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With the entry of the French into the American War of Independence, a fleet under the command of Admiral Keppel sailed from Spithead in the early summer of 1778 in search of the French in the Channel.
On 17 June while undertaking reconnaissance duties for the fleet, the cutter Alert, commanded by Lieutenant William George Fairfax, in company with the frigate Arethusa, intercepted the French frigate Belle Poule and the armed lugger Coureur. While Arethusa invited an engagement with Belle Poule, the Alert overhauled Coureur and ordered her to surrender. The Coureur's commander, Enseigne de Rosily adamantly refused and was immediately fired upon. During the ensuing engagement, undertaken at musket range, the Alert received several shots between 'wind and water' and suffered severe damage to her rigging. After an hour and a half, de Rosily having suffered five men killed and twelve wounded struck his colours. The Alert, though seriously mauled, had suffered only four wounded.
The action between Arethusa and the Belle Poule, however, was inconclusive and the engagement discontinued after a warm fight. Shortly afterwards, Keppel's fleet was returned to Spithead with Alert's prize.
The diorama depicts the moment when Alert began to overhaul Coureur and demand her surrender in 1:75th scale. The crew on Coureur's deck is preparing to deliver their answer while Alert's crew prepares to return fire.
Alert was built from scratch using the plans in the Anatomy of the Ship book.
The hull was carved from jelutong, masts and spars from hardwood dowel, decking in tanganyika, and sails from paper. Ships' boat, cannon, and anchors were taken from the Heller plastic kit of Victory; rigging blocks and buckets were cast fittings from Bluejacket Shipcrafters. All other fittings (hatches, oars, gratings, etc) were made from scraps of wood, plastic, and metal, or cobbled together using old kit fittings and parts in the scrap box.
Le Coureur is based on the Amati kit of the ship. However, only the cast resin hull, metal ships boat, cannons, etch brass transom piece, and anchors were taken from the kit and extensively modified (it would have been easier to have built them from scratch in the first place!) to match the plans of Le Coureur by Jean Boudriot and Hubert Berti. The remainder of the ship was scratchbuilt like the Alert.
For both models, the ships crews are wargame figures manufactured by AB Miniatures, Minifigs, and Thoroughbred Miniatures. The figures were fun to paint and all were well cast and detailed. The worst job a cutting off the stands. I primed the figures in white (Games Workshop white primer) and painted them with Vallejo acrylics. I shaded them with washes of thinned artists oils. I used burnt sienna for the hands and faces, and dark versions (not pure black) of the colour of clothing. Dark grey for white, dark red for red, dark blue for blue.
The ocean is paper maché coated with liquid gesso, painted with artist's acrylics and top coated with several applications of Future floor wax. I used Celluclay paper mache for the water. I sealed the board so it wouldn't warp (this is so important, or cover the board with Saran Wrap and built the paper mache up on that. Once dry, the Saran Wrap can be peeled off and the paper mache sea is glued to the wooden baseboard).
I made a styrofoam block of the hull cut out and built the paper mache to that. I cut it about .5" oversize so the hole is bigger than the hull. Using my fingers, I sculpted the sea taking into account the direction wind was blowing. I made swells by cutting up plinths of Styrofoam covered with paper mache.
Once I was happy with the rouch sea, I let it dry. This took about 2 weeks! Once dry, I used a thick white gesso, the stuff that comes in a squeeze bottle, and painted this all over the paper mache to seal the grain and provide a hard surface. Once that was dry, I gave it a light sanding and put on another coat. This last coat smooths out the seabase, pools and builds up in places giving it a nice look. I next fill the hull hole with some Pollyfilla instapatch. Its like whipped up spackle and you get it in a tub. I put that into the hole (the .5" extra) and cover the actual model hull with saran wrap and push it in. This ensures a perfect fit of the hull to the hole and you can now use a wet paintbrush to sculpt the wake etc from the pushed up instapatch. Once dry (a day or so), pull out the hull and you have a perfect hole.
Once that is dry, I paint the seascape with artists acrylics. I used blue and green, highlighting with white and darkening the blue with diox purple. Looks so much better than black. Around the hull, I mix a little more of a seafoam green blue. I stipple paint in the colours, wet on wet technique, making sure I add purple to shallows and lighten with white to the tops of the swells. Let dry hard. Then, mix up a glaze coat of the blue/green base and put it on to even out and blend the high and low points on the sea. A glaze is a mix of clear gloss acrylic medium inted with acrylic colours (blue & green) and thinned with water to a thin, brushable watery consistency. It will look milky and I brush it all over the sea and this seems to blend colours in nicely. You can make the glaze as thin or thick as you like. You brush it on to blend the dried acrylics. Sometimes I use a thick mix and other times a watery mix, depending on the effect I am after. A thicker mix will have more blending power than a thin one, you have to experiment a bit.
Once that is dry, mix up some white and lightish blue/green and highlight wave crests, wake, etc. Let dry.
The final thing is to start putting on a clear coat. I use Future floor wax. I apply several coats (5 or 6 at least) and continue until I get a bit of depth. Let dry. To put the model in the sea, I squirt in some clear gloss acrylic medium around the edge of the opening for the hull, and push the boat in. You can clean up any squeeze out with a brush.
While building this diorama, efforts was taken to ensure that the "national characteristics" of each ship was represented. For example, note that different woods were used to plank the deck of each model to represent the different species of oak and/or deal used in decking used by the two countries. The deck fastenings on Alert are wooden dowels to represent the wooden trennals as per British practice, but are black on Coureur to reflect the French practice of using iron spikes. Although both ships were painted in red and yellow ochre, different shades were used to represent differences in mixing ratios of oil and powdered pigments used by the two navies.
The model was exhibited at the Vancouver IPMS meet and won "Best Nautical Subject". It missed "Best of Show" and was told by someone that the main reason was that they thought that all the flags should be pointing the same way. Obviously, they have never sailed before and it's quite possible for pennants to point one way while an ensign points the other. I should have made it clear that the sails set and flags were taken from a painting. Oh well, what to do for next year!
Thanks to all of the modellers on the Seaways List for their helpful comments while trying to solve things!