Tenacious: the hunt for Napoleon’s fleet

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A regular feature looking back on each of the Kydd titles – with story background, research highlights, writing challenges and more – plus a chance to win a copy of the book!

And thank you for all your kind comments on the post about my fifth book, QUARTERDECK.

The sixth book in the series is TENACIOUS. Kydd is in Halifax enjoying the recognition and favour of his fellow officers when his ship Tenacious is summoned to join Nelson’s taskforce on an urgent reconnaissance mission.

One reviewer said of this book:

    ‘More sea adventures of Thomas Kydd, this time meeting Horatio Nelson and taking part in the cataclysmic Battle of the Nile, where an outgunned British fleet takes on the might of ascendant France off the coast of Egypt in a blazing, history-changing, battle. The historical research is flawless, the battle scenes are horrific, Kydd’s efforts to become a gentleman are heart-rending, and the unending philosophical struggles of Nicholas Renzi are capped by a mortal sickness. I am totally hooked on this delightful series. It’s a 5!’

(I rather liked that review…)

The Battle of the Nile

The Battle of the Nile

I’m sometimes asked had my original conception of Tom and Renzi altered much by the time I’d got the first half dozen or so books completed.
Yes, in some ways it had. Probably the main change was in the relationship between Kydd and Renzi. At first I thought Renzi would just be a useful foil to Kydd and as a vehicle for passing on elements of refinement on Kydd’s road to becoming a gentleman – but as successive books were written Renzi took on a new importance. Not only did he become a pivotal character in his own right but he needed Kydd as much as Kydd needed him.

The historical backdrop

In terms of material for TENACIOUS I was spoiled for choice. It was a time of titanic global stakes. If the Nile or Acre had been lost we would have seen Napoleon dominating a world which would have been very different today. And it was a time of deeds so incredible that they may seem like fantasy but are not – Nelson personally saving the king and queen of Naples at cutlass point, Minorca taken without the loss of a single man – and above all, the astonishing but little-known fact that Napoleon was first defeated on land not by a great army but a rag-tag bunch of sailors commanded by a maverick Royal Navy captain.


One of the highlights of my location research was Minorca. The charming island boasts a magnificent harbour, one of the finest in the world – nearly four miles long and a maximum width of close to half a mile.

The British occupied Minorca at three different periods in history, the last being from 1798 to 1802. It was interesting to compare it to Gibraltar, which admittedly was very strategic, being at the mouth of the Mediterranean, but because the Rock stuns the winds, it was not a very good harbour for a fleet. Minorca, on the other hand, was ­– and is – a fine sheltered harbour, certainly more in the geographic centre of things in the eighteenth century.


Kathy atop Vesuvius

Kathy atop Vesuvius

Ah, Naples. Glorious Naples! How I would have loved to have been there when Nelson sailed in to the magnificent bay with his battered ship and two other vessels of his squadron to be greeted by hundreds of boats full of joyous passengers – and the king of Naples in the royal barge. The feting of the heroes of the Nile didn’t stop there. There were parties – and a grand reception at which Emma Hamilton performed her famous ‘attitudes’. It’s not known when Emma and Nelson first became actual lovers, but it’s clear that Naples was a turning point for them…

Emma Hamilton

Emma Hamilton

In the book I decided to have Sir William Hamilton, a classical scholar and amateur scientist of renown, invite Kydd and Renzi to join him on a visit to Herculaneum, promising to take in Vesuvius on the way. One hot morning Kathy and I followed in their footsteps up to the fabled volcano and peered through sulphurous mists down into the hellish depths of the crater.

Local research

Well, closer to home, the Admiralty Hydrographic Office at Taunton, Somerset, proved most helpful allowing me access to charts of time and one of the actual maps used in the siege. I cherish maps and charts and could have spent the whole day there!

The book’s dedication

It was one of those happy coincidences that TENACIOUS was published in 2005, the year of the bicentenary celebrations of Nelson’s great victory of Trafalgar. I knew there could only be one dedication for my book:

    ‘There is but one Nelson.’ –Lord St Vincent

When I began the Kydd series, as I plotted out the general content of each book, I knew my central character Thomas Kydd would meet Nelson at some time. No writer in this genre can tell of the stirring events in the great age of fighting sail without being aware of Nelson at the centre. But it was not Trafalgar that I selected for this first meeting; it was at the Battle of the Nile – in my mind Nelson’s finest hour.

In the course of my research for this book my admiration for Nelson – which was already considerable – increased immeasurably. He was undoubtedly a true genius as a leader of men, but he also had a great humanity and such respect for the lower deck that he insisted on adding a pair of common seamen to his knightly coat of arms.

For a chance to win a signed hardback of TENACIOUS just add a comment below. The winner will be picked at random on April 30.

BookPick: The Gathering Storm

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This year sees the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. Many excellent books are being published on various aspects of this terrible conflict and from time to time I’ll highlight some of these in BookPick, beginning with The Gathering Storm.

The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm

The term ‘the phony war’ is often applied to the first months of the Second World War, suggesting inaction or passivity. That may have been the perception of the war on land, but at sea it was very different. Geirr Haarr’s book is a compelling survey of the fierce naval struggles from 1939 up to the invasion of the Norway in April 1940.
Haarr begins his book with the sinking of the German fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919 and then covers the rebuilding of the Kriegsmarine and parallel developments in the Royal Navy, and summarises relevant advances in European navies. The book then addresses the actions at sea starting with the fall of Poland and the sinking of Courageous, the German mining of the British East Coast, the Northern Patrol, the last fight of Rawalpindi, small ship operations in the North Sea and German Bight and the Altmark incident are all covered. German surface raiders and the early stages of the submarine war in the Atlantic are also touched on.

As with his previous books, Geirr Haarr has researched extensively in German, British, and other archives, and this work paints a balanced and detailed picture of this significant period of the war when the opposing naval forces were adapting to a form of warfare quite different to that experienced in WWI.

Published by Seaforth, and with excellent photographs and maps, this book has been hailed as the definitive work on the subject.

‘When I get homesick I read these novels’

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The April Reader of the Month is Rod Redden, a Canadian currently living and working in Japan. Rod recently completed a master’s degree. One of his assignments was on a specific linguistic situation. He chose the prevalence of army and naval terms in the Atlantic region of Canada – and one of the works he found particularly useful was Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany! A keen military re-enactor, Rod sailed in HMS Rose at both the Burning of Fairfield Connecticut in 1989 and the 250th anniversary of the 1745 siege of Louisbourg, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in the summer of 1995.

    Over to Rod:
Rod’s family at the Sailors’ Monument, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

Rod’s family at the Sailors’ Monument, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

My mum found a copy of TENACIOUS at a Chapters bookstore. She noted that the novel began in Halifax, during the 18th century and thought I might find it interesting. Over time, and with the help of internet shopping, I’ve been able to buy the whole series.

I ended up in Japan in 1999 after teaching in South Korea. I had studied East Asian and South East Asian history and wanted the chance to live and work in one of these regions. I had planned on joining my local reserve army regiment, to follow what my father did, but I failed the medical. I found out that you could teach English overseas if you had a bachelor’s degree. I first went to Iwate prefecture, the area which was hit by the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami. I then moved down to Narita, in Chiba prefecture, then over to Funabashi, all close to Tokyo. I met my wife and we married in Nova Scotia but came back to Japan for work, where we lived in Toyama prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast.

My favorite title is QUARTERDECK, as most of the novel takes place in the Maritime provinces of Canada, which is where I’m from. As a student, I used to go to York Redoubt and Point Pleasant Park. I’d also walk amongst the ruins of the artillery batteries in the park to find a quiet place to study.

Rod enjoys visiting the Japanese sail training ship Kaiwu Maru

Rod enjoys visiting the Japanese sail training ship Kaiwu Maru

One of the characters I like in the Kydd series is Stirk, due to his trade on the ship as one of the master gunners. As a university student, I worked at the Halifax Citadel National Historic site as a member of the Royal Artillery. When Stirk is getting on his gunnery skills, I understand it well, as this is something I did every summer – loading muzzle-loading smoothbore guns, laying, firing and maintaining them is what we were required to do. Stirk also is a down to earth fellow, like many of the people back in my home region of the Musquodoboit valley.

The Kydd series has everything going for it. Great characters, a wonderful plot, excellent background. When I get homesick, I read these novels to take me back to the places I have been, or would like to go to.

Would you like to be a candidate for Reader of the Month? Just get in touch with a few sentences about your background and why you enjoy the Kydd series. Each published Reader of the Month will receive a little maritime memento

Salute to John Chancellor, Maritime Painter

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John Chancellor

John Chancellor

To my mind John Chancellor ranks with the finest maritime painters who’ve ever lived. I regret that he’s not as well known as he deserves to be but a Retrospective Exhibition later this month in the Devon town of Brixham should go some way to putting that right. It’s being held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death, sadly at the relatively young age of 59.

Born in Portugal, Chancellor showed a strong talent for drawing as a child and won various awards.

Struck with a burning desire to work on boats he ran away to sea when he was 14 but after several days ‘awol’, was persuaded to return home.

When war broke out he joined the merchant navy as an apprentice officer, aged 16. He then spent thirty years at sea working on all kinds of vessels all around the world.

When John swallowed the anchor he and his wife converted an old sailing barge to make it their home. All four of his children were born and raised on the barge for part of their childhood. They have delightful memories of this time: lopsided birthday cakes when the barge settled awkwardly on a mud berth; the bath on top of a water tank capable of holding all four children and needing a ladder to get into it…

Chancellor had great artistic ability but he also brought an intimate knowledge of the sea and sailing ships to his paintings. As well as the fighting vessels of Nelson’s age he took great delight in bringing to life the trading and fishing vessels under sail of more recent times.

His paintings took hundreds of hours to produce, such was his devotion to research and maritime accuracy. He knew every aspect of the sea and weather conditions – the colour of the sky at any particular time of day and its reflection on the surface of the water; the size of a swell; the type of cloud cover etc.

Victory in Pursuit of Nelson

Victory in Pursuit of Nelson

I have a print of his magnificent Victory in Pursuit of Nelson hanging over the fireplace in my living room. It just seems so right there, and I must admit I have to stand with legs firmly apart when I look at it, so realistic is the feeling that I’m back at sea!

You can look at this painting as a splendid rendition of a proud ship at sea, or you can see it as Chancellor’s frozen moment in time – 25 May, 1803, 3pm. The wind is W by S, 4‑5; she’s steering S by W, making 6‑7 knots. There’s a swell from W by N due to the previous days being dominated by N to NW winds.

One of the compelling aspects about Chancellor’s paintings is the meticulous attention to detail. Come up very close to Victory in Pursuit of Nelson and you’ll even see a man using the heads! And the tracery of rigging has exactly the right sort of tension curve to be expected at that precise point of the roll.

A Perfect Hurricane

A Perfect Hurricane

Among the limited edition prints in the upcoming Retrospective will be A Perfect Hurricane, painted in 1974 – and one of my favourites.

The painting tells a story. The 20-gun La Prompte, on passage to Bermuda for stores, captured a French schooner, Courier du Cap and after taking all her people prisoner and putting a prize crew aboard, both vessels continued towards Bermuda.

Two days later, the wind began to freshen and by midnight was blowing a full gale. The following morning conditions had worsened and La Prompte sent down her fore and main topgallant yards and masts.

The prize ship hoisted a distress signal; she had sprung a leak. A severe gale was now from the ESE and with a heavy sea running there was little hope of taking the men off her.

The weather continued to deteriorate into the morning and later that day the prize ship went down with all hands. Despite the conditions, La Prompte remained in the area, but she was powerless to get to windward to search for any survivors.

At 5pm a hurricane struck. The storm mizzen staysail blew to pieces and although her rig was snugged down, with no topgallant masts or yards aloft and not a stick of canvas set, she was held down practically on her beam ends by the sheer weight of wind in her rigging. Her situation was desperate; she was making water and would soon capsize. The helm was put hard up and an attempt was made to set the storm fore-staysail to get her before the wind, but it blew to shreds. The fore-yards were then trimmed and the foresail loosed, but it burst into a thousand ribbons and the ship still lay beam on, hove down by the wind.

In a last-ditch and daring piece of seamanship her captain ordered the mizzenmast to be felled. This reduced the windage aft, and as the ship drifted to leeward of the wreckage, the remaining cordage still attached helped to tug her stern to windward like a sea anchor.

This is the moment of the painting.

Day of the Men

Day of the Men

Another print in the exhibition that I am drawn to is Day of the Men. The way Chancellor has captured the light gives the work an almost ethereal quality. It’s mid morning and a gentle north-westerly breeze is blowing. The Grand Bank barquentines are getting underway from St Malo for the fishing grounds off Canada. As they get underway many local small craft sail out to bid them farewell. Ahead of them is the long voyage across the Atlantic and many months of arduous and hazardous fishing for cod in the little dories stacked on deck.

Chancellor drew on his childhood memories for this painting. As a very young boy living on the north bank of the Tagus, he witnessed the spectacle of a huge fleet of schooners and square riggers setting sail to fish the Grand Banks.

As well as limited edition prints, paintings and drawings, the exhibition will have on show memorabilia relating to personal aspects of John Chancellor’s life. The venue: Brixham Town Hall, Bolton Cross, Brixham, Devon TQ5 8TA. Saturday 19 to Monday 21. Opening hours – 10 am to 8 pm Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm on Monday. Entry is free.
John Chancellor prints
Two books have been published on Chancellor’s works. Now out of print, they can often be sourced via the internet however.
John Chancellor’s Classic Maritime Paintings
The Maritime Paintings of John Chancellor

Ebooks to Go: The Kydd Collection

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When I first started writing the Kydd series, the story of one man’s journey from pressed man to admiral in the Great Age of Fighting Sail, there were few ebooks around – now they’re rivalling physical books in terms of sales and popularity!

The Kydd Ebook Collection, Bundle 1

The Kydd Ebook Collection
Bundle 1

One of the things I’ve discovered about publishing since becoming an author is that this industry never rests on its laurels and is continually finding new ways to serve readers.

All my Kydd titles are available as ebooks around the world in various formats – kindle, epub, iBooks etc. and it is a great pleasure for me to announce the launch today of the first of my UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton’s Kydd Collection Ebook Bundles. This comprises the first three books – Kydd, Artemis and Seaflower.


Thomas Paine Kydd, a young wig-maker from Guildford, is seized by the press gang, to be a part of the crew of the 98-gun line-of-battle ship Royal William. The ship sails immediately and Kydd has to learn the harsh realities of shipboard life fast.


Now a true Jack Tar, Kydd sails into Portsmouth Harbour and a hero’s welcome after a ferocious battle against the French. However his jubilation is cut short when a family matter threatens to take him from the life he has grown to love.


It is two years since Thomas Kydd was spirited away in the night to serve his country aboard the old line-of-battle ship Duke William. Now, he and and the other members of the ill-fated Artemis are shipwrecked sailors, back in London waiting to be summoned as court martial witnesses.

Get the Kydd Collection 1 on Amazon

    Bundle 2 – Mutiny, Quarterdeck and Tenacious will be published on April 10
    Bundle 3 – Command, The Admiral’s Daughter and Treachery on April 17
    Bundle 4 – Invasion, Victory and Conquest on April 24

Published in the US by McBooks Press as widely available single title ebooks.
The first nine titles of the Kydd series in Japanese are available as ebooks.
NB: Treachery was published as The Privateer’s Revenge in the US

The Restoration of the Admiral

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Knowing of my love for traditional wooden boats my father-in-law recently sent me a fascinating little volume edited by Graeme Broxam about the history, recovery and restoration of Admiral, Tasmania’s (possibly Australia’s) oldest commercial boat, now returned to fully operational condition. Her career, which has spanned 149 years as a waterman’s boat, steam launch, fishing boat and yacht, sheds light not only on Australia’s maritime past, but also on the enterprise of emancipated convicts in the early days of that new nation. With kind permission of Graeme, here are some of the highlights of that story…

Admiral was built by Thomas Morland in 1865 for Charles Dillon as a waterman’s boat to ferry sightseers and picnickers around Hobart’s harbour and for general ferry work. Over the years Dillon, a former convict who had been transported to Van Diemens Land in 1839, built up a fleet of waterman’s boats.

Admiral off North Bruny Island.   (c) Michael Bird

Admiral off North Bruny Island.
(c) Michael Bird

A local newspaper report in August 1865 waxed lyrical about Admiral:
‘A very beautiful new excursion boat has just been completed by Mr Morland to the order of Mr Charles Dillon and will be brought round to the wharf in a few days. The boat is intended for picnic parties during the coming season and is constructed to pull eight oars. She is a perfect model of form, and her appointments are furnished in a style which will excel any boat of the kind on the river…’

Admiral was much in demand on important occasions, ferrying governors of Van Diemen’s Land and others. At Tasmania’s first Royal Visit, the Duke of Edinburgh in January 1868, Admiral was part of the torchlight procession greeting the duke and the flotilla at the Hobart Regatta two days later. She conveyed a group of dignitaries out to visit the US warship Swatara in October 1875.

Dillon died in 1907. Details of Admiral’s career post-Dillon are fragmentary. The oral history states that Admiral became the fishing boat Myra in the early 1900s. Around the late 1960s Myra was sold and renamed Nuilla, a Tasmanian aboriginal name for crayfish. By the late 1970s Nuilla was a very old and tired boat and came perilously close to being lost for good when new owners decided to convert her into a clipper-bowed yacht. Abandoned when the project was found to be beyond their skill, the vessel was stripped and the engine taken out. However, she was sold to new owners who rebuilt her as a gaff-rigged cutter yacht, renamed Myra, and was sold in good working order to a NSW owner around 1986.

Hobart, nineteenth century

Hobart, nineteenth century

Once again Myra fell upon hard times, after sinking in Sydney Harbour after work invaded her centre-case. After several years of inactivity laid up on the hard in a boatyard on Mitchell Island in New South Wales, in 2006 she was discovered in a sorry state, and on the verge of being burned once more, by friends of retired Tasmanian fisherman of Bern Cuthbertson. The boat was freighted from Sydney back to Tasmania in 2007 and restoration began in an apple shed in the Huon Valley by a group of dedicated volunteers, the Admiral Restoration Group.

Work began on stripping her back to the basic hull structure of the original vessel. Decks and beams were removed and six feet off her stern bringing her back to the original length of 28’ 6”. Materials were recycled as much as possible. Copper nails were removed and straightened and then used in the reconstruction. Fortunately 80% of her original planking was saved, having been removed and restored.
The keel, which was blue gum, was rotten and had to be replaced with celery top pine. The rudder, tiller and oars were all made from scratch and gudgeons, pintles and rowlocks were newly cast from templates created using historical information.

On 21 November 2009, at Huonville, Admiral re-entered the water for the first time in the best part of a decade. A test row showed she was fit for a voyage to Hobart and she triumphantly returned to Waterman’s Dock on 5 December 2009 after a lapse of over a century, fittingly carrying the Governor of Tasmania.

She is now a popular attraction at boat shows and exhibitions, and a tribute to the gallant band of volunteers who restored her.

Admiral’s Timeline

    1865 Admiral launched
    1888 Admiral converted into a steam launch
    1896 Admiral extensively modified, sides raised and new counter stern
    1970 Myra renamed Nuilla
    1981 Nuilla restored as yacht Myra after narrowly escaping demolition
    1986 Myra as yacht sold to Sydney owner, derelict by 2000
    2009 Admiral, ex Myra restored to seaworthy condition

Van Diemen’s Land became Tasmania in 1855.
Admiral. The History, Recovery and Restoration of Tasmania’s Oldest Commercial Vessel, Navarine Publishing. ISBN 978 0 9751331 6 3

Challenges of Translation

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The Kydd books have been translated into a number of languages around the world. This month the Japanese edition of TREACHERY is published and Yoko Ohmori, translator of the Kydd books into Japanese, shares some of her thoughts. As well as TREACHERY, Yoko has translated the first eight titles and Kathy and I had the pleasure of meeting her a couple of years back when she came to the UK.

Yoko Ohmori lecturing on the age of fighting sail

Yoko Ohmori lecturing on the age of fighting sail

A keen traveller, Yoko came to England as she wanted to visit places familiar to Kydd, such as Guildford, Portsmouth and Plymouth.

Yoko was born in Hakodate, a port town in northern Japan. Her grand-father was a dealer in marine products and her father worked for a sea food company. She says she has loved the sea and ships from early childhood.

After graduating in English literature at Yokohama University Yoko joined a publishing company and also studied translation. She met the translator of Forester’s books and as soon as she read Mr Midshipman Hornblower she was hooked on fiction of the great age of sail!

After that, Yoko read whatever books she could find in the genre – then went to sea herself on a number of occasions – in a square rigger across the Pacific in a voyage lasting three and a half months; around the islands of Guam and Saipan; and the Arctic Ocean.

She says that of Julian’s books she has translated so far her favourite is ARTEMIS because she enjoyed the voyage around the world and the challenges of the sea.

Yoko describes process of translating a Kydd book into Japanese:-

‘At first I read through the whole book without consulting any dictionary or taking notes. This is to catch the main stream of the story and the author’s thrust. Then I begin to translate page by page. In this stage I use dictionaries if required. While I am translating I make notes about all the characters, ships, places etc. I also check my notebooks of other volumes to find the tone of the conversations of each character. I am very careful to translate the speech patterns consistently. Then there are the new characters. Japanese has many words for “I” and “you” – I must choose which ‘I’ to use for each character.

The Japanese edition of Treachery

The Japanese edition of TREACHERY

At the same time I look over books and reference material written in English or Japanese about the ships, places, histories, real characters, drink, food, clothes, and so on that appear in the particular volume I am translating.

It takes about 4 or 5 months to translate whole a book, and then I check and polish the manuscript and send it to my editor.

After that I check the galley proof twice and answer and questions my editor may have.

There’s also an afterword to write. Many Japanese read a translator’s afterword first in bookstores before deciding to buy the book. In the case of the Kydd series, I include a very short outline of the previous volume. And then I describe when and where this volume begins. Most Japanese readers don’t know the history of England and Europe, so I explain historical events which relate the story of that volume of Kydd. I also I give the readers information about the places that appear in that volume, such as the Channel Islands in case of TREACHERY. The most important thing in my afterword is that I must not tell the readers the story of the book but make them want to read it!’

Just as another example of some of the challenges Yoko faces:

‘We Japanese love the moon. We have names for each phase of moon so in the Kydd books I have to be aware of the precise phase of the moon when it is mentioned.
In Japanese, the moon is described by one of these: tuki, zuki or Getu – plus a qualifier
We thus have –

    new moon: saku-zuki (saku means new born)
    three days moon: mika-zuki (crescent moon)
    right half moon: jyogen-no-tuki (bow-moon)
    full moon: mangetu (waxing moon)
    left half moon: kagen-no-tuki (bow-moon) jyogen means upper, kagen means lower.
    Chushu-no-meigetu is what you call the harvest moon.

And there are many more descriptions of the moon in Japanese…’

The Kydd series is published in Japan by Hayakawa and is available in paperback and ebook formats.

Team Stockwin on Air Tomorrow!

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Team Stockwin!

Team Stockwin!

Recently, I received an email from a gentleman in Tennessee called Joe Young.

    Mr. Stockwin, I’m delighted to have found your work. My wife picked up a copy of Kydd in Nashville for my birthday. I have run up the rat-lines with Hornblower, Aubrey, Bolitho – and my now new mate Kydd.

He closed with:

    I own a couple of radio stations here and I would love to do an interview with you.

So, a mutually agreed time was set up and Kathy and I had a delightful half hour or so chatting with Joe about my books and what inspired me to write about the age of fighting sail.

The twenty-three minute interview will be broadcast tomorrow, 9:05 CST, March 19 on WYTM-FM 105.5 : Streaming

If you miss the live broadcast you’ll be able to catch it via a link on my Facebook page from March 20.

Ask BigJules: Rates and Ranks at Sea

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I’ve had questions from a number of readers recently asking about the different rates and ranks in Kydd’s day, so herewith a ready reference.

Midshipman: apprentice officer

Midshipman: apprentice officer

In the Georgian Navy the main division was between officer and seaman. There were very few who crossed the boundary (as Kydd did) between them.

The officer was a gentleman, the seaman of the common sort (but if he made officer he could become a gentleman, able to enter society and carry a sword etc.). Neither side encouraged ‘coming up by the hawse’ (making the transition from seaman to officer). There was a reluctance by the Admiralty to take top seamen, with all their irreplaceable skills and experience, and make them junior officers. And the men regarded the step with suspicion; there was a saying in my day – ‘I’d rather be cream of the s— rather than the s— of the cream.’

The Seamen
A sailor is anyone who goes to sea, including cooks etc. A seaman is one with the calling and gifts to be respected as one. A mariner is a deep‑dyed seaman. These terms may be applied to an officer, but not ‘Jack Tar’ which is for the men, as is a foremast hand/jack, old salt, tar, bluejacket.

The main divisions for Jack Tar are that of landman/seaman and seaman/petty officer. Their rating was awarded by the captain of the ship as a local title; they could be rated up or disrated by that captain.

Broadly, the progression on the lower deck was:

  • Ships boy: usually ten years old or more.
  • Landman: a seaman without skills. He was not allowed up in the rigging and assigned menial tasks like scrubbing the deck.
  • Ordinary seaman: He had elementary sea skills.
  • Able seaman: This was a fully skilled sailor who could ‘hand, reef and steer’.
  • Petty officer: He held a position of authority in the ship, ranging from captain of the top (in charge of men in the rigging doing the reefing etc.) to quartermaster’s mate (understudy to the seaman in charge of the helm).
  • Warrant officer: This was a professional head of a department – boatswain, gunner, for example. A warrant officer held a warrant by examination.
Carpenter,  highly skilled artificer

Carpenter, highly skilled artificer

There were exceptions to the above:
A petty officer could be promoted to master’s mate, tasked to assist the master in navigation etc. He could be relied on to take over a prize vessel, lead a landing party and other skilled tasks.

A midshipman could also be promoted to master’s mate – one of the senior Reefers perhaps passed for lieutenant but not yet with a commission.

The idlers were the technical rates, who did not have to stand a watch. These had very limited promotional prospects: carpenter’s mate, steward, cooper’s mate, carpenter’s crew, surgeon’s mate etc

The cook held a warrant like a warrant officer, and was generally a seaman who had been crippled in action, but often knew only how to boil salt pork (the officers had their own cook/s).

The Officers
Officers were those who held the King’s commission.
The general progression was:

  • Midshipman: apprentice officer
  • Lieutenant – first, second, third etc. in accordance with experience and record. It was necessary to pass an examination for this rank, which was an appointment to a particular ship.
  • Lieutenant-in-Command: a lieutenant in command of a small unrated vessel; he was accorded the honorary title of captain.
  • Commander (master and commander up until 1794): a lesser full captain of a minor vessel (always termed a sloop)
  • Captain: When ‘made post’ to a post captain (after several years’ seniority gained), he could command anything that floated.
  • Commodore: A captain put in charge of other captains/ships for a specific purpose such as a descent on an enemy island. After the objective was achieved he reverted back.
  • Admiral: One permanently in charge of a fleet, or part of a fleet.
  • A commander‑in‑chief: in overall command of more than one fleet and often other military resources as well.

Do you have a question for ‘Ask BigJules’ – fire away! I’ll answer as many as I can in future posts…

QUARTERDECK: Aft through the hawse-hole

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A regular feature on each of the Kydd titles – with story background, research highlights, writing challenges and more – plus a chance to win a copy of the book!

The US edition of QUARTERDECK

The US edition of QUARTERDECK

Thank you for all your kind comments on the post about my fourth book, MUTINY.

The fifth book in the series is QUARTERDECK. Tom Kydd was promoted acting lieutenant at the bloody Battle of Camperdown in October 1797. Now, he must sit an examination to confirm his rank – or face an inglorious return before the mast.

With this book, with four other titles under my belt, did I feel the writing had become easier?

Because of the wonderful feedback I had received from readers all over the world my confidence had increased that people really did want to share my passion about the age of fighting sail. However, until a manuscript is actually accepted by your editor, there is always a certain apprehension. Have I told a good story? Will it draw people in? Has it got the right balance? The waiting time until that phone call or email comes from your editor is always a bit nail-biting…This was true for QUARTERDECK – and remains so to this day.

Was this book a watershed in the series?

Yes. Richard Gere famously overcame modern day hurdles to become an officer and a gentleman, but they were nothing compared to the almost impossible odds two hundred years ago! The Royal Navy, however, although steeped in custom and tradition, did provide a rare means for someone low born to achieve high status.

Of the six hundred thousand or so British seamen who fought in the Napoleonic wars, amazingly, 120 became officers, crossing a great social divide. Of these, perhaps twenty or so were promoted to captain of their own ship – and five made Admiral! History has left us little record of these achievers, but we do know of some who started their career this way – men such as Bligh, Cook and in the case of HMS Victory at Trafalgar both the signals officer Pascoe and Quiliam, the first lieutenant.

When I started writing the Thomas Kydd series I felt strongly that I wanted to portray life at sea at the time of Nelson starting from the viewpoint of the common sailor. I have always had the greatest admiration for what they achieved. The typical stereotype of the sailor of that time as a mere cipher couldn’t be further from the truth. In large part it was they who gave Britain conquest of all the seas. Nelson himself publicly recognised this.

Right from the start I knew my hero would eventually become an officer and in many ways QUARTERDECK posed some formidable writing challenges. I had to take Tom Kydd from the environment of the lower deck, where he was popular and, now a master’s mate, at the pinnacle of his calling, to an alien realm where the talk was of foxhunting and the Season, and where, at first, he was neither liked nor respected.

I found my own experience, having myself served both on the fo’c’sle and on the quarterdeck, invaluable. As I wrote I was able to draw on my own feelings during my time in the navy. Remembering my initial apprehensions as a new officer certainly gave me insights for QUARTERDECK.

Where was location research?



Both in the UK and overseas. We spent some time in the pretty little town of Falmouth in Cornwall. In Kydd’s day it was a favoured last provisioning stop before a long Atlantic crossing. It has a superb harbour: together with Carrick Roads, it forms the third capacious natural harbour in the world, and is the deepest in Western Europe.

It was also the home of the ships of the packet service. (The term ‘packet’ derives from the fact that state letters and dispatches were historically known as ‘the packet’.) There were several packet stations in British ports but Falmouth was the hub of the Packet Ship Service, which carried mail to all corners of the British Empire. Mail came down from London by postboy or stagecoach. It was then sealed in leather portmanteaux of varying sizes which were lead-weighted so that they could be thrown overboard at the prospect of imminent capture.

However the packet service was not always held in esteem. Ashore in Falmouth Kydd is told:

‘A nest of villains…They carry the King’s mails, but should they spy a prize, they will not scruple to attack at risk to their cargo – and worse! Even under the strictest post office contract, they weigh down their vessel with private freight to their common advantage. And should this not be enough, it is commonly known that while the post office will recompense them for a loss at sea to an enemy, profit may just as readily be won from the insurances.’

With Bob Squarebriggs and the half model of Artemis

With Bob Squarebriggs and the half model of Artemis

Local research done, Kathy and I then had the great pleasure and duty of visiting Canada. We found Halifax, the previous home of the North American Station, fascinating, with so much maritime history – and even stayed at the Lord Nelson hotel and dined at the Press Gang restaurant! A special delight was meeting Bob Squarebriggs and being presented with a half model of Artemis that he had made from scratch as a gift for me. I was quite taken aback at his generosity, and even more moved when I found out that Bob, as a result of an accident, could not work for any length of time on such a project before tiring.

Did the research for QUARTERDECK pose any particular challenges?

Well, there was one in particular. As a plot requirement I needed to determine which of the woods found in the area Kydd was in did not float. This was not as simple as it sounds. My ex-scientist father-in-law in Tasmania came back with mathematical formulae and details of specific gravity, and after a considerable time researching further I felt I had a fairly intimate acquaintance with every tree in America! But still I had not got the definitive answer; this was finally resolved by a very helpful member of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory.

Captain Truxtun, USS Constellation

Captain Truxtun, USS Constellation

Regarding research for the dawn of the new American Navy, I was most fortunate to make the acquaintance of Tyrone Martin, an erudite scholar and a former captain of Old Ironsides. He provided valuable insights into the US naval service and the heavy frigates. I get a special buzz introducing real-life characters into the books and it was fun writing about Kydd sailing in the new commissioned Constellation under Captain Truxtun.

For a chance to win a copy of QUARTERDECK just add a comment below. The winner will be picked at random on March 15

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