The History of the Hazardous

At the end of the 17th century, the race was on to build the largest, strongest and most technologically advanced navy. Rivalry was particularly fierce between the English and French, fuelled by the aggressive competition for control of trade routes. In the 1670s major reforms took place on both sides of the Channel. In England, Samuel Pepys oversaw one of the most important shipbuilding programmes in its history. The building of the 'Thirty Great Ships' marked the foundations of the great Royal Navy. His counterpart in France, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, built up a huge fleet making the French navy the largest in the world for a time, laying a claim to the power and wealth of international trade.

More importantly, while the English shipbuilders were often conservative in their designs, the French were innovators. Getting information on these designs became a key ambition of the English. They would send spies to France to discover technological secrets, visit rival shipyards and promote illicit trade in ship designs. One of the best sources of information was the ships themselves. A captured French vessel would be stripped down, every timber measured, every bolt and joint examined and noted. The ships could then be rebuilt for service in the English navy and the design taken to the shipyards.

Hostilities increased and as relations between England and France descended into war, the arms race became more and more important. From 1689 disputes between them led to almost continual war for over 100 years through the European wars of succession and ending in the Napoleonic Wars.

The French navy enjoyed some success, but ultimately it rarely withstood the might of the English ships. During the War of English Succession (1689-1697), the Battle of Barfleur in 1692 saw the devastating defeat of the French navy. The navy took many years to recover and France was forced to rely on hired mercenaries or privateers, often little more than licensed pirates.

Conflict broke out again over the Spanish Succession from 1703-1713. The French had attempted to rebuild its navy, but they were again crushingly defeated in 1706. Unlike his predecessor, Louis XV abandoned any hope of dominating the seas and focused his attentions on the army. The French and English navies did meet in conflict again during the 18th and early 19th centuries, but the English navy remained the most dominant force.

French Origins

Originally built in France as a third rate ship of the line in 1698, Le Hazardeux (the original French name) was constructed of oak and pine. The ship was 137 ft (41.76 metres) long with a 38 ft (11.58 metres) beam at the mid-section. A contemporary print from the Museé de la Marine in Paris shows the stern section of Le Hazardeux exhibiting an ornate design, said to be in honour of the 'Sun King', Louis XIV. For the following five years, the ship served as a member of the French Royal Navy.(See article on the arms race)

In 1703, the French Royal Navy loaned Le Hazardeux to De Beaubriand, a ship owner and privateer patrolling channel waters. On
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the 14th November 1703, the ship was sailing into the English Channel under its captain, de la Rue, when it was spotted by three warships of the English Channel Squadron of the Royal Navy. The ships engaged Le Hazardeux in battle. Although the odds were in favour of the English ships, the French put up a significant fight lasting around six hours. By the time the French struck their colours and surrendered the ship, Le Hazardeux was, according to a contemporary account, 'reduced to a perfect wreck'.

The third rate ship of the line Warspite was credited with taking Le Hazardeux. The ship was towed into Portsmouth Harbour as a war prize with serious damage inflicted to the overall structure.

During the following six months, the ship was extensively repaired, rebuilt and re-gunned. The name was maintained but anglicised to Warship Hazardous Prize. It was commissioned into the English Royal Navy on 27 March 1704, as a fourth rate ship of the line. On board were a crew of 320 men and 54 guns; displacement had now increased to 875 tons

Wrecked in Bracklesham Bay

The Hazardous did not serve for long in the English Royal Navy despite its impressive armament and defensive capabilities. In September 1706, the ship was escorting a fleet of two hundred merchant vessels with three other warships from the Chesapeake Bay colony in Virginia back to England. The convoy was heading for the Downs off Kent but severe weather conditions en route meant many of the merchant ships were lost, whilst many more made for safe anchorages along the American coast.

In early November, the first sight of land was the Lizard in Cornwall where, according to the ships log, "the captain died in his bunk, strangled in his own blood". The Hazardous, now under the command of Lt. Hares, sailed up the Channel, and was met off Start Point by the Warship Advice, under the command of Captain John Lowen.
Now with only 35 merchant ships remaining, Captain Lowen took command of the convoy. He granted permission for the burial of the Captain of Hazardous at sea and with conditions worsening, Lowen decided to continue along the English Channel, despite the Hazardous lack of provisions and its sick crewmembers.

On the 18th of November, the winds shifted dramatically from the northeast to the southwest. As the winds increased to gale force, the Advice signalled the Hazardous to make for the safe naval anchorage of St. Helens Roads on the north-eastern side of the Isle of Wight. However, in the process of making for safety the Advice failed to signal to Hazardous that they were close to shoal waters. The Hazardous, while trying to follow the signal of the Advice, was driven into the shoal area by the winds. They dropped the best anchors in an attempt to prevent grounding and damage to the ships' hull. However this was to no avail and the ship struck bottom.

Throughout the night Hazardous was pushed further in towards the shore, continuing to strike the bottom. Goods were thrown overboard to lighten the load. In the early hours of the following morning the main and mizzenmast were cut away to reduce windage in an attempt to save the ship. This was to no avail; the following morning Lt. Hares had no option but to follow the direction of wind and current. The anchor warps were severed and the vessel was run as far into land as possible in an effort to save the ship, guns and crew.

A naval court martial followed for Captain Lowen, Lt. Hares and their respective sailing masters. Lowen was found guilty of causing the wreck of the Hazardous through his negligent behaviour. He and his sailing master were dismissed from the service.

Contemporary accounts revealed that Lt. Hares returned to the ship ten days after the grounding to salvage whatever could be retrieved. He recounted that a "major part of the small arms" had been recovered and that some guns from the upper and quarterdecks might still be salvageable if the weather improved but that "those below and to leeward are continually under water". It is unclear if any additional salvage was attempted in 1706. A later attempt at salvage of the site took place in 1715 when documents in the Dockyard Archives at Portsmouth indicate that six brass and iron guns were removed. This indicates that a significant number of guns and other materials vital to the operation of the ship were left behind. It also suggests that few materials were removed, other than the small arms and the easily accessible personal items taken by crewmembers on the morning of the wrecking.

After the salvage account in 1715, no further record of the ship has yet been found and it can be assumed that the ship's loss became little more than a memory, passing into local mythology. The initial grounding on the reef in 1706 appears to have broken the back of the ship at the mid-section, an area that continues to be a vulnerable point in the site. The bow section quickly settled into the silt on the shore side of the reef, allowing the stem and port side to be protected by a covering of sand. The stern broke up and was dispersed by storm and tide and the Hazardous began its transformation from shipwreck into archaeological site.