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French-built 10-gun Continental Navy Cutter DOLPHIN, 1777

While Benjamin Franklin was American commissioner in Paris, he tried to stir up trouble between Britain and France, in the hope that this would lead France to come into the war on the American side. Part of that involved acquiring French ships and outfitting them with American captains as armed ships to attack British merchant ships in their home waters. The British Secret Service, thinking that she would be used only to carry messages and they would thus be able to intercept Franklin’s secret correspondence, was even tricked into paying for the cutter that Franklin named Dolphin on 1 April 1777. Under French ownership, it is likely to have been called Le Dauphin. Franklin assigned the 14-gun cutter to 34-year-old Commander Samuel Nicholson of Maryland, one of three brothers who were officers in the Continental Navy.

The Colonial Cutter Ship Dolphin

Nicholson was unused to [single-masted] French cutters (quite different in hull upperworks from American sloops of the same size), and he insisted that the vessel should be retro-fitted with a raised quarterdeck so he could have a captain’s great cabin, and a raised forecastle in the bow. The new construction, which featured five windows across the stern and quarter-gallery windows, was heavy enough that the vessel could not usefully carry any more than 10 cannons. This may have been the only cutter to have been so fitted. By the time the construction was done in 1777, Franklin had acquired two additional vessels, so Dolphin, the Continental Navy’s 30th ship and its second ship acquired in Europe, served as flagship of a small flotilla. They chased the lucrative Irish linen fleet, but failed to capture it. However, they did capture over 20 British merchant ships off the Irish coast, which caused all sorts of alarm bells to sound in London, requiring more money and ships to be devoted to protecting the British coasts rather than be sent to fight in America. On a subsequent cruise, a powerful adversary left her in sinking condition, so she had to be abandoned, but she had done her job well by causing great confusion in London. Her appearance is known from an oil painting on the dial of a Dublin-made clock, that is now in a private collection in the USA. The painting shows that her American ensign was simply thirteen horizontal red and white stripes. She measured about 65 feet (20 metres) long on deck and 21 feet beam.

Colonial Navy Inc. (non-profit, tax-exempt) plans to build a full-sized operational copy of Dolphin to take part in a year-round sail-training program with several other historic ship copies. She is to be built of cold-molded wood-epoxy laminates for strength and longevity. Now that the 250th anniversary of American independence is around the corner, it is the right moment to get Dolphin sailing again and seen by as many people as possible (which will reinforce the public’s awareness of the enduring French-American alliance). Our Project Director is John Millar, who built the full-sized copies of the 24-gun frigate Rose and the 12-gun sloop Providence (first ship of the American Navy, first to land the marines, and first command of John Paul Jones), so he is the right person to supervise this new ship. Dolphin and Providence are identical in size. Contributions, which are tax-deductible, may be sent to Colonial Navy Inc., 710 South Henry Street, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185-4113. Please designate Dolphin.

Colonial Navy Inc.’s historic ship line-up: ships Batchelors Delight, General Pickering; barque Surprise; brigs Tartar, Cabot, Andrew Doria; schooner* Royal Savage; ketch Thunder;* sloop Enterprise; cutter Dolphin.

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