Why wander into the distance? Almost every hunting ground has adventures and treasures to offer, we just have to bend over backwards to find them. In the case of the “Lutine”, however, we would then bury our heads in the sand. The British frigate, which was shipwrecked 223 years ago with its cargo of silver and gold bars weighing several tons, now lies many meters deep in the mudflats of the North Sea.
Repeated attempts were made to recover the millions. But to date, no one has managed to do so definitively. This means that there is still something left.
The true story, whose traces reach right up to the present day, begins in the fall of 1799. Not a good time, either on land or at sea: France under Napoleon is expanding its sphere of influence ever more aggressively in Europe. England opposes this with changing alliance partners. In the summer, a British army occupies Holland and captures many Dutch warships.
The frigate “Lutine” is also a prey ship, but it comes from the French fleet. And she has been in British service for a long time. Launched in Toulon in 1778, the ship is no longer brand new. However, it is considered seaworthy and has only recently proven itself. The three-master with a displacement of 600 tons escorted the eleven conquered Dutchmen to England.
The special order turns into a disaster
In the fall, Captain Lancelot Skynner receives a special assignment. If possible, he should not fire a shot, as the operation must be carried out quietly and with the utmost haste. It concerns discrete financial assistance.
Captain Lancelot Skynner (33) went down with his ship © National Portrait Gallery, London
A crisis is brewing in Hamburg due to the ongoing war and the bad weather at sea in the summer of 1799: Numerous banks are on the verge of insolvency. In England, trade goods are piling up in the port, and the stock exchanges in London and Hanover have already had to close several times due to a lack of liquidity. According to some sources, pay for British troops is also to be shipped to the continent. The 44-meter-long and 21-year-old “Lutine” therefore serves as a money transporter.
Skynner is no sea hero, but he is an experienced Royal Navy officer: at 33, he has spent most of his life in the King’s Rock and on the water. He joined the navy at the age of 13. On board the frigate “Brilliant” under Captain John Ford, he smells gun smoke for the first time during the siege of Gibraltar by French and Spanish units.
At 21, he crosses the Atlantic for the third time as a lieutenant. He proves himself in several combat missions. Skynner has held a captain’s license since September 1795. The “Lutine” is his third command. Why was the small frigate chosen to transport valuables? Maybe just because she’s free at the moment. Also: Skynner’s fiancée is said to be the daughter of a rich London merchant. That could have been the deciding factor.
The Lutine (left) under British naval colours. Originally she comes from France © gemeinfrei
Truckloads of gold bars
Wagonloads of gold and silver bars as well as barrels full of coins arrive at the British port of Great Yarmouth on the North Sea for days. This invaluable cargo is insured by Lloyd’s of London. This is obvious: the shareholders of the shipping insurance company are also the most important merchants in the City of London. And that’s where the cash injection comes from.
Meanwhile, the rumor mill is churning in the port: even the crown jewels of the Dutch royal family and pay for British soldiers on the continent are said to be on board. And Captain Skynner also takes a few private passengers with him on his mission.
On October 9, the “Lutine” sets sail for Cuxhaven in a light westerly wind. But she and her 240 fellow travelers will never get there. (240 people on a 44-meter ship! When there are 20 people on such a ship today, it feels crowded). Among them are several women and a baby. The weather, which was generally lousy in the summer of 1799, remained unstable in the fall. As the day progresses, the wind picks up more and more. Worse still, it turns to the north-north-west.
Squalls batter the ship
In the early evening, with squalls and heavy rain showers battering the “Lutine”, the ship is apparently in serious trouble. The captain now decides to head for the island of Texel. Is there a water ingress or a problem with the rig? The southernmost West Frisian island is the first land Skynner can reach for – clearly he needs a port of refuge.
The last course of the Lutine from Great Yarmouth across the North Sea towards Cuxhaven © Openseamap / R. Wildberg
But he can no longer find it. What exactly causes his navigation to fail remains unclear. The frigate is on Legerwall, being driven by the wind towards the Frisian coast. An experienced captain like Skynner must be aware of the danger of a lee shore. Did he calculate the drift incorrectly? Or simply no other choice? In any case, it can be assumed that the weather makes it impossible to determine the exact position.
Skynner’s ship steers or drifts, unable to maneuver, past Texel, further to the east. Does anyone on board recognize the approaching disaster? To make matters worse, the landfall occurs at night. There is already a sea mark, the 54-meter-high Brandaris lighthouse. It went into operation in 1594 and is the oldest lighthouse in the Netherlands. Its light at the southern tip of Terschelling can be seen up to 52 kilometers away today.
It is possible that they switched off the lights on the “Lutine” on this hellish night and tried to navigate it. But the sea is boiling so violently that the approaching surf is probably only noticed too late.
The downfall of the Lutine as imagined by a contemporary painter © gemeinfrei
The storm smashes the ship
The “Lutine” runs aground between the neighboring islands of Terschelling and Vlieland. A tragedy unfolds around two nautical miles from the island’s shores. The Ijzergat is a narrow culvert between sandbanks; today this natural outlet no longer exists at low tide. As elsewhere on the North Sea coast, the seabed here is constantly in motion.