The Shipwreck

In late October of 1707, Sir Cloudesley Shovel, Rear Admiral of the Blue, led the Mediterranean fleet home from Gibraltar and ,through faulty reckoning, to a major disaster in which 2000 lives were lost on the Gilstone Ledges. The Poet Laureate describes it this way:

Fog covered all the great Fleet homeward bound,
No sights for days, all groping up by sound,
And, finding soundings, all were well aware
How thick with hidden Death those waters were.
So, in no gleam of any light, they lay
With topsails furled, that grim October day,
With senses strained to learn what lay ahead,
But nothing bringing knowledge save the lead,
And this, unsurely, slowly brought to hand
Could but repeat that they were nearing land.
There the divisions of the power heaved,
In the seas’ menace, while the tackles grieved,
The timbers cried their culminating creak,
And great drops dripped on men afraid to speak,
The while they listened, bell by weary bell,
For sight or sound of something that would tell.
But no sign came, save ship sign dim or clear
From ship to ship, all threatened and all near.
Where were they, then? All wondered, but none knew
What Death lay hidden, nor how near it drew,
But all the squadron’s masters knew at least
A seaman’s graveyard lay to north and east
Too near for quiet and too grim to chance,
The Scilly Isles, those rocks of old romance.
And yet, no sound of breakers could be heard
Where Death on sentry challenged for the Word.
No strike of clock, or church bell from the shore,
Just fog, astern, alongside, and afore.
And sometimes timing cries, as seamen hauled,
Or boatswains’ pipes, or hails, or orders called.
Such dangers as they knew that autumn day
Came from themselves, slow-heaving, without way.
For sometimes, with wild cries and lantern flash,
Ships would heave near to some expected crash,
And crews make tumult, bells and drums and guns,
Blinding the comess’ eyes with malisons,
Till, dripping in slow heave, with creak of strain,
The threat withdrew into the fog again.
So the day passed, until a livelier breath
Lifted the darkness of that fog of Death,
And there, ahead, afar, a welcome sight,
Seen, recognized by all, St. Agnes’ light.
Surety at last: the flag, by guns and hail,
Bade the Fleet eastward under easy sail.
So, with a creaking of great gear, they turned
And fog recovered where the light had burned,
But it had beaconed that the course was clear,
So mainsails filled and hearts abandoned fear.
But forty miles, by midnight at the most,
And then Land’s End, and then the Cornish Coast,
The Lizard before dawn, and then, ahead,
The distant Start, the Devon plowland red.
Men of the forenoon watch could surely say,
“We’ll sight the Rame Head before close of day.”
And some, more bold, would be by wager bound
The Fleet would pass next night in Plymouth Sound,
Landlocked, at ease, in station, snugly moored,
The sails furled, the yards squared, the guns secured,
And church chimes telling how the hours sped.
Thus in the night those users of the sea
Talked in their prison of their being free,
Knowing the while that every lift and ‘scend
Brought them a ship’s length nearer to Land’s End.
Not knowing then that unseen currents streamed
Setting them ever north of what they deemed.
A seaman’s graveyard hedges England’s shores,
And Fortune rules, and Death has many doors.
All the great Fleet the starless midnight strode,
Crushing the blackness into gleams that glowed,
Seeing at whiles (when aught they might discern)
A space ahead, the Admiral’s lanterns burn,
Where like sea monsters gleaming at the gorge,
The Association led, with the St. George.
Who shall be sure what wind they had, what speed,
What sight or sound of warning to take heed,
What flash or roar of breakers, or intense
Shocking fierce pang of danger touching sense?
Suddenly, dead ahead, the seamen saw
Rocks among billows in a hell of awe.
No time for backing yards or changing helm,
Time but to signal lest the Fleet o’erwhelm,
So lights, flares, guns, despite the terror, blazed.
The Association struck, the St. George grazed.
Three minutes made the flagship broken plank,
Within four minutes of the crash she sank.
The men in the St. George, themselves swept clear,
Saw suddenly her lanterns disappear.
The Eagle and the Romney, following close,
Struck, staved, and sundered whence they never rose.
The Firebrand went down, and but one man
Of these lost ships was saved; the Royal Anne
Struck and broke clear, her quarter railings gone.
The Phoenix struck, with loss, but floated on.
Thus in five minutes of blind death and scare
Two thousand seamen ceased to breathe the air
And drifted for the gulls or sank below
To unlit silence where the congers go.
A quarter of the Fleet gone, but the rest
Saved as Fate willed by being further west
Or by the lucky cannon that gave guide
Through the last conscious act of those who died,
Men in the flagship, who from top or deck
Fired at once to save the Fleet from wreck,
And then, an instant later, felt the ship
Collapsing, fling salt death upon their lip,
And one wild instant’s terror bringing peace.
One seaman only did the sea release
From sudden death when the two thousand drowned.
Three days thereafter he was seen and found
Alive, upon Hellweather Rock, and saved.
Thus, the returning battleships were staved
Upon the Bishops and the Gilstones grim
Where now the seaman’s beacons welcome him,
The first light seen, the last light dropped astern
In hopeful sailing or in glad return.