Two Naval Officers head to London
Lapenotiere and Sykes' meeting off Cape St Vincent
As Pickle sets sail for London with the official Trafalgar dispatches on board, Commander Sykes is following Nelson's orders to patrol off the south-west coast of Portugal, at Cape St. Vincent. The Commander-in-Chief had previously intercepted Nautilus heading for London with dispatches from Collingwood on 25th September 1805 and commanded him instead to stay put, look out for enemy vessels and instruct following ships on where to find the rest of the fleet.
Travelling westward from Trafalgar on 28th October, the Pickle approaches Cape St. Vincent, and, after having been spotted by the Nautilus, is chased down. Coded identification signals are exchanged, and Lapenotiere and Sykes have a two-hour meeting on board Pickle. This in itself is quite unusual. The normal protocol would have been for Lapenotiere to go aboard Nautilus.
We can only imagine the conversation between the two commanders as their ships sail north in company. Sykes records that Lapenotiere has given him a note saying that he has 'received positive orders not to be detained by any Vessel - if any ship should come up with Pickle I am desired to request the ship to send her boat as my Despatches are of the greatest consequence.' Furthermore, Lapenotiere's note continues, 'the Admiral said something to me about your going to Lisbon but what I know not on recollection he said I was not to be detained.' It certainly sounds as if Lapenotiere has been frustratedly trying to carry on with his mission and that Sykes has been making a case for taking over delivery of the dispatches himself.
After having heard described the events of the battle and Lapenotiere's instructions, Sykes decides to abandon his orders and accompany Lapenotiere. He writes dispatches of his own and asks a Portuguese vessel to take them into Lisbon. There is no evidence they were ever delivered.
From a copy of his message to Vice Admiral Collingwood, we know that Sykes explains his decision thus:
"I have ventured to proceed, solely activated by a zeal for the service, and in hopes to meet your wishes on the occasion, in becoming a security for the information of the Pickle should any accident befall her."
It is easy to paint Sykes as a villain who wanted some of the glory (and reward) of delivering this news for himself, however the situation is hardly so clear-cut. With the destruction of the combined fleet, the Nautilus's purpose in its patrol was rendered obsolete. He could remain on station and await new orders, but what if the Pickle was destroyed, and it became known that the Nautilus had encountered her and had done nothing to help speed the dispatches safely to England?
In the absence of new orders, Sykes had to anticipate what Collingwood would want him to do in his situation. He could rejoin the Vice-Admiral and request new orders, or he could assist the Pickle in delivering the news to the Admiralty.
We know he chose the latter option. Later on the 29th October, Lapenotiere glimpses Nautilus's sail some distance astern as they pass Burling Island. He knows then that Sykes has not gone into Lisbon as requested, and that the race is on.
As the Pickle heads north the Nautilus shadows her, then draws ahead, being the quicker of the two vessels. The advantage that the Nautilus has in speed and the terrible weather that the Pickle came across off Finisterre may have sealed the fate of Lapenotiereâ€™s mission if not for the fact that the Nautilus has to take evasive action to avoid engaging with several French ships. Because of this, the Pickle gains a 65 mile lead which the Nautilus is not able to recover.
By dawn on 4th November, Pickle is dropping her anchor off Falmouth. It is not until 8.30pm that evening that Nautilus arrives in Plymouth. We can estimate that by this time, Lapenotiere is already in his post-chaise and en route, somewhere on the challenging, bleak highways of eastern Cornwall. In Plymouth, Sykes goes ashore and seeks out Vice-Admiral Young, the Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth, on board his flagship Salvador del Mundo, and regales him with the momentous news he has picked up from Lapenotiere. With no sign of Pickle or Lapenotiere, and realistic concern that they may have been lost at sea or taken by the French, Young writes a set of dispatches congratulating the Admiralty on their great victory and sends Sykes off in a post-chaise express for London.
Pickle is finally spotted outside Plymouth at first light on 5th November, by which time both Lapenotiere and Sykes are set on their London-bound trajectory over land via Exeter, and onwards through Dorset.