A Perfect Hurricane – Behind the Painting
Throughout 1798 the little 20-gun La Prompte was stationed in the West Indies. On 21st September, when on passage to Bermuda for stores, she captured a French schooner, the Courier du Cap and after taking all her people prisoner and putting a prize crew aboard, both vessels continued towards Bermuda.
On the evening of the 23rd, the wind began to freshen and by midnight was blowing a full gale. The following morning conditions had worsened and La Prompte battened down and sent down her fore- and main top gallant yards and masts. By now the prize ship was flying a distress signal and closing within hail, it was learned she had sprung a leak. By now it was blowing a severe gale from the ESE and as there was a heavy sea running. There was little hope of taking the men off her, so it was decided that both vessels should bear up and run back towards New Providence.
The weather continued to deteriorate into the morning. At 10 o’clock the prize’s mainmast was seen to go over the side and at 3pm she went down with all hands. This was agonising for those aboard La Prompte as the prize ship had been manned almost entirely by men from La Prompte, some of whom had been comrades for four years. Despite the conditions, she remained in the area hoping for survivors, but she was powerless to get to windward and every minute drove her further from them. Although the situation was hopeless, they could not bring themselves to leave the scene.
At 5pm, when it was thought the storm was at its height, the wind seemed to explode to double its strength. A hurricane had struck. The storm mizzen staysail at once 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 weight of wind in her rigging. Now her situation was desperate too, for she was making water and would sooner or later capsize. Immediately 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 atoms before half up. The fore-yards were then trimmed and the foresail loosed, but it instantly burst into a thousand ribbons and the ship still lay beam on, hove down by the wind.
Captain John Spread then exercised a fine piece of forthright seamanship and ordered the mizenmast to be felled. Not only did this reduce the windage aft, but as the ship drifted to leeward of the wreckage, so the remaining cordage still attached helped to tug her stern to windward like a sea anchor. This is the moment of the painting.
The sequel to this painting is Survived