In Nelson’s Wake
Part 3: At 6:30 the next morning I was up and dressed and peering through binoculars in the direction of Cape Trafalgar, 30 miles distant.
By Alan Harper — October 2004
He, too, once sailed out of Lisbon and headed south. As a young captain under Admiral Jervis, he shot to fame by capturing not just one but two enemy ships of the line at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797. Eight years later, by now an admiral with two great fleet actions behind him and worshipped by the British people, he led his ships into action for his third and final victory off Cape Trafalgar.
The site of a naval battle gives away no secrets. You cannot stand on a rise and see where the opposing forces faced each other. There are no physical clues or remnants—except on the ocean floor, hundreds of feet below. The sea provides a more challenging canvas for the imagination.
It was at this time of day, from this position, and on just such a bright morning in 1805, that Nelson’s ships first sighted the enemy. In light airs it took six hours for the two fleets to come together, but by late afternoon it was all over: the French and Spanish were routed, their survivors fleeing for Cádiz, and Nelson was dead.
As we closed in on the Strait, the traffic grew thicker. Tankers and container ships jostled for sea room in the separation zone. A Spanish aircraft carrier and her destroyer escort passed us to the north, heading westwards. Amid the chatter on the VHF, a U.S. Navy frigate on antiterrorism duties could be heard politely interrogating a Greek merchant ship.
Nelson would have recognized these quiet routines of commerce and sea power. He would have felt perfectly at home as the mighty Rock of Gibraltar loomed into view off the port bow. But what he might have made of a pan-European football tournament—in which England crashed out in the quarterfinals—we can only guess.
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This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.