to try and pull her into deeper water to prevent her hull sustaining more damage. But by now she was lying so heavily on the reef that the colossal effort of her crew only succeeded in breaking the anchor cable.


The Crescent was in desperate trouble. The gale had grown even stronger, and the huge waves it was generating were breaking over her. The windage of even her bare masts threatened to roll her over, so Temple ordered them cut away. Then the wind grew so strong that her ship’s boats, which where still in the water, broke free. They were driven away, together with the boat handlers left onboard, towards the coast of Denmark somewhere to the east. One boat was wrecked and those onboard drowned, but the others miraculously made it to shore. However, for the large number of exhausted men left on board, the boats had represented their only means of escape.


At dawn the storm showed little sign of moderating and the hull of the frigate was starting to break up. On the positive side, Temple could now see the coast of Denmark a few miles away. He ordered the men fed with what dry provisions had survived the night, and then set about building rafts to save his men. The first one was ready by early afternoon, loaded with the weakest members of the crew, and launched under the command of the ship’s marine lieutenant. Seven of those on board were washed off and drowned, but the remainder made it to the shore. With their ship disintegrating around them, the men work feverishly on rafts, but only one more was launched. After that the Crescent broke up, and Captain Temple, the two pilots and the two hundred crew still on board were all drowned. Of her compliment of two hundred and eighty only sixty survived.


A court of enquiry was held into the loss of the Crescent when her surviving officers returned home. While it praised the efforts of her captain and crew to save their ship, its verdict was damning about the two pilots. “The loss of the Crescent proceeded from the ignorance and neglect of the pilots,” it stated, going on to observe that the Crescent should never have been left to drift into the Skagerrak on a black night in a storm, but should have either tacked to the northward, away from the dangerous lee shore or dropped anchor and waited for the storm to blow over. It was a sad end for such a fine ship.


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