HMS Victory currently rests in drydock at Portsmouth Royal Navy Dockyard undergoing a refit of her masts and rigging. With no topmasts or topgallant masts she looks rather “curtailed,” to borrow one of Patrick O’Brian’s most famous puns. There are many paintings of Victory under full sail in all her glory. I particularly recommend any done by Geoff Hunt, who has painted all the Aubrey-Maturin bookcovers and has done several studies of Victory at Trafalgar. The following is “Victory and Squadron in Light Airs”, copied from a book I own, The Marine Art of Geoff Hunt.We think of wooden ships as low tech, but “Ships of the Line” or line-of-battle ships, were the technological marvels of the 18th and 19th centuries. The well-informed docents on board Victory point out all of the ingenious solutions that shipwrights and outfitters came up with to deal with the problem of creating stability, fire-resistant gunpowder storage, and facilities for cooking. British ships like Victory also enjoyed a significant technological advantage over French and Spanish ships at Trafalgar. British cannon had flintlocks, while Spanish and French gunners still depended on “slow match” to fire their big guns. The latter were a slow burning fuse-like material. On rolling decks, instant-firing flintlocks gave gunners a much better aim because they could fire when they wanted to (“on the roll”). A heavy swell was running before and during the Trafalgar battle, and Nelson’s strategy surely took into account his technological superiority. History records that the British gunfire was more accurate than the French or Spanish (the Royal Navy rate of fire was also quicker because of constant drilling on the big guns).
Victory, a “first rate” three-decker, was about as as large as Royal Navy ships got at that time. The Royal Navy had no more than a few ships of Victory’s size — the most common ship of the line was a 74 gun two-decker. Victory’s hull and interior have been meticulously restored and you can admire the beauty of her lines and the quarters that admirals and captains enjoyed, Then you realize that over 700 men lived on Victory and you can imagine how poor their living conditions must have been. (My grandfather, great-grandfather and great uncle sailed “before the mast” on English merchant ships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)