When you write fiction with a basis in historical fact, it’s one thing to do the research, quite another to experience something first hand. So while I pored over deckplans, rigging diagrams and various narratives about frigates of the late 18th century, all that effort paled in comparison to setting foot on the real thing.
Well…as close to the real thing as one can manage these days.
On Sunday, I stepped aboard HMS Surprise, formerly the HMS Rose, a replica of a 28-gun English Royal Navy frigate currently docked at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. If Surprise sounds familiar, she should — she was the star of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, alongside Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. And that movie was based on the works of Patrick O’Brian, who brought the Napoleonic Era Royal Navy to life through his Aubrey/Maturin books.
Needless to say, as someone who’s trying to build on those naval and literary traditions, the chance to walk the decks of Surprise was nothing short of incredible.
And it was informative, too. She’s a lot smaller than I imagined, less than two traffic lanes wide by my guess. The quarterdeck was a mere two steps up from the main deck, and there was no forecastle at all. The captain’s cabin was actually more spacious than I expected. And the ceilings on the gundeck were even lower than I had thought. The fact that a ship of that size was home to two hundred or more men…pondering that too long can sap the romance out of high seas adventure pretty quickly.
Sure, she’s a replica. The capstan — that big winch used to haul anchor — wasn’t attached to anything. The below decks area had museum displays and boasted a few nice flat screen TVs. There was even a wheel below decks to actually steer the ship while they were filming above, to make it look like the actors were actually doing the driving.
But looking out the gun port down the barrel of a cannon, seeing the firing platforms on each mast, dozens of feet above the main deck, standing at the wheel on the quarterdeck…man, that was inspirational.