HMS Rose portrayed the Surprise in the film "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"; to learn more about this modern vessel, visit


H.M.S. Surprise

" he was aboard a thoroughbred frigate, a ship he knew through and through and that he loved entirely, not only for her amiable qualities but because she was part of his youth quite apart from the fact that he had commanded her in the Indian Ocean, where she had behaved quite beautifully, he had served in her long, long ago, and even the smell of her cramped and awkward midshipmen's berth made him feel young again. She was rather small (few smaller left in the service), she was rather old, and although she had been very much strengthened, almost rebuilt, in the Cadiz yard, it would never, never do to take her across to meet the heavy Americans; but he had found to his delight that her refitting had not altered her sailing qualities in the least she was astonishingly fast for those who knew how to handle her, she could come about like a cutter, and she could eat the wind out of any ship on the station."


The Surprise was Jack Aubrey's favorite frigate, a ship that served him well on the oceans of the world, both while in the Royal Navy and during his involuntary exile from the service he loved.  In these pages I present deckplans and a longitudinal section of the Surprise, showing her as she was while in the Mediterranean during The Ionian Mission in the Long Year of 1813.  These plans are based upon the actual Admiralty drawings of her hull, with details of her inner layout drawn from other Royal Navy frigates of the era and from descriptions within the pages of Patrick O'Brian's novels.   On the longitudinal section below, click on to the area of the ship you wish to explore further.  On succeeding pages, each deck is shown separately in greater detail.  Click on labels and "hot spots" within those diagrams for further information about internal compartments, fittings, and personnel, including authentic early 19th Century portraits of the officers.  For many of these items and for all the named officers, relevant quotations from the Aubrey-Maturin novels are given.

The real Surprise was built as the French L'Unite from August, 1793, to April, 1794, at Le Havre, captured by the Royal Navy on April 20, 1796, and taken into service as the Surprise.  Her specifications (taken from page 225 of Rif Winfield's "British Warships in the Age of Sail. 1793-1817", Chatham Publishing, 2005) were as follows:


Length:  126' 0"

Keel:  108' 6 1/8"

Breadth:  31; 8"

Depth:  10' 1/2"

Tons burthen:  578 73/94

Men:  200

Armament:  Upper deck: twenty-four 9-pound long guns; Quarterdeck: eight 4-pound long guns and four 12-pound carronades; Forecastle: two 4-pound long guns and two 12-pound carronades


Although records are complex, Rif Winfield's research indicates that when Surprise was initially taken into the Royal Navy in 1796 in the Mediterranean, she was classified as a Sixth Rate of twenty-eight guns.  The following year she  was deployed to Jamaica and, while there, was converted into a Fifth Rate (although not re-registered as such) with twenty-four 32-pound carronades and eight 18-pound carronades, and a crew of 240.  In 1798, probably during her refit at Plymouth, the Surprise was once again converted to a 28-gun Sixth Rate, armed and crewed as stated above. [Information from a private communication from Rif Winfield]  Of course, under Jack Aubrey and with her hull specially strengthened, she typically carried a main battery of 12-pound long guns.

A selection of photographs showing details from the ship HMS Rose, as modified to portray the Surprise in the Peter Weir motion picture "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World", can be found here, provided courtesy of Rowen, a listswain of the Patrick O'Brian Gunroom Internet discussion group.

Longitudinal Section of H.M.S. Surprise

OfficersG.gif (238978 bytes)  Officers of HMS Surprise


Notes on sources:  As mentioned above, the basic plans for the real HMS Surprise still exist; they can be found at my Ships of Jack Aubrey website.  The longitudinal section above is drawn from these plans, influenced by Brian Lavery's rendering of them to be found in Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography (WW Norton, 1994).  The deckplans are of my own creation, guided by what is revealed in the longitudinal plan and actual plans of two Royal Navy frigates featured in two of the "Anatomy of the Ship" volumes (published in the UK by Conway and in the US by Naval Institute Press): The Frigate Diana by David White and The 24-Gun Frigate Pandora by John McKay and Ron Coleman.  The portraits used for the Surprise's officers, with one exception, are taken from the 1805 engraving by W. Reynolds of the officers of HMS Centaur engaged in the capture of Diamond Rock.  In several cases these portraits were modified to better fit the officers of the Surprise.  The exceptional portrait is that of Surgeon S. Maturin, the original of which is rumored to hang in a Doylestown, Pennsylvania, restaurant: I have it on good authority that the image is authentic.  The quotes used to illuminate the various detail descriptions are drawn from Patrick O'Brian's various Aubrey-Maturin novels, giving preference to The Ionian Mission where feasible, but also borrowing from other volumes where appropriate.

Bruce Trinque
Amston, CT
March, 2006