The Battle of Cape St. Vincent was an important naval battle during the Wars of the French Revolution, between the British Royal Navy and the Spanish fleet, at Cape St. Vincent near Gibraltar on February 14, 1797.
A Spanish fleet of between 23 and 27 ships left Cartagena, on the Mediterranean Sea, with the intention of sailing to Cadiz, and then on to Brest, France to join up with the French battle fleet. A strong gale had pushed them further out into the Atlantic Ocean than was intended, but the winds having died down they began working their way back to Cadiz.
On February 11, Minerve, a ship captained by Horatio Nelson, came across the Spanish fleet as it was doing so, passing through them unseen thanks to heavy fog. Nelson reached the British squadron of 15 ships off Spain on February 13, and passed the location of the Spanish fleet to John Jervis, commanding the squadron from his flagship HMS Victory. Unaware of the size of his opponent's fleet -- in the fog, Nelson had not been able to count them -- Jervis' squadron immediately sailed to intercept.
As dawn broke on the 14th, Jervis' ships were in position to engage the Spanish, and vice versa. It was at this point that Jervis discovered that he was outnumbered nearly two-to-one. It would have been difficult to disengage, however, and Jervis also decided that the situation would only get worse were the Spanish fleet to join up with the French, so he decided to continue on.
To the British advantage the Spanish fleet was formed into two groups and unprepared for battle, while the British were already in line. Jervis ordered the British fleet to pass between the two groups, minimizing the fire they could put into him, while letting him fire in both directions simultaneously. Passing through the Spanish, the larger group managed to sail away in almost the opposite direction of the British line, and the smaller group was also in position to do so. Jervis ordered the line to swing around and go after the larger group before it could get away to Cadiz.
Nelson had transferred to HMS Captain, and was towards the end of the line, much closer to the fleeing larger group. He came to the conclusion that the maneuver could not be completed so as to allow the British to catch them. Disregarding orders that the British line was to turn while engaging the smaller group, he broke formation before reaching that point, which let him turn and catch the larger Spanish group more quickly. This placed him across the front of the Spanish.
Jervis, seeing what had happened with Captain then ordered the last ship in his line, Excellent, to perform essentially the same maneuver. In the meantime, the front of the British line had completed its maneuver, and were approaching a long cannon shot from the rear of the Spanish.
Captain was under fire from as many as six ships, all of which had more guns than she, and lost so much of her rigging that she was no longer of much use. As a result, Nelson maneuvered close enough to the Spanish San Josef to send out boarders instead. Meanwhile, Excellent had engaged San Nicolas, which became so tightly entangled with San Josef that Nelson was able to order his boarders to cross the first Spanish ship onto the second. Both were successfully captured. This maneuver was so unusual and, in future, so widely admired in the Royal Navy that using one enemy ship to cross to another became known as "Nelson's patent bridge for boarding enemy vessels".
The Spanish managed to, finally, disengage after which the battle was over. Jervis crossed over to Irresistible -- to which Nelson had gone, Captain no longer being suitable -- and made a show of approving Nelson's disobeying orders. Had the maneuver not worked Nelson would surely have faced court-martial, but in the face of its success and Jervis' acknowledgement that Nelson was correct in his judgement that the British line could not have caught the Spanish, Nelson was later knighted and promoted to Rear-Admiral.
As a result of the battle, the United Kingdom was assured of an unassailable position on the seas surrounding France and Spain for the remainder of the French Revolutionary Wars, though another check would be necessary later against Napoleonic France at the battle of Trafalgar.