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The dispatches from the British fleet at the battle of Trafalgar were brought by ship to Falmouth. From there, messengers rode by horse over land to the Admiralty in London, following a route known as the Trafalgar Way.

As the objective was to get these dispatches to London as quickly as possible, why didn't the messengers sail up the English Channel as close to London as possible? Surely sailing is faster than riding over land and changing horses a reported 21 times?

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  • Well, I no little about how much time the sailing would actually take, but wikipedia seems to indicate bad weather.
    – b.Lorenz
    Dec 1 '18 at 9:56
  • Sailing against the wind was slow at that time, probably slower than riding a horse. One has to know the wind conditions, to make conclusions.
    – Alex
    Dec 1 '18 at 15:17
  • "Surely sailing is faster than riding over land..." This is false. The ships of the time averaged something like 4-6 kts. If you can change horses as needed, land travel is much faster. E.g. the comparable US Pony Express did around 10-12 mph, roughly twice as fast as sailing.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 20 at 20:36
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Sailing 'up' the channel (as the Spanish Armada had discovered) was risky, not least because of the bad weather that was present as the dispatches arrived on the English coast.

The vessels (HMS Pickle and HMS Entreprenante) that were given the dispatches were small and relatively fast but neither was powerfully armed. The reason that duplicate dispatches were sent on different ships was that these vessels could be lost, because of the natural risks at sea, or intercepted by the enemy. While the British Navy had the main French fleets bottled up in their ports, there were still numerous French cruisers (both regular navy and privateers) waiting to dart out into the channel to pick off any British ships that they could. A small, lightly armed dispatch boat would have been a tempting target.

Pickle's commander was John Richards Lapenotiere. His orders were to land the despatches at Plymouth, which would still have involved a considerable overland journey to London, but the failing winds at the time prevented that:

Meanwhile the wind was dropping and Lapenotiere set every stitch of canvas including the studding sails and ordered out sweeps to keep the Pickle’s head pointing towards England. He was clearly not going to make Plymouth but presciently his orders stated that ‘should you be prevented by Easterly Winds from fetching so high up as Plymouth, you are to make the first port you can in England’. So, off Falmouth on 4 November 1805, Almy’s log reads, ‘at 9.45 Shortened sail and hove to & out Boat our Commander landed at Falmouth with his Dispatches’.

Mariner's Mirror Vol.91 No.2 (May 2005)

By landing the communications at Falmouth, they could be sent to London without any further risk of being lost at sea, either because of the weather or enemy action. Falmouth was also home to the Post Office Packet Service, so the route to London was well established and the harbour was well suited to despatch vessels.

Source:
John Richards Lapenotiere and H.M. Schooner Pickle and Their Fifteen Minutes of Fame, Peter Hore, Mariner's Mirror Vol.91 No.2 (May 2005), 284-293

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