‘When the Pickle is refitted send her to me’…..thus wrote Nelson in a dispatch from H.M.S. Victory in July 1805. Nelson’s Pickle was a 72’ topsail schooner with a long, long bowsprit making her around 100’ in overall length. She was fast and weatherly and sailed thousands of miles as courier and spy ship for the fleets blockading French and Spanish ports in the Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Built in Bermuda in the 1790’s as a privateer (and a successful one) she was bought by the Navy in 1800. With a crew of 38 and headroom below of just 4’ she must have been overcrowded, wet and uncomfortable, and desertion was quite common. She was here, there and everywhere, and at the Battle of Trafalgar she stayed out of the firing line, her role being to pick up survivors. These included 150 French sailors who, when heard plotting to take over, were battened down below. What a squash that must have been!
After the Battle and the violent storm that followed, Pickle was commissioned to carry the news back to England. Following 11 eventful days at sea, the Skipper, Lieutenant Lapenotiere was rowed ashore in Falmouth. He hired a post chaise and 19 changes of horse and 30 hours later he arrived at the Admiralty after midnight, where luckily someone was doing overtime. Thus it was 2 weeks after the battle that the news of the victory and the death of Nelson became known in this country. The threat of invasion by Napolean’s army was removed because he no longer had warships to protect his troop transports.
These days, the victory is celebrated by naval officers on or about 21st October as Trafalgar Night and two weeks later by the ‘Senior Rates’ as Pickle Night. The overland route taken by Lapenotiere is known as ‘Trafalgar Way’.
Today’s Pickle is a 72’ topsail schooner with much the same sail-plan and built to much the same lines in St Petersburg in 1995. She has an engine and wheel steering – the original had a tiller. The sails are new but of the same cloth and cut as Nelson’s Navy, and they cost a small fortune. On deck hemp ropes and belaying pins are everywhere and not a winch in sight. There are also eight cannon, one of which dates from the 1790s. Broadsides and salutes using thunder-flashes are fired given the least of excuses – with earplugs provided. Below midships there is ample headroom, a comfortable saloon and reasonable accommodation for nine crew. Further aft there is a chart room and a generous Captain’s cabin with four berths. This Pickle is not a replica but portrays the era, the story, and the romance of sail.
The present owner, Mal Nicholson, bought her off EBay when she was in Gibraltar and near to sinking. She had a major refit in Portugal and is now shipshape and based in Kingston-upon-Hull (or ‘ull’ to the locals). All credit to Mal who now seeks a good way to fund this project for the future. Meanwhile, there is always something that needs attention, and the crew do their best to keep up.
My association began on a damp October night in ‘ull’. Mal recommended I bring a waterproof sleeping bag, and now I know why. On the tide next morning 25th Oct, we set sail on a 650 mile round trip to Portsmouth calling at Harwich, Dover and Eastbourne on the way. Mal wants to develop close relations with the Navy and the purpose of this voyage (at the request of the Navy) was to have his Pickle moored close to HMS Victory on Pickle night. A brilliant occasion to which we were all invited.
Mal’s crew knew Pickle well. There was Ken (vice-captain), Roger (electrics), Harry (navigation), Karl (sails), and Mike (yarns). Also powder monkey Mason who at 14 years old, is over 6ft tall, knows the ropes and displayed great maturity. In addition there was the Navy and the Marines – at various times – Ginge, J-J, Rasher, Jacko, Rocky and Warren. Nicknames all – no one seems to use a given name.
The weather was extraordinarily kind and the wind so cooperative. When we wanted to go South, it was in the North. When we turned West, it went into the South, and our voyage proceeded to plan. Alas no dolphins or whales, but hundreds of wind turbines to navigate around.
We had our ‘pickles’ and I describe just two.
We had our ‘pickles’ and I describe just two. While attempting to set the flying jib on day 1, the upper topsail yard was broken. Mal was very upset. Obviously this had to be repaired before we reached Portsmouth because a topsail schooner without a topsail just would not look right! In Harwich the yard was lowered to the deck and was found to be rotten in part and clearly irreparable. In Dover we went to B&Q and bought lengths of 4×2 and 4×1 timber. These were glued to the 6 metre length needed and next day shaped to the right profile. In Eastbourne the topsail was bent on and the yard hoisted back up – a great team effort.
There was another twist to this yarn. On Sat 28th , we were guests of honour and piped aboard at the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club for their own great fun Pickle night where Nic Lucas was compere and leader of the band. Another club member – Bruce – said he owned a woodland and would cut us a tree. Next day he came to say he had cut down a tree and he needed our help to move it. We piled into his Landrover, got the sapling out of the wood, cut it to length, shaped it somewhat with his bandsaw and carried it on his roof rack back to the ship. Now we carried 3 upper yards – one broken, one B&Q and one with potential.
We had to stay mid channel but one starboard navigation light was not working and in the dark we misjudged the centre, going aground
We pickled again when we left Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour at 0400 on Wed 1st for the last leg to Portsmouth. The channel outside the lock is silted and we knew we had minimal depth but in our favour there was a rising tide. We had to stay mid channel but one starboard navigation light was not working and in the dark we misjudged the centre, going aground on a lee shore close to the harbour entrance. I would have been tempted to try to power off, but this ship is deepest at the stern and would have stuck even faster. Mal was as cool as a cucumber as we waited for the tide, and after a tense 30 minutes or so he reversed off using starboard prop walk to get us back in the channel.
In mid-afternoon that Wednesday we took on a pilot to guide us into Portsmouth Harbour, we fired a six gun salute, and we were escorted to our mooring on Victory Pier, as close as we could get to the Navy’s flagship. We had arrived on schedule ahead of Pickle Night.
We assembled on Sat 4th Nov on Victory’s atmospheric lower gun deck. Mostly RN Warrant Officers, but also Royal Marines in scarlet mess dress, and our crew, and all presided over by Fleet Commodore Admiral Ben Key, 105 people in all to celebrate Pickle night. First off was a generous tot of rum, followed by dinner punctuated by the dispatches from Trafalgar, toasts, speeches, banter galore and shanties. One particular moment sticks in my mind…..Harry our navigator is a retired Navy clearance diver and when introduced as holding the Queen’s Gallantry Medal, there was an instant standing ovation. On our voyage Harry never talked about it.
The voyage back North began at 0830 on Wed 8th Nov with a decent NW breeze. Second Sea Lord Jonathon Woodcock came to see us off and presented Mal with a handsome print of Pickle and Victory sailing together. Having cleared the Outer Spit we dropped off the pilot and set course for Dover having decided to bypass Eastbourne. From 0200 the next morning I had a long and thrilling trick at the helm, charging through the night. It was now blowing 30 plus from the North and despite the proximity of land, it was really quite rough. We were healing to the wind and I couldn’t help eyeing the life-raft and wondering if it would work. We were safely in by 0400, guided to the inner harbour by the pilot launch and amazingly there was Nic again to take our lines.
Next afternoon we were off again to cross the Thames Estuary to Harwich, arriving again around 0400 at Halfpenny Quay. I had the helm from around 0230 and it was difficult to pick out the channel with a background of the bright lights on Felixstowe Docks, particularly as the GPS was temporarily u/s and the steering hydraulics were malfunctioning.
On Sat 11/11 we set off up the River Stour with full sail to lie off the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook at 11/11/11. We were there to fire a salute and cast a wreath in a joint act of remembrance with the school who were lined up on the parade ground. It all went like clockwork and when asked afterwards how we had managed to hold station with all sail set, we had to admit we had come to a gentle halt in the mud!
There followed a wonderful Trafalgar Night dinner at the school with around 130 final year students. Again the dispatches, the toasts, the shanties and a stirring speech by Admiral John Lippiett, recently retired from the Mary Rose project.
On Sunday morning Max turned up and together we said sad farewell to Mal and his crew, and Rasher and Ginge as Pickle lay trapped on the quay by a very strong onshore wind. We had worked and played together for nearly three weeks and a strong bond had developed.
We went back to the school for ‘Divisions’ and Chapel and we were mightily impressed. All 750 11/18 year olds were on parade with a 40 strong guard of honour and a 70 piece marching band, and the Admiral taking the salute. In the chapel afterwards the 1000 strong congregation raised the roof. We wished one of our grandchildren might go there!
…..and so back to Lymington in the comfort of a car.
Jeremy Vines 24/11/17