Fleet Regattas: Cock of the Fleet

One of the highlights of any commission were the fleet regattas, where crews would compete to become "Cock of the Fleet." The ship's whalers and other boats would race between two lines of ships. Smaller ships would field one crew, larger ships, two or more, so, not only would the competition be between the various ships but also among divisions.

Cock of the Fleet trophy 1950 Cock ofthe  Fleet trophy 1952 SANM Cock of the Fleet trophy

Images: Cock of the Fleet trophies: Left: This first was very kindly sent by Bernard Mouzer, OBE RVM, served on HMS Phoebe during her 1948-1951 commission and shows the trophy from 1950. Center: The trophy won by HMS Gambia at Argustoli, Greece in 1952. This photo came from dad's photo album. Right: This third image is of the Cock of the Fleet trophy in the South African Naval Museum, Cape Town. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The origin of these races is obscure but the website "Tales from the Supply Depot", which has some nice photos of a regatta, quotes an old Butler and Lambert cigarette card that said:

The term "Cock of the Fleet" has been applied to the leading ship in competitive exercises, regattas etc., for over a hundred years. Its origin dates from the "Battle of the Saints" of April 12th 1782. This is explained in extracts from a letter written by an officer who fought in HMS Formidable that day: "A shot from the Ville de Paris struck a hen-coop that had been left out on the spar deck. Out from the ruins of his home fluttered a little bantam cock and impudently perched himself on the rail of the poop. As every broadside poured into the Ville de Paris, he cheered the crew with his shrill clarion…Admiral Rodney was charmed and gave orders that the bird should be petted for the rest of his life."

Ken Booth was on HMS Gambia for the 1950/2 commission and wrote in November 2002:

The Gambia was waiting in Bombay in February '52 to go across to Mombassa to escort Princess Elizabeth and Phillip to Australia after their holiday in Kenya, but when the King died they flew home. We then became permanent members of the East Indies fleet until we sailed for home via the Med. where we took the trophy "Cock of the Fleet" as we passed through. It was hard work for those competing boats crews though.

The regattas were one of the few occasions where betting was allowed onboard the ships. Some ships went to great lengths to try and win. The whalers were heavy boats and it was not unknown for them to be shaved until they were "paper thin then woe betide any poor sole who put his foot thru it." It was a common practice, if the winning ship was lucky enough to have won every event to hoist a broom at her masthead commemorating a clean sweep of the seas. 

Some ships that won the trophy were:

HMS Neptune - 1912
HMS Orion - 1913
HMS King Edward VII - 1914
HMS Hood - 1920
HMS Repulse - 1921
HMS Hood - 1926
HMS Barham - Corfu Bay, Corfu - 1927
HMS Hood - 1927
HMS Hood - 1928
HMS London - Argostoli, Greece - 1930
HMS Nelson - 1931
HMS Nelson - 1933
HMS Hood - Rosyth - 1935 (Home fleet)
HMS Wishart - 1935 (Mediterranean fleet)
HMS Hood - Navarin - 1938
HMS Warspite - Mombassa - 1943
HMS Zenith - Portland - 1945/46
HMS Mauritius - 1946 (Mediterranean Regatta)
HMS Howe - Portland - 1947
HMCS Crescent - 1948 (Canadian Pacific Fleet)
HMCS Cayuga - 1948
HMCS Swansea - 1948
HMS Mauritius - 1948 (Mediterranean Regatta)
HMS Phoebe - Marmarice, Turkey - July 1950 (or it could have been won by HMS Loch Shin, accounts vary - or maybe one was the Home and the other the Mediterranean fleet)
HMS Vanguard - 1951 (Home fleet)
HMS Actaeon - 1951
HMS Eagle - lnvcrgordon - 1952 (Home fleet)
HMS Nereida - 1952
HMS Gambia - Argustoli, Greece - 1952 (Mediterranean fleet)
HMS Gambia - Palmas Bay, Sardinia - 1954
HMS Woodbridge Haven - 1956 (Inshore fleet)
HMS Birmingham - Augusta Bay, Sicily, Italy - 1957
HMS Grafton - 1957 (4th Destroyer Squadron)
HMS Newcastle - 1957
HMS Surprise - 1957 (Inshore fleet)
HMS Birmingham - Augusta Bay, Sicily, Italy - 1957
HMCS Beacon Hill - 1958 (Pacific fleet)
HMS Ulysses - Augusta Bay, Sicily, Italy - 1958/59
HMCS Beacon Hill - 1959 (Pacific fleet)
HMCS Beacon Hill - 1960 (Pacific fleet)
HMCS Haida - Bermuda - 1961
HMCS Jonquiere - Mayne Bay, Barkley Sound, Canada - 1961 (Pacific fleet)
INS Betwa - 1961
HMS Finisterre - Grand Harbour, Malta - 1962
HMNZS Blackpool - Singapore - 1966
HMS Cavalier - 1971
SAS President Steyn ("Superduck") - 1975
SAS President Kruger - 1981
HMS Iveston - 198?
HMS Cromer - 1997
INS Viraat - Mumbai, Maharashtra - January 2011

It should be remembered that not only were there "Cock of the Fleet" regattas for each fleet but also between squadrons, so the above list is not authoritative as the list was compiled from various accounts and sources. Dartmouth Training Squadron for example had their own which was run at least until the 1960s

The Spectator of August 26, 1927 has an interesting story about when HMS Barham won Cock of the Fleet. Inspecting the trophy, the watch-man found the head came off. Inside was a not that read "From Silverman : Ward-Room Mess Neptune. To Silverman: Ward-Room Mess 'I'm fed up with cleaning this ruddy bird, I hope you keep him for ever.'"

A short biogrpahy of Admiral RKS Ghandi of the Indian Navy describes him as captain of INS Betwa shouting to his men "go get the Cock by its what nots or do not came back!"

It's difficult to know where the trophies are now. The one won by SAS President Kruger in 1981 is at the bottom of the South Atlantic Ocean. On February 18, 1982 the ship was on exercise and during a fleet maneuver collided with the much heavier SAS Tafelberg and sank in 45 minutes. The Navy News of May 1980, page 7, was also wondering where these trophies had gone to but no one seemed to know.

The Royal Navy was not the only navy to hold these regattas. The Indian Navy was running their own in 2011, which was won by by the aircraft carrier INS Viraat - the last she would participate in before being decommissioned in March 2017. The ship was completed and commissioned in 1959 as the Royal Navy's HMS Hermes, and decommissioned in 1984. It was sold to India in 1987. INS Viraat was commissioned into the Indian Navy on 12 May 1987, and served for almost 30 years.


There was a lot of rough play during these regattas. Bernard Mouzer, OBE RVM, served on HMS Phoebe during her 1948-1951 commission and sent me the following letter about the 1950 regatta he sent to his wife.

The Regatta this year is being spread over two days with the small ships competing on the first day. The two New Zealand ships win most of their races. With their Maori rowers they are very formidable opposition. But the main contest is on the second day between the bigger ships, Forth, Gambia, Glory and ourselves. Although we are the smallest of the four, with the smallest complement to choose crews from, we fancy ourselves to win the Cock. In the evening before our race I go to the cinema in the waist to see "Under Capricorn."

Wednesday 12. 7.50 is probably the most memorable day of the commission. Phoebe wins the Regatta and is the Cock of the Fleet. We are already looking forward to steaming into Grand Harbour with the huge plywood cock in its prominent place on B turret and of course the Skipper receiving the silver cock trophy from the Admiral.

Phoebe wins quite comfortably. Out of the 8 Seamen's boats we come fourth and our A whaler comes first. So as well as a sore bottom and horny hands I now have a certain amount of satisfaction. Times are faster than last year and the competition keener, encouraged by the New Zealanders.

They (the New Zealanders) are different to us. It can be said for them that they are tremendously high spirited and good humoured and that they go all out to enjoy themselves. However, because of their high spirits they run away with themselves and become hooligans. They're excused a bit because amongst the hooliganism there is nothing but good humour. They don't get nasty. But by nature they're rough and physically they're big, well developed and extremely healthy.

Imagine therefore the consequences when foraging parties from the New Zealand ships come in the black night to pinch our Cock. The wooden one illuminated on B turret. There were also parties from other ships, notably Gambia and Forth. The Captain himself piped "Stand by to Repel Boarders" and when we got up top he was standing on the quarterdeck, drenched to the skin, clad in formal dinner attire, heaving spuds and shouting, "Rally round Phoebes!" All the hoses were going, all the officers were drenched and mostly drunk – spuds, red lead bombs, paint, buckets of gash, and still the Kiwis came. Up the gangway, up the anchor cable, up the booms and in through the ports. They were beaten, drenched, painted and then chucked over the side only to shout back in defiance, "We'll be back you jokers" and back they'd come.

The bridge was teeming with them. One of them was thrown off the flag deck onto an awning and then over the foc'sle. A couple were taken to sick bay but thanks to good providence nobody was seriously hurt. One cheeky b climbed in through a port, put all the plugs in the officers bathroom, turned all the taps on, took all the tap tops off and stowed them in a wine box. All the cabins in that region were flooded. What a laugh! One of them pinched one of the Captain's brass dolphins ( huge things) dived over the side with it and put it in his boat as booty. How he managed to swim with it I don't know.

At the height of it all the Captain had "The Cease Fire" sounded and everything stopped as suddenly as it started. A bedraggled officer from another ship still in his formal dinner dress, dragged himself up the gangway from where he had been heaved over the side and said, "Now I can go ahead with the social call I came to pay!" On the other side of the ship, in Hawea's boat a New Zealander in trunks, covered from head to foot in black paint, wiping himself on our tiddly cotton duck gangway screen said, "Three Cheers for Phoebe. We'll be back about three!"

Well not much happened after that except to pick all the blokes out of the water, and this morning we cleared up the mess. There were spuds, red lead, paint and in big black letters painted on the stern, "Gambia." Now we are shipshape again and it's all over. I know that it is all foolish hooliganism but I can't help admiring the Kiwis for their good humour and gameness. It helped to pass the time and no harm has been done except to the Instructor Lieutenant who has got a black eye. I am so pleased. (He is the man who upset me by being so unhelpful about my request for a correspondance course).


A Lambert and Butler cigarette card from 1938 showing and descibing the Cock of the Fleet. New York Public Library Digital Collections B15262620 A Lambert and Butler cigarette card from 1938 showing and descibing the Cock of the Fleet. New York Public Library Digital Collections B15262620 HMS Barham with the Cock of the Fleet on her 'B' turret, 1927. HMS london flying the Cock of the Fleet, 1930. HMNZS Gambia whaler race in the Philippines, March 1945. Photo kindly supplied by Peter Bennett. HMS Gambia's crew in 1950. Notice the Cock of the Fleet in the front. Photo from my dad's albums. Chucking up party, Fleet Ships Regatta, Marmarice, Turkey, July 1950. Photo from my dad's albums. Chucking up boats at Marmarice, Turkey. Photo from Alan Clements 'Battle of the Chuckers Up,' Fleet Ships Regatta, Marmarice, Turkey, July 1950. Photo from my dad's albums. Bernard Mouzer is in 4A, in white shorts, turning round to look forward. Marmarice, Turkey in July 1950. Photo from Bernard Mouzer. Cock of the Fleet trophy won by HMS Phoenix at Marmarice, Turkey in July 1950. Photo from Bernard Mouzer. Cock of the Fleet trophy won by HMS Gambia at Argustoli, Greece in 1952. Photo from my dad's albums. The crew of HMCS Jonquiere with their Pacific Fleet Cock of the Fleet trophy in 1961. Cock of the Fleet presented to HMS Cavalier by Courage Brewery in February 1972 after winning the regatta the previous summer. A beaming Captain Sam Davis of SAS President Steyn ("Superduck") with the Cock of the Fleet trophy in 1975.


The poem below comes from a Bernard Hallas' momories of WWII. It tells the tale of the crew from HMS Warspite and their race to become Cock of the Fleet at Mombassa, Kenya in 1943.

We were anchored off the coast of Mombassa
The crew were painting ships side,
We were having a rest from "The Aussie Run"
And were anchored, Kilindini side.

For months we had been living with tension
And now we had nothing to do,
So the Commander ordered a cutter race
He said, "It will be good for the crew".

So the Top men, Foc'sle and Quarterdeck
Old ones and some in their teens,
Trained alongside the Signals and Stokers
And of course, the Marines.

For the Royal Marines it was blood and sweat
For they were always expected to win,
So every morning, while others slept
They were getting their training in.

Now there are two cutters on every ship
For racing and provisioning with stores,
The one for provisioning is built like a tank
The racer is light, with light oars.

The bye's and ties were soon over
The final race is on,
The Foc'sle and the Royal Marines
Will decide, which is the one.

In a three mile race, "The Racer"
Was better by five or six lengths,
But the heavy "Provisioning Cutter"
Would tax even Hercules strength.

On the day the Marines were unlucky
They had drawn the heavy boat,
And the Foc'sle crew kept a fairly straight face
It was hard for them not to gloat.

Mombassa went quiet as the crews lined up
All tense at the starting gate,
The gun was fired we strained at the oars
To a well timed 'Twenty Eight'.

After two miles we were neck and neck
Our "Tank" was holding it's own,
But slowly, ever so slowly
The "Racer" went forward alone.

On top of the Warspite's turret
The Major could see his crew's plight,
That the weight of the heaviest cutter
Was taxing even their might.

He changed the drum beat to "Thirty"
The drummer increased the time,
And we in the boat strained our hearts out
To reach that finishing line.

The "Racers" crew were now hard put
Some extra strength to find,
And the Royal Marines just crossed the line
A bare half-length behind.

Meanwhile the Resolution
Had timed the winning boat,
And knowing that their time was faster
Sat back with a bit of a gloat.

They sent a challenge with five hundred pounds
To race the Warspites boat,
And please "Would the Warspite cover it"
Said the rather demanding note.

The Captain asked the Foc'sle crew
As the champions of the ship,
If they would take on the "Reso"
And stop them from giving their 'Lip'.

The Foc'sle crew thought long and hard
And then said as one man,
Sir, if we had had the "Provisioning" boat
We'd have been an 'also ran'

So please accept the Reso's bet
And cover it note for note,
But let "The Royals" take up the glove
And give them "The Racing Boat".

We will not give up the championship
But, for the honour of the ship,
Just this once we'll all stand down
And the "Royals" can make the trip.

So the day of the challenge came round at last
The crews lined up at the flag,
"We'll tan the arse off the Flagships boat"
The Resolution started to brag.

But then they saw our colours
The yellow, green, red and blue,
"We're not racing the Foc'sle boat
It's a bloody Bootnecks crew".

The gun fired, we all strained backwards
The beat was again Twenty-Eight,
It didn't take half of the three-mile course
For the Reso' to work out their fate.

Ten lengths ahead on the finishing line
The Reso's crew truly beat,
And to rub it in, on the Warspite's mast
We were flying "The Cock of the Fleet".

They towed our boat back to the Warspite
To the Major containing his pride,
The Foc'sle crew came and shook our hands
"It was nothing" we said, "We just tried".

That night we went to the Naval canteen
Each man had to stand a round,
And thirteen bottles is a hell of a load,
To keep your feet on the ground

Our rival Marines on the Reso'
Just to join in the fun,
Invited us back to their Sergeants mess
To make a hole in their rum

We came back to the ship quite 'legless'
All this because of a be
And not able to walk up the gangway
They hauled us aboard in a net.

The Officer of the Watch was astounded
"My God, what have we here,
A net full of drunken Royal Marines
It's Commanders report, I fear".

But "The Major" brought down from the Wardroom Mess
Turned out really "True Blue",
He said "Scrub out the charge and put them to bed
They're my Racing Cutters Crew.