HMS Discovery & Chatham Becalmed in Rosario Strait – June 9, 1792

by Steve Mayo in Discovery & Chatham


HMS Discovery & Chatham Becalmed in Rosario Strait 

– June 9, 1792

   During the summer of 1792, Captain George Vancouver was moving his two vessels up through northern Puget Sound while conducting his extensive survey of the Northwest coast of America. His flagship HMS Discovery and tender Chatham had anchored, for the night of June 8th, off the southeast corner of Lopez Island at the beginning of Rosario Strait. Vancouver’s plan was to move both vessels just seven miles north to Strawberry Bay on the west side of Cypress Island which theChatham had earlier visited and named.

   The morning of Saturday, June 9th, began overcast with no wind and a light rain. The tide was ebbing south all morning so the vessels had to wait where they were. Just after noon, a light northerly breeze came up, and by 1:00 PM the tide began to slow. Around 2:00 PM, with the sky clearing and the tide slack, the vessels got underway and tried working their way up the strait. By using the light breeze, they managed to get out into the middle of the strait where the beginning of the flood tide helped carry them north.


   My painting shows the two vessels around 3:00 as the wind died off in the middle of Rosario Strait with Mt. Baker in the background. The south part of Cypress Island is prominent behind the Discovery. Strawberry Bay, their destination, is just beyond the scene to the left. The Chatham has drifted a little further east and has lost steerageway. Vancouver has hoisted the signal to start towing; the Chatham has already manned her launch and is rigging a towline.


   With no wind, Vancouver wanted to ensure that both vessels reached Strawberry Bay with the help of the tide. He soon ordered the Discovery to also use her boats for towing. Fortunately, the heavy flagship was better positioned to gain the proposed new anchorage and eventually succeeded. The tidal current splits at Cypress Island and because Chatham was more to the east, she was carried northeast into another channel as the flood tide gained strength.


   The officers aboard Chatham soon realized that even with the launch towing, they would be swept to the east of Cypress Island. They dropped their stream anchor but when it fetched up in the 5-knot current, the cable parted. That anchor was lost. One of the larger bower anchors was then dropped and the Chatham anchored securely. At next slack water, the Chatham‘s boats dragged for the stream anchor but were unable to retrieve it. The following day the Chatham was able to make her way around to Strawberry Bay and anchor safely near the Discovery.


   A detail of significance in my painting is the portrayal of the stern decorations on the Discovery. I have followed, as closely as possible, a photograph of a wash painting of HMS Discovery done in 1790-91. The original was painted from life by a professional maritime artist, (possibly) Robert Cleveley, while the ship was moored in the Thames River just prior to her epic voyage.


   The contemporary artist, Mark Myers, alerted me to the existence of this photocopy and where it resides in Whitby, England. The wash painting is very accurate so the hull and rigging details match precisely the actual Admiralty plans of Discovery in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Unfortunately, the Admiralty plans do not show any details of the ship’s stern decorations so that wash painting is very revealing. It also bears out the unusual detail from her body plan that we have known for years: the Discovery was built with no tumble-home to the sides of her hull.


   The Discovery was built as a merchant ship on the Thames in 1789 but was purchased by the Admiralty before she was launched. She was fitted out specifically for her role as a Royal Navy survey and exploration ship. She had a useful naval career until 1808 but ended her days as a lowly prison hulk. Worn out and rotten, the old hulk was broken up in 1834.


   The Chatham was built as a collier at Dover in 1788 and later purchased for the Royal Navy. She was plain, beamy and a rather dull sailer but apparently a reliable and sturdy vessel. The Navy kept her until 1830 when she was sold out of the service.

– Steve Mayo -2012

1 Comment

Pat McFarland
Hi Steve We are all curious about the discovery of the buried ancient anchor in Saratoga Strait. The men who accidentally found it are hoping it the long sought anchor from the Chatham in 1792. Best regards - -Pat

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